High Level Performance
High-performance athletes are able to assess the quality of a shot much more effectively than lesser players and also can more easily predict the advantage or disadvantage arising from a ball which just has been hit by an opponent. This major difference between players of different skill-levels is applicable significantly to the first three strokes of a rally.
• The return of serve is the most important shot in table tennis. Statistics confirm the assumption that the quality of the return is significant in influencing whether a top player will advance to the final stages of the world championships or will fail in the earlier rounds ie. whether the player is exceptional or just good.
Be aware of the implications. Consider the up-and-coming young player who might be set the task by his coach of practising hundreds of serves. This player would almost certainly be better off asking his coach to halve the practise time on serve in order to have more time to practise the more important receive of serve. Serve-return-drills are the single most important training area targeted by the top players in the world.
• Another aspect we should stress is the great significance of the first three shots in any rally. There is hard data which confirms that about 54 percent of all faults occur while serving, returning or playing the third ball or have their ‘source’ in this stage at the very beginning of a rally.
• Topspin against push is also an area which requires attention. Studies of top players show that the efficiency of attacking a push ball is poor compared to ‘open’ techniques against block, counter and topspin. Many players perhaps get into certain habits and think as follows: ‘The main thing is that I am the one who attacks first (even if it´s not the right ball and of poor quality). Action first must be my priority!’ What of course they should be thinking is: ‘Effective action and only effective action must be my priority!’
• Likewise, it´s quite interesting that (not flicking but) pushing is quantitatively seen more often in the first three shots of the rally. There is perhaps a strong argument for training the backspin aspect more frequently and systematically so as to stop the opponent getting in.
• Let us now look at the next skill: top players select effective/different techniques when they are not able to win the point quickly and early in the rally. They are able to keep control of the rally until they see an opportunity to change something which will give them an advantage.
But getting the advantage should not entail a risky return. Quite the opposite. Athletes participating in the final levels of a world championship often rather tend to play risk-free. Playing safe is accomplished by ball placement until the player can manoeuvre some advantage. The player keeps his adversary on the backhand or reacts in a ‘non-forceful’ manner, i.e., he/she returns the ball with enough pace or good enough placement so the opponent has no chance to play power.
The real quality of a player is in the way he/she handles the safe play prior to creating openings.
• Studying ball placement gives further interesting results. More than half of all immediate shot connections (back and forth) are played either repeatedly backhand to backhand or cross-court backhand to backhand followed by an ‘opening’ down the line. Moreover high-quality shots from the opponent (which give him/her an advantage) are mainly returned by using quite risky placement. In many cases a good shot by the opponent is returned to his/her forehand – and not to the backhand.
• Furthermore, analysis shows that strokes which are non-textbook as well as special placements are highly efficient. By the term ‘non-textbook strokes’ we mean shots like a backhand stop- or sidespin-block, a forehand soft block or fade. The notion of ‘special placement’ means playing the ball long into the opponent’s forehand or deep backhand, placing the ball at the crossover point between forehand and backhand (the ‘area of indecision’) or playing against the direction of the opponent’s movement (where the player is moving from).
One thing is clear that observing how the opponent prepares for the stroke and the change of position during a rally has to be integrated into the player’s training sooner rather than later.