The plastic ball, will the world's top women spin?

Rowden January 2015

Thousands of Asian women players have been using the fast drive stroke for decades. The hard attack ball is important to their table tennis philosophy. Over the years speed has been the dominant factor in their play and even now if they have to choose between speed and spin it will almost always be the former. It is the European women who try to topspin more and the last one to win a World Singles was Angelica Roseanu 60 years ago in 1955 (and she wasn’t a topspin player).

Let’s look at the science. A drive becomes a topspin when the spin content is intended to have more effect than the forward speed content. This concept of intention is useful when analysing many strokes in the game. Five players starting off with the same intention will probably end up with five different types of performance. The effort to impart extra spin may well result in an important element of sidespin or an increased degree of forward speed or even equalizing the proportions so that we end up with merely a very strong and sure drive. You may not agree but we should also however bear in mind that for many female attacking players, spin skills can only be acquired at such high cost in effort, time for practice and loss of other skills, that there are better ways of creating openings and winning points.
Let’s look at the top female Chinese players who are invariably the best in the world. I have spent years analysing their techniques and actions in detail and still do; I watch their preparation to open against a backspin ball in slow motion, I see where the bat starts, the bat angle, length of stroke and most importantly the result and the intention. Are they intending primarily to achieve spin or speed? I would affirm that the answer is obvious. Liu Shiwen, Li Xiaoxia (and the master of them all Zhang Yining) all prioritise speed: the bat rarely starts below the table, the angle is closed, the racket starts above table level and travels through the ball. There is the odd exception: Ding Ning’s bat often starts well below the table and she often plays slower with spin as a priority as did Guo Yue. But if a player’s racket starts below table level in no way can she attain the same forward speed and penetration as when the bat starts above the level of the playing surface. The problem of lack of spin and penetration will only become more acute with the new plastic ball.
Throughout table tennis history few women have had the power and dynamic movement to play a strong topspin game off the table and to be successful with this style of play. There will be even fewer with the plastic ball. If women come late to the ball many coaches think they would have to spin and spin hard, a slow roll ball would be killed by the opponent. In this scenario there has to be an alternative to topspin. There is always a way round problems, we cannot be too fixed in our thinking. Coaches are if nothing else inventive and creative. Also we cannot compare the men’s and women’s game, few women end up in the position of taking the ball late, therefore this situation will only rarely occur.
When we watch the top men perform with the plastic ball, although we see a deal of power play off the table and even though power will be of vital importance in the future, the slower shorter ball still wins points or opens up attacking opportunities. This is because the new ball does not 'come through' to the opponent, it stops short and drops quickly below table level often causing problems to the incoming player. The tactic of hitting hard on several balls then dropping short could well pay dividends with the plastic ball.

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