Sweden, Girls’ Play: the Big Ball

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The bigger ball means a number of changes must be made when considering girls’ style development and it must be appreciated that certain styles are going to be less effective.

Less spin and less speed will affect all players who play at a distance from the table — it is in fact harder to win points from back, whether you chop or topspin and many players are going to need more power. Reaction players who stay close will be less affected and may actually benefit, by having fractionally more time to play their game. Serve specialists should perhaps be affected but there appear to be two different schools of thought on this. Some players think they get rather more ‘purchase’ on the bigger ball (because of the larger surface area they get good contact on the racket, good grip when spinning) and some find the bounce a little more unpredictable. Certainly many of the world’s best servers can still win points on their own service and still have an advantage here. Others especially the women think there is rather less spin on the serve.

Here in Sweden where we are somewhat lacking in the niceties of style development and where many of the girls train with men and try to play a man’s topspin game, we are going to have to rethink our ideas on women’s development. It would appear more than ever necessary to look at the closer to table styles, to increase the focus on close safety and mastering speed and aggressive attack play over the table, now that the balance of power has shifted. There have always been more options available in taking the ball earlier, but now the control of speed and differing methods of achieving this assume greater importance — not only drive play but the full range of blocking strokes, sidespin, chop and soft block and of course early ball topspin.

Variation in all aspects becomes more vital when you can’t win so easily with power. We must not only think of strokes but variety in angles, length, speed, spin, balls straight and to the body, differing serves and receives and changes in tactics and unpredictability in play. To be able to play with and against the spin or return it to the server and to know what spin remains on the second, third and fourth ball is not just nice to know, it’s necessary information! Of course power will still have its place but perhaps now in a slightly different context — if players are closer to the table then how you open and counter is vital. The first counter assumes higher importance whether the opponent opens hard or with slow spin, you must be able to put pressure on her directly with your return. Equally the next shot after your first loop or drive must do the same. You should look at ways to move beyond the strategy of control to actually winning the point and preferably earlier in the rally.

What is happening with the big ball in the men’s game at the very highest level for example is that the first hard attack often wins the point. The opponent more often than not returns into the net. Either the bigger ball does not come quite so far as expected or drops lower than expected (it is certainly heavier), with the result that you need to lift the ball more than you think. Under pressure and with limited time to react this is hard to do. Many players also complain about unpredictable bounces with the bigger ball and different trajectories through the air.

The whole service and receive scenario and second, third and fourth ball is now upgraded to a higher level in the women’s game too. If the first hard attack has a very good chance to win the point outright then the first opening shot or the first strong counter is the one that matters and the sooner the better. It is vital to have a good variety of serves, to know how they are returned and to be able to take the initiative on the third ball. Equally initiative and variation on the second ball are critical. It is for example necessary to attack long backspin, side or topspin serves to the backhand wing and to get the serve back on the table — quite a large percentage of long serves in girls’ table tennis are not even returned! Variation in service spin is a priority from a tactical viewpoint — sidespin is often effective against players who want to return short, chop and float against those who like to open or push long and reverse against girls who want to play predominantly forehand returns.

Variation within the rallies is equally of value. If the first hard attack has a good chance to win the point then being predictable is a very sure way to commit suicide! It is interesting to note for example that even at the very highest level, when one player goes back from the table and lobs the other now plays a slower ball with less power input — it is often this change of speed that wins the point. In practical terms most girls have little or no thought to change speed and length within the rally and even less to change the spin input or timing dramatically. Not only should we be thinking more now of changes of speed and spin on the ball — variation from slow loop to fast, from hard drive to stop-block, but also changes in the length and speed of the stroke. Is the arm moving fast enough, should we play with a longer, slower movement in some situations?

With the bigger ball the control element should be heightened, it should be possible to play at a high tempo with more safety and less mistakes. It will be easier to open against backspin or from a pushing situation, easier to hit through topspin or to use the various blocking options. As a result one of the prime training areas within the rally must be the capability to accelerate from a control situation into full attack, using spin or speed, from block into spin or drive and especially on the backhand side. Girl players must look to actively win points, not to get locked into a control situation. They must also look to break out from the control type of game earlier in the rally, too many girls lack the aggressive instinct, the ultra positive attitude to get on the attack at the earliest possible moment. With the big ball it is of less advantage to be negative, less use to wait and hope.

As well as being positive and breaking out of the control situation, one must not underestimate the value of the slower or more spinny shot with the bigger ball. It behaves differently in the air and perhaps because of the aerodynamics or the increased weight, drops lower quite quickly and doesn’t always come through as far as you expect. Even at the very highest level players are making errors against the slower or shorter ball — some of the world’s best players are even using change of pace/spin as a weapon, hard hit drive, followed by slower spin at a later timing point and in quick succession.

Girls should be training for and looking at how to take advantage of the new conditions. Will increased control benefit you with your particular style or will there be problems? How can you upset the control game and get into a more positive position – with the slow roll, spinny ball, chop or sidespin block? Are you practising to break out from the control situation and attack? Are you looking at different methods to attack, spin, hard hit, forcing-block? Are you aware that the whole serve and receive scenario is now a much higher priority? When the opponent opens whether hard or spinny can you pressure them on the next ball? Many of your best hits are going to come back more often — are you prepared for this and can you do something different with the next ball?

Our sport of table tennis is changing. If you want to keep progressing yourself then you too must be prepared to change with it, or indeed you may be left behind!

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