Thoughts on Match Play to Eleven up

Rowden Fullen (2001)

We shall now play up to eleven points and each player will have only two serves. Just how many of us have taken the time to ponder how we should approach and adapt to the new game? Should we rethink attitudes, concentration levels, tactics, be more negative or positive, more unpredictable and inventive, play differently, have a quite other emphasis or direction in our style of play? Above all should we now think to train in a new manner so as to adjust better to the needs and challenges of the shorter game.

What springs first to mind is that there is no place for unforced errors and against the defenders or long pimple blockers for example you cannot afford to throw easy points away. (There may even be many more radical rubber combinations around as coaches appreciate this is a way to pick up cheap points, with less chance of the opponent having time to understand what is happening).

It is vital now that you can focus and concentrate completely from the very first ball. There is little time or place for the ‘slow starter’, who gives the opponent a big lead and then comes back to win. In fact there is we find now little or no continuity of play, the game instead of flowing is much more ‘stop and start’ all the time, with less rhythm or predictability. It is harder to plan and organize your own service game with only two serves at a time. Equally it’s even more difficult to read and adapt to your opponent’s service when he or she serves in series of two instead of five. You see less serves before the game is over — you may for example lose 3 – 11 and only see six serves, the opponent may not even use his or her full repertoire.

In fact the whole serve and receive scenario is upgraded to a much higher priority, as are the second, third and fourth balls. If you watch elite players in matches now they take more time and care in the serve and receive area of the game, there is a heightened concentration level. The training of serve must now have a rather different emphasis — it is of vital importance that you can serve radically different balls one after the other, that you are confident to change spin, speed, angles, placement and length dramatically and without mistake. Once you know a serve well, don’t train 20 / 30 times on the same serve, train randomly, without a pattern and in series of two or three very different serves. Most important of all train to play a positive third ball, to gain an early advantage even to win the point direct if you can; make this third ball play an integral part of all serve training until it becomes second nature and completely automatic. By starting every exercise whatever it may be with a serve you also turn the serve/receive situation into a conditioned response, it just becomes another natural part of the rally and not something you train on in isolation.

It becomes perhaps even more essential to devote much more training time to receive, to controlling the opponent’s serve so that he or she is not able to open hard and pressure you on the third ball. If you are able to neutralize the serve you then have the opportunity yourself to try and take advantage of the fourth ball. You should look of course to variation in all its forms, spin, speed, length, timing, angles and tactics and to advanced techniques – very early timed push long and short, with and without spin, flicking at both peak and very late timing, stop and sidespin blocks, dummy loops, playing with and against the spin.

With some styles of play, such as defence and control play games to eleven may well require a change in emphasis. It is not just enough to play safely and predictably all the time – some points must be won. Such players should cultivate a readiness to be more aggressive and earlier in the rally (after their own serve for example), and also a willingness to break up the game more and play less predictably. (Not only chop but come in and block or hit from back using pimples or reverse, more twiddling in the rallies, not only control but variation in all its aspects).

Above all attitude is going to be a key factor — it is going to be far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking and playing safe, of protecting a lead instead of going on to win and young players, especially girls, may well be tempted into negative habits. In shorter games to eleven it’s also all too simple to prioritize winning and overlook developing. Younger players should always be looking to the longer term — the most important thing is to be moving in the right direction. The bottom line is that you should be playing your own game all the time and in every situation whether to 11, 15, or 21. Think positively, use your strengths, your winning weapons and never lose sight of how you should be playing.

In fact with eleven up many players may well feel less stress, there is a general levelling of talent and ability. The lesser player has a greater chance of winning — even a little luck can change the game dramatically. But it goes rather further than that. When you perform before a large audience your gestures must be gross, larger than life, because subtlety is invisible to half a million eyes. Equally games to eleven are a crystallization of our game of table tennis, a highlighting of the core elements, a boiling down to the raw essentials — the strong winning weapon, the skilful serve and receive, the aggressive second and third ball, the totally positive approach, the readiness to take quick advantage of the very first opportunity, even half-chance, the quick–silver change of plan and tactics, the lightning conversion of ideas into action.

One thing is for sure – our leisurely game of table tennis enjoyed in so many different environments, over all social strata and for so many years, has disappeared. We are indeed rudely uprooted into a new age where for many it will take both time and thought to readjust.

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