Women’s Playing Styles: the Theory

Rowden Fullen (2008)

Two aspects will strike us immediately –

    Why so many varied styles in the women’s game?
    Why don’t the women just play more like the men with more topspin and power? It seems obvious they could be much more effective like this.

Let me first acquaint you with what I observed at the Top 10 in Sheffield where we were able to examine both the top juniors and cadets and gain some insight into just what techniques and tactics other countries in Europe (especially those from the Eastern bloc) are developing in their young girl players.

  • The ready position is generally very square (in a number of cases over-square). By this we mean square or over-square to the table – this of course is significant in that a shot played on the FH diagonal would be played in some cases from a completely square position and the power input would depend solely on the arm speed and the rotational value. Strokes played down the line would therefore be and are executed with the right foot forward (for a right-hander). This is more noticeable with the Eastern Europeans. (Szocs, Kusinska, Kolodyaznaya, Noskova, Matelova, Xiao.)
  • Many girls stand close to the table to receive, some even over the table. (P. Solja, Szocs, Kolodyaznaya, Xiao.)
  • Not only is the ready position square but the stance often quite central to cover both wings. (P. Solja, Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Xiao.) More of the Western Europeans play more like the boys off the BH corner. (M. Pettersson.)
  • The square (or near-square or even over-square) stance is used on close to table FH strokes and a squarer stance is retained even when the girls back away to play from a deeper position. (Szocs, Madarasz, Noskova, Hirici,
  • The BH receive of serve from the middle is a common tactic. (P. Solja, Noskova, Kolodyaznaya, Stahr.)
  • The BH serve is a common tactic. (Pettersson, Stahr, Kolodyaznaya.)
  • Almost all the girls on show, even the blockers and defenders played very positively all the time and most moved well – there were few if any weak shots.

Many of the countries competing and ending up among the top places with the girls (Romania, Hungary, Russia, Germany) have a great tradition in producing top women players. One area however that have in common, is that they train girls to play a women’s game. Unless girls are extremely fast, strong and athletic it is usually counter-productive to try and make them play like the boys, receive all the time with the FH and to have a ready position somewhere outside the BH corner. Certainly when I talk to Chinese coaches who have been involved with their National Junior Girls’ Teams and ask what they think of the European women who play a topspin game and back away from the table, their reply is as follows – ‘We love it and long may it continue. The last time you won a World title in women’s singles was in 1955, while you train like this you’ll never win another!’ So let us look at the reasoning behind these factors.

Men are stronger than women and play with much more spin and power. The men’s game is about control of spin – the topspin ball dips on to the table at the end of its flight and shoots forward very fast after the bounce. Almost all men tend therefore to take the ball later and the common tactic is counter-topspin against topspin. This never happens in the women’s game. The women stand closer and take the ball earlier, which is easier to do as there is less incoming spin and power. There are also many more top-level blockers and counter-hitters among the women which factor makes the traditional hard topspin male-oriented game rather less effective, particularly in an environment where there is less power input.

Women hit the ball flatter and with less spin (due to the lesser power input). Even in the case of high-level topspin players, such as Zhang Yining and Liu Jia, there is absolutely no comparison in terms of spin and power with a male player such as Kreanga. This means that the women’s game is much more a question of control of speed. The counter to the topspin is varied depending on the style of the player and can be a block, counter-hit or chop. In the case of top women playing against top men it is noticeable that they have major problems controlling the spin element.

Because the women’s game is about controlling speed, women have over the years devised differing means of doing this. If there weren’t different styles in women’s play, then the faster players would always win. Pimples are a means of controlling spin and speed and returning different balls to the opponent. This then gives the pimpled player more time to play her strokes. Generally the men play with so much more spin and power that pimples are less effective. They are used more often in the veteran’s game when the older men start to lose their speed and power.

Women play closer to the table and have less time to play their shots. As a result aspects such as square-ness of stance, shorter strokes and the relevant movement patterns are of critical importance. By relevant patterns we mean those which apply to the individual style of the player – a block player will not move in the same way as a loop player. Because men play further back, have more time and are faster in movement, these aspects are not so crucial. What is also of critical importance is what happens after the service and during the receive. As women often have less time on the 3rd and 4th ball it’s vital that they use women’s serve and receive tactics and not those of the men. Almost all top women for example use 2nd ball backhand on a fairly regular basis, even those with extremely strong forehands. The men on the other hand more often receive with the forehand as they want to play forehand on the next ball and are quick enough to do this.

Looking at the better girls (who are in some cases at a very young age) in the European Top 10, it is obvious that a number of countries are already grooming their players to develop a woman’s style of play. Such countries are not looking to male techniques and tactics to provide long-term answers to girls’ development. Perhaps in Western Europe we need to assess and evaluate a little more closely the aspects which make Asian women so much more effective and dominant if we are at any foreseeable time in the future to compete with them. European coaches certainly need to look more critically at how the top women in the world are playing and why, to evaluate the current tactics and to understand why a significant number of the world’s top female players use similar tactics.

If coaches are going to insist on developing girls in the same way as boys then they must equally focus on the right technical and tactical areas. Occupying the mid-ground (and a mid-ground which is suitable to the individual player) assumes vital importance as players back away from the table. Also in the case of women topspin players they will usually require the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in their attacking stroke play to achieve real power which denotes directly that they must complete the whole stroke sequence as rapidly as possible. These aspects should of course be worked on during the formative years before the style becomes ‘set’.

A young girl might ask her coach the 64 million dollar question – ‘How am I individually going to play and what is my development path?’ As we have hinted earlier there are many more ways to the top in the women’s game and women world champions over the years have had widely differing styles. Any young female player starting her career has a wide variety of choices – attacking with or without spin, block and hit, defence and any of these combined with material of one sort or another on backhand or forehand or both.

When looking at girls’ style development however two factors perhaps above all are relevant. How do I with my style, best control the speed factor which is inherent in the women’s game? What is my strongest weapon and how am I going to build on this?

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