Women -- Modern Footwork
It would appear that only few coaches throughout Europe understand how the top women in the world move and especially the patterns they most often use when close to the table. First we have to understand that women in general will play most of the time closer to the action than the men: this is mainly because they don’t have the same upper body power as men or the same dynamic movement. The bigger ball takes less spin and playing off the table becomes counter-productive for women players. At a younger age, for example the level of mini-cadet, cadet or young junior, playing off the table can be effective, but not once the girl reaches the ranks of the top women. Higher level women players are just too good at using the ‘whole’ table, playing short and long and out to the angles: the further the opponent retreats the more ground she has to cover.
When we look at the top 30 women in the world (on the ITTF ranking list) we find that in recent years at any one time the percentage of women from outside Asia has been only between 3.0% and 7.0%. The Asians and especially the Chinese dominate the World Rankings in the women at the higher levels and the rest of the world hardly has a ‘look in’! If we are going to examine which methods of footwork and which tactics work at top level in the women’s game, then we have no better option than to look at what the Chinese are doing at the moment and to try and build on this. We should also of course look to innovate and to examine the possibilities to diverge into new areas as yet not thought of by the Asian players and coaches!
It is obvious that currently one of the most important aspects of the Chinese women’s strength is in symmetrical play. By this we mean the capability to control the speed and power of the opponent by being equally solid on both BH and FH sides. But the Chinese take this one step further, not only do they control, they have the ability to pick out the ‘right’ ball and to accelerate the play to win the point. They keep the opponent under enough pressure so that she has difficulty creating openings, then create their own opportunities. Control of speed has always been a pivotal area in women’s table tennis but the Chinese have raised this aspect to even higher levels.
The basic ingredients of this control are twofold, a modified ready position and upgraded footwork patterns. Let us look at these in detail.
For a start many of the top Chinese women have an extremely wide and very square and stable stance during the rallies. As many coaches will be aware the most common footwork movement in table tennis is the small ‘jump’ step and its use is in fact very widespread with the top Asian women. This type of stance also enables top women players to use the BH more when close to the table. At speed this keeps pressure on the opponent as the BH is the shorter stroke and the faster wing (top women can play around 10 BH shots in the same time as the opposing player can execute 6 FH’s).
However this central position is not only crucial for movement but also for the advantage it confers in symmetrical play. What the Chinese women do if necessary, is to extend the left leg for the wider ball to the BH which enables them to get the left hip (for a right-hander) behind the ball to play a good controlled stroke. Equally they extend the right foot towards the FH corner for the wider ball which gives good coverage without reaching. At all times the Chinese women stay essentially square to the table. In addition and this is critical too, the top close-to-table players don’t retreat when moving to the FH corner, they move in and take the ball earlier keeping the pressure on their opponent.
This contrasts very much with the European players who tend to drop back off the table when moving to the FH and try to play topspin often from a side-to-square stance, which loses them time. This also of course immediately removes a number of alternatives from their armoury. They lose the ability to hit through the spin against a rising topspin ball and they lose the advantages of the angles and the short and long possibilities. The off-square stance also introduces more problems in quick recovery and moving from one wing to another.
All these problems are of course accentuated by the fact that the 40mm ball has less revolutions per second, loses spin more rapidly through the air and overall (without boosting the rubbers) has less speed. This means unfortunately that the back from the table player loses out all round and has less and less advantage in the current table tennis climate. Nor is this a situation that is likely to change. Many top women are just too good close to the table, control the speed and spin too well or use material. Pimples or anti often slow the ball down or create differing effects which cause problems for opponents who like to play at speed.
It therefore becomes inevitable that most European countries are content to produce women players ranked from around 80 to 200 in the World Rankings. To reach the higher levels women need not only to train in the right way but to play the right sort of game. Over the last couple of years only 2 European-born women players have been any threat to the Asians, Vacenovska and Strbikova both from the Czech Republic. Why have they been a threat? Because they work at playing a very similar game to the top Chinese players!