Women's Play and the Plastic Ball
Rowden December 2015
There have been and are many ways of winning points in our sport; speed, power, placement, spin, control, feeling and technical/tactical areas, such as serve and 3rd ball or receive and 4th ball. In the women’s game speed and control of speed have always been a priority, along with the ability to use the table and place the ball in different areas. Power and spin more the mainstays of the men’s game have always assumed less importance. But with the introduction of the plastic ball the priorities and methods in women’s play are changing.
When evaluating the women’s game we must always bear in mind that, at the highest levels we are looking at Asian or more specifically Chinese players. The last European woman to reach a world singles final was in 1973 and the last European winner was even further back in 1955. Over the decades European women have consistently tried to work with spin and a little more off the table than their Asian counterparts, but with consistently little or no success. They have lost out because there are many more good blockers, counter-hitters and material exponents in the women’s game than in the men’s. If European women try to continue with their ‘traditional’ type of game with the plastic ball their chances to dominate at world level will fade from extremely remote to totally impossible.
The plastic ball has less speed and considerably less spin so any form of play off the table will be less effective. The over-the-table play so long neglected by European women will assume more importance as will receive and the subsequent strokes, due to the lesser impact and advantage gained from the service. But above all with the plastic ball control will be a deciding factor. The ability to ‘hold’, to contain and keep the ball on the table, while probing for weaknesses and to select the right moment and the right stroke to change the form of the rally, will be key. Change of course can be effected in a variety of ways, by the use of power, speed or lack of speed, placement, timing or spin: but the use of any of these from too far away from the table will be counter-productive.
Points can still be won quickly as in serve and third ball, receive and 4th ball, but generally rallies will be longer and players will need to work their way from containment to measures aimed at creating openings. For example if every time you flick the shorter or half-long serve, the opponent responds with a hard counter, then it will be necessary to drop short or even push long, so that you get the opportunity yourself to get in the hard counter first. Equally if on every occasion the opponent serves long and you block or attack only to be outhit immediately, then it will be necessary for you to be able to return a long serve with a slow or shorter ball.
Players who like to back away from the table will not only face the usual problems of wider movement and bigger angles but also the differing plastic problems. Slower balls are effective with plastic as the ball tends to slow down or stop over the table or drop very sharply off the end causing difficulty for opponents.
The problem with making the transition from the celluloid to plastic is that we have been conditioned to using power or spin in certain situations and also pushed into the habit of winning points early. It therefore becomes difficult to force ourselves to wait longer for opportunities while controlling the play. This however is a mindset that we will almost certainly have to get used to and a tactical approach we will need to adopt. What must also be understood is the difference between the men’s and women’s games. The men will continue to use power with the plastic ball but for women this will be more difficult for two reasons; most women lack the upper body strength of men and the extreme power; there are many more good blockers, defenders and counter-hitters among the ranks of the women and much wider use of material of one kind or another.
Speed will still be important but speed with control while waiting for the moment or opportunity to change something. Equally shot selection will be of prime importance, which shot, when, how and where. And if the change is not successful then back to control and start again. It also goes without saying that it’s harder than ever to win points back from the table as not only do we have less spin and speed but a lesser number of alternatives to use from this position against the determined control player. The odds are stacked in favour of the control players, the only problem for them being shot selection or over enthusiasm, should they try to play with too much power before maneuvering the situation to their advantage.
In the case of two close-to-table players the one who can force the ball earlier, or spin off the bounce first, or has better placement will usually come out on top.