The Big Ball: Girls, Thinking Points

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The big ball has now been with us for some time — however just how many girls have taken the time to consider how this will affect them personally? Whether it will be of benefit with their own particular style of play or if it will in fact cause them problems? How many have introduced changes into their training regime to focus more directly on the tactics required to win points with the big ball? And the sixty-four thousand dollar question — how many coaches have actively considered the implications of the big ball in the women’s game and how their approach to the style development of the young girl player should be restructured?

Science has given us certain undisputed facts about the big ball — it’s bigger and heavier and compared to the small ball slower through the air and takes less spin ( in a proportion of about 10 – 20 percent). However it doesn’t explain many other aspects — why so many net balls (top of the net and out), why world class players miss so many simple shots, especially when they try to play very early or very late. It appears that the big ball has a slightly different trajectory through the air, behaves differently after the bounce and drops more quickly as it comes off the table. Some problems in the initial stages have been due to poor ball quality, but this is not an aspect which will persist. Others have been due to the fact that the player has been in the wrong place. The player is in fact in the place where experience has led her to expect that the ball will be — but in fact experience can no longer be relied on in a situation where some factors have changed! This however is also a situation which will not persist, new experience will be formed. Our game of table tennis is changing, if we are to progress we must meet the challenge and change with it. Otherwise we may be left behind. To give us a little more basis for discussion let us listen to what some of the world’s best players say about the big ball.

  • slower tempo, less spin, harder for blockers and speed players to win points.
  • need to hit harder and develop more power.
  • must play the ball more rather than let it hit the racket — better technique and better footwork is required and slightly longer strokes to achieve the same effect.
  • it’s going to call for changes in playing style, nearer the table for example.
  • a little higher bounce, harder to serve and play short.
  • the quality of many balls is bad, because of this and the way the ball plays the level of top play is suffering – you need to be much more active and positive now.
  • it’s harder to win points from back, mainly because you have less spin, the difference in speed is not so much.
  • it’s harder to take the ball very early especially with a short stroke, slightly different bat angle needed on blocking.
  • reactions re serve and receive are very mixed, especially with the women. Some find it harder to take serve, others easier. Most find it harder to win on their own service. Men who generally serve with much more spin don’t stress any big differences.
  • players who hit hard and have power in reserve will benefit.

It is obvious in the future that there must be a different direction and emphasis in the coaching of young girls. Less speed and much less spin will affect all players who prefer to be at a distance from the table — it is harder to win points from back. Is there any way to dramatically increase the power? Unlikely. Women are already at a big disadvantage compared to men in the power department. We could look at faster blades and weight training to strengthen the body, but we must also be realistic. To achieve a power increase of at least 15%, which is what we need, is not easily or quickly achievable. Equally it is hard to envisage any new rubber or technique which would increase spin or deception in the same ratio. It would therefore appear that girls who prefer to play at a distance from the table will rarely win points through disguise of spin or with topspin — rather they will only win by getting the ball back so often that the opponent eventually misses, hardly a recipe for long-term success!

Conversely the blockers and counter-hitters who stay close and use their reactions, (and there are many of these in the women’s game), will benefit from facing less speed and especially less spin. They will have more control in the rallies and more time to select the ball to hit hard. The end result could well be that we shall see rather more control or negative play, especially among the younger girls and at the lower levels in women’s table tennis! If it’s actually harder to win points with the big ball, then there’s less incentive to be positive (many girls are a little negative in attitude anyway).

What exactly does this mean to the coach/trainer of the top young girl player, who is expected to make an impact at European or even world level? Certainly some training areas must now be accorded a much higher priority. One of the prime development areas must be to increase the player’s capability to break up the control game and to accelerate from a control situation into full attack and to look at different ways of doing this. In the majority of cases this is going to involve more emphasis on closer-to-the- table-options.

  • variation in all its aspects must assume more importance.
  • girls have always had more problems than boys in producing good serves, especially with spin and in receiving in a positive manner. If they wish to play at top level it is now rather more urgent that they achieve mastery of these areas and of the second, third and fourth balls.
  • the first hard attack or counter will often win the point – more than ever it is vital that girls have a positive attitude and look to attack early in the rally.
  • the need to play the stroke more and have a little longer action to get good effect (and the necessity to try and generate more power), imply directly that better technique and better footwork are significantly more important.

In view of the differences in both power and spin between men’s and women’s table tennis perhaps it would have been a rather wiser decision to have brought in the bigger ball just for the men’s game. However the powers that be rarely consider the ramifications or how in fact players will be affected, when they make such decisions.

What it means for the young girl who wishes to aim at the highest level, is that she is going to need rather more individual and specialized guidance and more often. From a young age technique, tactics, footwork patterns and the appropriate style development will need close monitoring. She will require specialist help on serve and receive and following up on the second, third and fourth balls, as well as guidance in the strategy of variation. Above all she must be able to take that step from mere control of the play to actually winning the point, always bearing in mind the vital importance of the first good hit or counter.

Such a level of individual emphasis coupled with the appropriate insight into the requirements to succeed at the top in the girl’s game, is rarely available outside Asia. Asia dominates women’s table tennis at world level — the last time a non-Asian team won the Worlds was in 1969 in Munich (U.S.S.R.), the last time a European won the women’s individual title was the legendary Angelica Roseanu back in 1955 in Utrecht. By adopting the big ball it is highly probable that the I.T.T.F. has in fact increased the gap in Asia’s favour and ensured their dominance for a further fifty years.