Women: the Simple Facts

Rowden Fullen (2003)

With the modern racket the characteristics of the sponge and rubber allow the bat to be swung in a different, flatter arc, giving more forward speed to the ball and because of the spin this produces, permitting much more energy to be fed into the shot. In effect the ball sinks into the bat, is grabbed by it and as the bat is moving up and forward, the ball is projected upwards and forwards too. The surface of the rubber is very tacky so it grips the ball and imparts a great deal of topspin. It is this topspin which causes the ball to dip down on to the table. Another fundamental point is that for the same bat path, the faster the racket moves, the more spin it puts on the ball. A fast hit with a flat, forward arc will contain more topspin than a slow hit. How much spin you produce is seen most readily when you play against long pimples and your hard hit comes back with very much more backspin than your slow hit.

Quite simply men can hit the ball harder than women so they will achieve more topspin

Most players, especially women, do not understand the importance of the initial power input in achieving spin. Very few women for example are as powerful as men and few ever attempt to play with the same degree of closed racket angle as the men do, so how can they hope to achieve the same level of spin as the men? It is the gyroscopic effect of the spin which gives strong directional control and allows more and more power to be fed into the stroke without greatly reducing on-the-table accuracy. Because women achieve less topspin, they have less on-the-table control than men do. With less topspin the ball has a less downward curving flight path and less directional control.

With less topspin women have less on-the-table control

With less topspin on the ball it’s also easier to block or to hit through the spin. Therefore it becomes immediately apparent that length becomes much more important in the women’s game. In the case of the men who are playing much further back and hitting the ball with much more spin and power, whether the ball contacts the opponent’s side of the table in the middle or at the end is relatively unimportant. With the women any topspin ball which bounces in the middle of the table is liable to be smashed back.

It is crucial in the women’s game that the loop is either very short or very long. Good length is critical

Another extremely important consideration is predictability. For two reasons the men face a ball which behaves as anticipated. Firstly the higher level of power and spin means that the ball bounces off the table as expected – it dips sharply downwards before the bounce and shoots forwards after hitting the table. Also the men do not face the vast array of differing material surfaces which are common in the women’s game. A loop played against a long pimple blocker will for instance often be returned with backspin and sidespin.

In the women’s game the behaviour of the ball after the bounce is more unpredictable

This factor tends to have a direct effect on the technical development of the two sexes. The men for example often have a long stroke, especially on the forehand wing, with the racket starting well behind the body. This is of course quite permissible when facing a stable trajectory and a predictable bounce. When facing an unpredictable ball however such a long stroke means that the player is ‘committed’ too early to a particular racket ‘path’. It is then next to impossible to change the stroke if the ball behaves in a totally unexpected way. In addition most women need the ‘assist’ of elastic energy in stroke-play and this is rather easier to achieve with a shorter back-swing and shorter stroke action.

It is expedient in the women’s game that the players’ attention is directed towards the value of the shorter stroke. Timing is vital in the women’s game. The timing ‘window’ in drive-play is extremely narrow, between ‘peak’ and 1 – 2 centimetres before

It is obvious that counter-play is still the basic norm in the women’s game. We rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies that we see in men’s play with both players well back from the table. Instead the first opening spin ball is blocked or hit and there is little or no time for the looper to spin again. Rather the top women come in after their first topspin so that they are in a better position to counter fast, over or close to the table. After the first opening spin ball, the next is usually taken at an earlier timing point to pressure the opponent. It is essential in fact that women can convert — change from topspin to drive and vice-versa at will.

It is essential too that women can convert – change from topspin to drive and vice versa at will. The ability to loop several balls in a row is not a prime requirement in the women’s game

The European women usually serve longer as they wish to get their topspin game in at the earliest opportunity. However in many cases it is obvious that the Europeans have neither good enough serves nor a good enough first opening ball to obtain a real advantage. If we look at statistics of rallies between top Asian and European women, the Europeans are struggling to hold their own in drive or counter-play but also they are not really dominant in spin play either. Unless their first opening topspin ball is of exceptionally high quality they almost always lose out when the game accelerates into fast counter-play.

In the women’s game the vital importance of spin on the first opening ball (and good length) cannot be over-estimated. This creates openings

European women should bear in mind that there are other alternatives when opening up against a backspin ball. The Asians often demonstrate the hard first-ball hit against backspin, which we would do well to work with more often. As women usually play closer to the table this is a viable alternative to the loop. It is feasible to either use the incoming spin or to create your own, but the most important factor is to take the ball at an early timing point.

The ability to open hard against the first backspin ball and not just spin all the time is a vital asset in the women’s game

In the men’s game over 80% of receives are with the forehand so that they control the table with the forehand on the next ball. Many women players push or open with the backhand from the middle of the table on the 2nd ball. This is easier for them and involves less movement. Most of them stand closer to the table too so this is a viable option.

Never stop girl/women players receiving with the BH from the middle (or even the FH) it’s done at the very highest level. From an early age girls should learn to open and play positively on the BH side

Although at a lower standard and at a younger age girls/women are less positive than men are on the backhand side, at the very highest levels you rarely see women pushing more than one ball. They have the capability to flick over the table or to open from further back on this wing.

Early in their career girls should train till they are at ease in the short play situation, aware of the various possibilities and able to gain advantage in this area

There is a noticeable difference in service tactics between the top Asian and the top European women. The Asian women serve more short serves, around 65% in comparison with 50% and significantly less long serves, 13% as opposed to almost 30%. The best girl in the world Guo Yue, number 5 in the women’s rankings at 15 years, serves around 97% short or half-long serves. The Asian women are generally better and much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

Strong serve and 3rd ball are essential elements if women are to reach the highest levels. Receive tactics are of prime importance in the women’s game

Examine top-level matches between the best European women and you see the play is often one pace and predictable, pre-planned and leisurely. By the way they play it looks as if many Europeans train far too much control play, loop-to-loop or loop-to-block, they don’t train to win the point! The result is that against the top Asians they just don’t have the time or the opportunity to utilize the stronger technical aspects of their game. Instead of playing further back from the table, perhaps the European women’s development should be directed more towards the importance of serve, receive and the first four balls and also towards methods of more effective and active play over the table. In this way they would have rather more opportunities to create attacking positions and earlier in the rally.

Rarely if ever are the Asians afraid of the European serves and follow up ball. They consider that the European women have too few serves, are predictable in the way they use them and therefore usually limited with what they can do with the first attack ball. Often at the highest level against the Asians, European players aren’t allowed the opportunity to get their strengths in and are not able to use strong spin early enough in the rally. With their serve and third ball and receive and fourth, the Asians deny them the time. Not enough European women are able to impose their game on the Asians.

The importance of the receive cannot be underestimated in the women’s game. It is important that they are able to control the short serve, drop short, push long, flick and deceive and from differing timing points and with differing spins. It is of particular importance that they master the early-timed return. In the case of the long serve it’s vital that women are both safe and positive on receive. There are just too many mistakes against this serve even at the highest levels.

If European women are to match the Asian players and to make the same sort of breakthrough as the men have made over the last 15 – 20 years then we need to be much stronger in depth. Players such as Boros and Steff have already demonstrated that it is possible to challenge the Asians and get up into the top few places in the world rankings. But we just don’t have enough players doing this. Often the top women in Europe don’t even have a suitable level of sparring or coaching in their own country and must travel abroad to train and develop.

To play at top level in the women's game requires a 'high adaptation' capability. It is vital that girls train in the right way to develop this in the formative years.

Generally the European women have a lesser number of good players to train against and a lesser variety of sparring styles. This latter is more vital than many coaches appreciate. It’s necessary that their girl players, right from the early years, have the opportunity to train and play against all styles of play and combinations of material. In this way the ‘automatic’ reflexes, the conditioned responses, that the player has to work so hard to build up, cover a much larger series of actions and it is rather easier for her to adapt to new situations. In other words the content and method of training of girl players assume rather more importance than we may initially have thought, especially in the formative years. Why ‘of girl players’? Quite simply because there are many more playing styles and a much larger variety of differing ‘materials’ in the women’s game.