Loop Attack and the Women’s Game

Rowden Fullen (2003)

If you take a group of elite men and women, put them two to three metres away from the table and play loop to loop, who will win the rallies? Obviously the men almost every time. As far as fast loop with good speed and strong spin is concerned, how many women can produce a sustained and extensive range of successive topspin and loop strokes (say 10 – 15 shots) and have the capability of continuous offensive play from both wings? Very, very few, not only in Sweden, but even over the whole of Europe.

When considering loop play we must always bear in mind that not only are women different, but also that they usually face a different type of game to men. While men often loop to loop, women often loop to block or counter — the return ball is very different.

Women are not as strong as men, look at the world records for weight lifting (a big gap), they are not as fast as men, look at the world records in sprinting (getting closer though), but when it comes to reaction speed, the difference between the sexes is minimal. World class reaction players are few in the male table tennis world, yet in their time Lindh and Douglas were successful – take glue away and lessen the power in the men’s game and they would almost certainly have had even better results. But in the women’s game there are many more reaction players and they have less power to cope with — naturally they are much more effective, and it’s much harder for women loopers to make a real impact. Men also usually prefer to use their superior strength and loop their way to victory from further back, women facing less power and spin (especially Asian women) have the reaction speed and capability to smash decisively through the spin and often at a very early timing point.

If women loop from mid-distance (one to two metres off the table) and don’t win the point with the first two or three loops, do they really think they have more chance with five or even ten loops? The scenario has changed from a position with attacking possibilities where they were in the driving seat, with a good chance of winning the point, to a control situation where both players have a more equal chance. The blockers and counter-hitters are in fact much more likely to move them round, using the angles, until they miss or tire — from a distance it’s always the loop player who has much more ground to cover. Generally top women are so good at containing fast spin, that if you don’t win in the first two/three loops, you will lose — and if you do win, usually you will do so not because of the fast spin, but because of placement, angles or length or change of speed or spin, in other words you win with something different, not with power!

It would therefore appear to make sense that women look at the loop as a means to make an opening, so that they can finish the point in the next one or two strokes, not as a point winning stroke in itself. It would also appear logical to try and win the point earlier in the rally rather than later, as the longer they continue to loop, the more they lose the initiative and drift into a control situation from which they have less chance to actually win the point. For those women who loop as a main weapon it would perhaps be an interesting exercise for them to assess on a regular basis just what percentage of points they are winning when the rally progresses beyond the fifth and sixth ball!

Sustained looping requires good use of the waist and legs, good coordination, smoothness of movement with balance and rotation of the body and fast forearm fold. This last aspect is rather more important with women than men as it allows better balance and recovery with less strain on the body. Of course the loop can be played long-arm as the Hungarians did in the 70’s and 80’s, but this does require good strength in shoulder and back and often results in slow recovery to the next ball – it is often played a little further away from the table too.

Most women are more eminently suited to closer-to-table combat and more adept in the first and second round of looping — once they get forced back and the rally progresses, they usually lack the required power. This is therefore another compelling reason why women loop players should aim to achieve dominance in the first three to four balls, serve and the third ball, receive and the fourth ball. In these initial stages you are in the driver’s seat, you dictate, with a better than 50% chance to win the point — after that it’s not the same kind of game, the odds are more in the region of 50/50, with both players changing tactics, it becomes more a question of control and counter-control measures. But even then you should work to retain offensive initiative – you can do this by always looking to achieve quick changes in the first five to six balls in a number of areas, change of speed/spin, tactical switches, variation in angles, direction, length, quick transition from control to offence. From the receiver’s point of view it is vital to remember that control or counter of the first three loops is the priority, whether you loop to loop or kill through the spin. The single most important loop is the opponent’s first spin from a backspin ball, this is the one stroke women must be able to deal with.

The backhand side also of course has its role in the loop scenario. It is particularly important for example that players are able to maintain offensive speed/spin when switched fast from the forehand into the backhand side. There is little point in having a great forehand loop if the rally breaks down when the ball comes to the backhand or if a weak backhand stroke is then played. At anything above basic level women must be able to do more than just control and contain with the backhand wing, they should be able to put pressure on the opponent. This means the capability to accelerate action from mere return block, to forcing block, drive or spin and to be comfortable with more than one method of making openings on the backhand. It is important too in the women’s game that they can vary spin, speed and angles, on the backhand rather than just developing power. It is equally vital that even from a young age they can switch easily to the offensive from a neutral, control or defensive situation. Make variation the theme too in opening – slow roll, hard drive, spin both slow and fast.

Players and coaches reading this article may by now have arrived at certain conclusions – that sustained fast looping in the women’s game is a slow, laborious but reasonably certain way to commit suicide! Not necessarily so. There are almost always exceptions in every area of sport and we do occasionally see strong, athletic girls, coming through the system, who naturally play this sort of game. Don’t stop them, just encourage them to change their thinking a little. Sustained power and predictability are the problems. More power means less spin, predictability means the opponent knows where the ball is going and feeds off your speed and uses it against you.

The clue is in the loop the Chinese defenders use to change from defence to offence — slow, the main emphasis on spin, to a good length and sometimes even a little high! However many of the best attacking women in the world hit this loop off the table time and time again! As we said earlier in this article the first loop is the key, the first offensive topspin, where you initiate attack from a neutral or defensive position. Make this first loop a key to unlock the game, make it slow (no speed for the opponent to use), make it very long or very short and above all make it spinny and place it to difficult areas on the table, short to middle, long to backhand or body or wide to the angles. Then capitalize, follow up on the next ball, the priority should be a hard drive or smash – in this way you get a big difference between the two successive balls — slow, spinny, with a topspin arc — hard, fast and flat. Even the top women have problems with this type of variation.

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