Thoughts on Tactics

Rowden Fullen(1990’s)

A weakness of the way we play in the Western world is often the changing between the backhand and forehand sides during match play, owing to players being slightly/considerably stronger on one side because of the grip. Another weak area is often the backhand when we are pressured hard on this wing.

Against players who want to play forehand over the whole table and are particularly positive on the third ball after their own serve, the obvious place to avoid is long to the middle area of the table. This is the ball they are waiting for so that they can loop/kill it past you. You must try and play long and fast (give them as little time as possible to move to and prepare for the next ball) out to the corners or even to the angles, off the side of the table. The other alternative is where possible to return short to the forehand or the middle of the table, (to flick from the middle is often difficult.) On your own serve of course also think to serve short or wide out to the backhand. Always be alert to the opportunity, especially if the opponent has a tendency to run round on the backhand corner, for the long fast serve down the line to his forehand.

During the rallies remember that hitting down the middle of the table or to the opponent’s body will cut down the return angles that he is capable of using. Particularly try not to get involved in forehand to forehand duels, play one to the forehand and the next to the crossover or down the line to the backhand. Another possibility which many players don’t think to use is the slower roll ball — cut out the power and spin and give the opponent a ‘nothing’ ball return. Many players return very well and confidently when they face power and spin and don’t need to think, they just let the reactions take over. When they have a rather slower ball, which drops downwards much more quickly and which doesn’t come at them half so fast, then they often don’t play well at all! Try not to give the opponent the sort of game he likes to play!

Strong backhand oriented players often want to play the backhand up to the middle of the table or sometimes even into the forehand half. Because they often adopt a little more central stance they are weaker against the shorter balls to both wings and against good angled play. If this type of player attacks with the backhand (especially from the middle) try to play the return ball to the crossover or wide to the forehand. A good tactic too is often to play the first ball into the body and the next wide out to the backhand or vice versa and also to use many straight balls on both wings. When you have the service watch particularly where they stand, if a little central you have the option to serve either way and even the fast ball to their strength, the backhand, can often be successful. The slower spinny ball can also be a good tactic against this type of opponent as it’s harder to kill through topspin with the backhand and many such players will be reduced to blocking. With the over-the-table balls try to adopt a very early or very late timing point so that the opponent has difficulty knowing exactly where you will play the ball.

Against backspin defence players, variation over a number of aspects is important. Too often in Sweden players topspin and keep on topspinning, hoping they can hit through the defender if they just continue with the same tactic! Choppers can of course be beaten by this method but this is probably the hardest way to win, by feeding them predictable long, topspin balls! Defence players find the flat hit or even the slow, high loop much harder to cope with than fast topspin attack. But often the short ball is not used anywhere near often enough. What is wrong with hitting hard to one corner, then dropping short to the other wing? Or for example serving short and hitting to the body? Far too often players serve the wrong ball to the defender’s pimples ( usually heavy spin) then have little idea what spin they have back or indeed how to take advantage of it! Pimple bat players usually find no-spin serves much more difficult to deal with and also find it harder to gain a positive advantage from this type of service. Another tactic which very few players think to employ against choppers is the slow roll with little or no spin or the ‘dummy’ loop. This slow game without spin or pace often causes real problems to defenders.

Against the long pimple attackers you face rather different problems more associated with lack of speed. Often you get a very low return but one which slows very rapidly. What you should always remember against long pimples is that your opponent can only use what you give to him or her and the capability to initiate is limited. Playing against such players is more often a question of tactics and not of the problems posed by the rubber. If you play the wrong tactics, yes, you will make life extremely difficult for yourself!

Invariably in Sweden players try to use power and spin and usually continuous power and spin against such rubbers. With long pimples you get back what you put in. If you feed in very much power and spin you get back very much effect and encounter problems with unusual spins and bounces on your own side. On the other hand if you give the long pimple player nothing, then they have nothing to use and nothing to send back to you. Why not play a slow roll game with little pace or spin and wait for the ball to hit hard, or change the pace more often, hit one, push one for example? In this way you avoid the build-up of spin and effect which is what causes the problems. More often than not it is lack of spin or speed that makes life more difficult for the long pimple player.

Doubles play is also an area where players tend not to think about tactics at all but because options are limited tactics are in fact even more important if you are to have a good chance of winning. First and foremost in doubles you don’t play to your strength (to get the sort of ball back that you like), you play to your partner’s strength (so that he gets back a ball that suits his style of play and from which he can gain an advantage). Never forget this distinction when you are involved in doubles play. Service is of course especially vital as you are restricted to one area, the forehand side. But remember this is still a large area and you should use it to the full! If your partner is a left-hander for example serve wide to the forehand angle, if a right-hander serve down the centre line. Also look where the opponent is standing and which wing they will use to take the serve, sometimes you can gain an advantage by serving fast to the middle or to the corner. Serves are usually short in doubles but variation is important especially in spin, sidespin can give rise to mistakes when trying to flick for instance. Tactics can vary depending on the opponents, sometimes hard down the middle (restricting the angle of return) then out to the wings, or hard out to the forehand, then to the middle or the backhand. Quite often in doubles it pays dividends to use more straight play down the sidelines.

In the early 1960’s the Chinese first introduced and developed the tactics of the ‘attack after the serve’, with which they gained a distinct advantage for almost the next twenty years. Now the 2nd, 3rd and 4th ball are of vital importance in the modern game. We should not only be thinking about winning directly from or almost directly after the service, but for example by controlling the 2nd or 3rd ball in such a way that we can smash the next ball. We have in other words still succeeded with an attack after serve or an attack after receive by using a transitional ball to gain a definite advantage. To do this it is vital that you know what spin is on the serve, to be able to play with and against it or return the spin to the server. It is equally vital to know what spin remains on the 3rd, 4th or 5th ball and why. In other words is your opponent by the way he plays or because of the equipment he or she is using, adding to the spin on the ball, taking away the spin, leaving it as it is or changing it in one way or another?

It is particularly important for instance to consider serve tactics in the light of the style of opponent you are facing. Where is he or she strong and what type of game does he or she like to play? If you want to stop an opponent hitting the second ball hard then obviously you can serve short or half long (with the second bounce on the white line). Equally you could serve very fast and long or short float serves as many players find it harder to initiate spin from a no-spin serve. Should the opponent be good at flicking then your short serve must be both low and with enough backspin so that he or she cannot open hard (it is also a good tactic to serve more to the middle, it’s more difficult to flick well from this area). If however they want to topspin, often short or half long serves with a mixture of much backspin, a little backspin or float are effective — it’s harder to keep the ball short if they push and it’s not easy to judge the amount of spin if they loop. With those players who like to push return, sidespin with varied chop is often very effective as they find this type of service difficult to keep short.

With all the different serves under your command bear in mind that at top level the more time the opponent has to study you service action, the easier it is for him or her to read the spin. If the action is very short and fast they have less time to see what is happening, if there is a very short distance between the bat contacting the ball and the ball contacting the table even the very best players can have problems reading the spin!

Pay also particular care to your receive position. You should be in a position to take any serve with a minimum number of movements. A large number of players have too many movements, some even jump in to take the serve and then get caught out by the long, fast serve to the corners. Always keep your bat up and pointing towards the line of play so that you are in a position to drive/hit if the chance arises – many players have the racket too low and because they start from this position, often put the ball out when they have the opportunity to hit hard. The one tactical receive that very few players think to use against the long serve and one which is of particular advantage in the women’s game is the slower return. The slow roll receive, long, low and bouncing on the end line can be very effective. It is difficult to hit this ball hard and many servers are reduced to playing a passive, control third ball. Equally the stop-block short or half-long can put the server under pressure.

With many players the backhand is the weaker side and it is a good tactic to apply pressure to this wing. If working to this area try to mix strong spin, flat hit or slower balls so that you reduce the opponent to a passive game with your variation in spin and speed. Do not forget also to play the angles, often a slower, wider ball will win the point direct. Tactics in placement are also especially important, many players have problems in the body and crossover areas and it often pays dividends to direct one ball to the backhand and the next to the body or vice versa. When serving always be ready to move round and use the forehand to apply pressure to the corners, angles or body, either with third ball loop or direct kill.

Attack to the opponent’s forehand is a tactic seldom used in matches. Too many exercises and too much play in table tennis are from the backhand side of the table. With most players the forehand is the stronger wing and perhaps opponents fear to initiate attacks to this side of the table. However the forehand stroke is in fact often slower with a longer arm swing. If you play a fast left-hand blocker you may well find he can play 10 backhands in the time you can play only 6 forehands. Also many forehand strokes, for example are not always played with power, especially those played for safety, transitional shots or when reaching. Players expect more play to the backhand and movement is much easier from this wing to the forehand rather than vice versa. For these reasons first attack to the forehand side followed by switch out to the backhand can be a particularly effective tactic and one well worth working at, (it can be even more effective if you train to play the angles wide to the forehand on the first attack). If you train to attack the forehand corner only, from both sides of the table, after a while your ability to cope with the opponent’s forehand attacks will be greatly enhanced.

Techniques form the basis of tactics while tactics help the development of techniques. The more advanced your techniques, the better you can execute tactical requirements and only with all-round efficient techniques can flexible, variable tactical ploys be initiated. Nowadays three technical requirements have to be fulfilled by the player who wants to aim for the highest levels — firstly he or she must have strong fortés in order to put pressure on opponents and win points, secondly he or she must be technically proficient all-round so as to be able to handle adversaries of all styles as well as adapting to differing game situations, thirdly he or she must be free of obvious weaknesses in order to avoid being taken advantage of by the opponent.

Your aim in applying tactics is to pit your own strong points against your opponent’s weak points. In order to do so, you must not only give full rein to your own advantages but also study your opponent’s strong points and weaknesses and draw up your plan of action accordingly. To utilize your own strengths to the best advantage, in addition to having a good attitude and fighting hard at all times, you must try your best to bring out the characteristic features of your own game. As game situations keep changing all the time, it’s not always possible for you to pit your own strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses. Often you can only pit your strong points against your opponent’s strong points or even in some cases, the situation is such that each side tries to prevent the other from having the opportunity to use his strong points, so that both parties have to resort to their minor skills. In such a situation one must play flexibly and vary one’s tactics according to the changing circumstances so as to gain the initiative as rapidly as possible.

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