Win over Asian Women

Rowden Fullen 2003

A number of top coaches and top women players in Europe seem to be of the opinion that if you can topspin the ball powerfully from both wings and get in the first attack, then the road to victory against the Asian players is open. The idea is often to develop the player’s style towards a two-winged topspin game similar to the men. It is also important of course to have the capability of attacking first and of using the serve to set up a third ball attack. These are keys to winning at top level. However is the concept of a consistent, strong topspin attack sufficient in itself in the women’s game? Perhaps it is necessary to examine the whole approach to this type of style in more detail! It can also be necessary to point out that we should see clearly what is happening and not what we would like to happen!

There is for example 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 excel and are much more confident in the ‘short’ game and at opening against a backspin ball even over the table. They are superior in short play and Europeans must analyse the possibilities in this area and upgrade their technique and tactics.

It’s vital to have the advantage on the serve/receive and the ‘next two balls’. If we let this advantage slip away then we are on level terms or even a little behind with handling the 2nd and 3rd ball and this lack of dominance can lead to us losing the point. It’s also important to reinforce control and counter-control measures over the 4th, 5th and 6th balls so we maintain an offensive initiative and do not let the play drift into a stalemate situation.

The importance of the serve cannot be underestimated against the Asians. 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 the 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.

Indeed it is of some importance that the point be won after one or two topspin balls. In longer rallies top European women often lose the point. This in fact emphasizes the difference between the men’s and the women’s game. In the men’s game with the longer rally the Europeans have an equal or better than equal chance of winning the point, as the Asians are a little behind in counter-looping techniques and are often weaker back from the table, especially on the backhand side. Therefore when the rally degenerates into a control situation they are at a disadvantage.

The reverse is the case with women’s play – women don’t counter-loop, they drive, block, hit or even chop and as a result it is the player who loops, who is at a disadvantage as the rally progresses. In the women’s game the longer a looping rally goes on usually the less chance the Europeans have to win as the Asians initiate speed or variation. There is just too much pace or variation on the return ball and it is difficult to maintain consistent pressure with topspin tactics. In the women’s game therefore it is the first one or two loops which are of prime importance and it is vital that the loop player makes the opening to ‘kill’ and wins the point as early as possible in the rally.

European women should bear in mind too 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 at 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 to pressure the opponent.

Another aspect that strong women topspin players could work profitably with is counter-looping techniques. Give the opponent the half-chance to spin the 2nd ball for example and then pressure her directly with an aggressive topspin counter. This tactic is common in the men’s game but is rarely if ever used in women’s table tennis.

Often if you assess the European woman’s game plan she uses something like 60% drive or flick play and only 35% topspin. Does she fully understand how she should play? True short play may be the key but she must use the right tactics to get her spin in from a short play situation! If she puts the emphasis on speed and power she usually gets a faster ball back and it’s then more difficult to create good spin! As a result flicking and drive play over the table often work against what she is hoping to achieve – good spin on the first one or two balls so that she creates the opportunity to win the point. In other words spin one or two then hit!

If we also often use a fairly high ratio of long serves (over 30%) the result is again that we get a hard return and have problems in creating enough spin on the third ball. When we assess the backhand too in Europe we often see that women have not really such good spin capability or don’t try to use much spin – more often than not they drive the ball. Again as a result they get drawn into the counter-hitting type of game.

Not only must we work at developing better serves, but must use them to best effect. The priority (and here length is of particular importance) is to get the opponent to push so that we can loop strongly and with good spin on the third ball. We then have the initiative in the rally. The same applies on receiving. Subtle use of the push or of techniques such as the stop-block against the Asians will pay more dividends than trying to flick or open all the time, especially when our first opening ball is weak or has insufficient spin.

Often the tendency in Europe with a woman is to harness the strength element and to encourage her to play more like a man. This strategy ignores both the theory of the creation of spin and the differences between the men’s and women’s game. Top European women are often made to look very ordinary when they meet players who can control their hard loops and who pick the right ball to counter.

The theory of the creation of spin tells us that the harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you will create. Women are not as strong as men and will never achieve as much spin as men. It’s of little use taking the view that a strong woman can hit harder than a man – compare Boros with Wang Liqin or Kreanga and there is little or no similarity in the power development.

Equally the return ball is completely different in the women’s game. Rarely if ever do women run back and counter-loop, they block, hit or defend. More often than not the loop player just has no time to loop more than one ball, as her loop comes back with so much speed – and in many cases the harder she topspins, the faster the ball comes back. Such players as Steff for example (top 10 world ranking) have the capability to topspin the first ball then come in and counter the next ball from a very early timing point. It is often in fact a better tactic in the women’s game to topspin slower and with more spin rather than faster and with more power.

The other critical point about the women’s game is that both because of the lesser topspin and the greater use of differing rubbers, players face a much more unpredictable reaction from the ball after the bounce than they do in the men’s game. This tends even to influence the technical development of the female topspin stroke. There is little point in developing the habit of starting the loop stroke too far back if you’re uncertain just what the ball will do after the bounce.

Overall in fact there seems to be very little point in women training to loop several balls in succession. Rather they should be training to loop one (or two) then smash. Spin rather than speed is of the utmost importance so they create the opening to hit hard on the next ball. In fact the single most important loop is the first opening against a backspin ball.

If you look at the top European women such as Boros and Steff you in fact perceive quite quickly that they do not run away from the table and loop several balls in a row. Indeed much of the play, over 50%, consists of flick or drive strokes. But they are capable of flicking the 2nd ball for example and looping the 4th. They are also accomplished in looping the 3rd ball if they have the slightest opening and they both have good serves and good variety in the service area.

One final aspect that we must of course stress is the importance of competing in Asia. It is necessary to play against Asian players and often, in order to learn what we need to work on to defeat them.

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