A Tip of the Week will go up every Monday by noon.

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Published:

04/12/2021 - 15:18

Author: Larry Hodges

The quickest way to learn to beat a stronger player is by losing to him, but understanding why you lost. This way you know what to work on so as to increase your chances of winning next time, or at some time in the future. It's a continuous learning process, and players who improve rapidly are constantly learning. For example, if you had trouble with a specific serve, or a spinny loop, or a heavy push, don't just complain about it - find a top player or coach who can mimic that serve or technique and practice against it and turn that weakness into a strength. If you realize there's a serve or technique you need to develop to win, then develop that serve or technique. If there are tactics that you think you need to develop to win, then try them out in matches and see what works. But it all starts with learning from your matches, and especially your losses, so you can identify what you need to work on. All these bits and pieces learned here and there add up to a savvy player.

Published:

04/05/2021 - 15:10

Author: Larry Hodges

Returning serves is everyone's biggest weakness - or at least it seems that way. To learn to read spin, try focusing just on the contact period - ignore the rest of the motion before and after contact. Imagine taking a mini-video of the split second of contact. If you do this regularly, pretty soon you'll be able to isolate in your mind the actual direction of the racket at contact. From that, you can read the type of spin. (You also have to read the amount of spin, which comes from racket speed and acceleration, grazing contact, and grippiness of the surface.)

However, you can also read spin by the way the ball comes off the paddle, travels through the air, and from both bounces on the table. You can't do this the first time you try it - it takes practice. Ideally, have a coach or player with good serves let you practice against their serves, where you focus on all of these aspects until you begin to be able to read the spin multiple ways. Imagine how the spin will affect the ball, and figure out what to watch for.

  • A backspin ball goes down slightly at contact during the serve (relative to the racket), slows down when it hits the table, and floats as it moves through the air.
  • A topspin ball goes up slightly at contact during the serve (relative to the racket), takes a low, fast hop when it hits the table, and drops as it moves through the air.
  • A sidespin ball goes sideways in each of these steps.
  • A no-spin ball does none of these things.

The receiver also needs to read the amount of spin. Against a somewhat grippy inverted rubber, this is roughly done by a simple formula: racket speed - ball speed = ball spin. What this means is that a server's racket speed at contact will convert to ball speed and ball spin; if the racket moves fast, but the ball comes out slowly, then most of the energy has been converted to spin. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this. You get more spin if you accelerate into the ball rather than moving the racket at a constant speed, but it's close enough. Plus you have to take into consideration the grippiness of the rubber, as a non-grippy surface will have less spin.) 

Published:

03/29/2021 - 15:08

Author: Larry Hodges

There's nothing an experienced player likes better than facing a player with big shots . . . but little else. On the other hand, there are few things scarier than an opponent with big shots . . . and little else, i.e. without the "little" shots to set the big shots up and to withstand an opponent's attacks. If you are one of those players with big shots, and feel you dominate many matches - and still lose - perhaps it's time to stop thinking about these big shots and develop the "little" shots. Here are a few of these "little" shots and tactics that you might want to develop. Even if you are not a "power player," these are things you should develop to set up your own attacks, and to look for when playing a power player - if he can't do one of these things, take advantage of it.  

  • Short, low serves. It's difficult getting your shots into play if your opponent is attacking your serve. Long serves get looped, slightly high short serves get flipped or pushed aggressively.
  • Backspin/no-spin serves. A no-spin serve is just as effective – often more effective – than a spin serve, if the opponent isn't sure it is no-spin and it's very low. Mixing up backspin serves and no-spin serves (with other serves thrown in for surprise and variation) is a great way to set up your big shots. Both tend to get pushed back deep, and the no-spin serves tend to be popped up slightly, and with less backspin.
  • Short Receive. A short backspin serve is relatively easy to return short; if you push it long, your opponent can attack, taking away your big shots. Meet the ball right off the bounce, with a light grazing motion.
  • Well-placed flip. You don't need to flip every serve or short push for a winner; instead, learn to flip to all three locations - wide forehand, wide backhand, and to the middle (roughly the opponent's playing elbow). Placement and consistency are key. The placement will often set up your follow-up attack.
  • Quick, aggressive push. If not overused, it'll catch opponents off guard, and set up your big shots.
  • Blocking. The single most effective way of beating power players is to loop first with a steady loop, forcing them into many mistakes. If the power player makes one good block against the opening loop, he'll often get a shot he can go after on the next shot. You can also counterloop these opening loops, but if you try to force the counterloop too often and too predictably, an experienced opponent will force you into mistakes by varying his loop's speed and placement.
  • Judgement. This might be the biggest one of all. Know when to play a set-up shot and when to unleash the big shot.
Published:

03/22/2021 - 14:32

Author: Larry Hodges

When faced with faster, quicker opponents, many players try to match them in speed, and end up losing because of too many unforced errors. Instead, ask yourself if it is realistic to play at the opponent's pace. You might decide you can do so for perhaps the first shot in a rally, but not afterwards. So perhaps start the rally close to the table and see if you can win the point quickly, before it gets into a fast rally.

Once into the rally, you might take perhaps a half step backwards to give yourself more time. Instead of trying to bang it out at high speeds, your goal now is to out-rally the opponent, using his own pace against him. If your opponent hits the ball hard, you don't need to create your own speed - just meet the incoming ball, and let it rebound back. Move the ball around so the quicker opponent has to both move and play those quick shots. Try to keep the ball deep, which jams the opponent, takes away the extreme angles he can go for, and gives you more time to react. Since you don't need to create much speed on your own, you can shorten your stroke (so you aren't as rushed), and just keep the ball in play … and out-rally your fast but frustrated opponent.

There's one other thing that helps in beating fast, quick opponents - to get out of those bang-bang rallies, perhaps develop a backhand chop. Often that quick opponent will himself be caught off guard, and will likely push - and now you can look for a ball to attack. 

Published:

03/15/2021 - 15:43

Author: Larry Hodges

Except at the advanced levels, few players really attack the middle effectively. What is the middle? It is roughly the opponent's playing elbow, midway between forehand and backhand, where the opponent has to make a quick decision on which to use; move into position to do so; and then try to recover for the next shot, since they are now out of position, leaving one of the corners open. Almost all of your deep shots should go to the wide corners or the middle. Corners are easier to play because they are not a moving target, but the middle is often the weakest spot for an opponent. Many think they play the middle, but what they think is playing the middle often isn't.

For example, their crosscourt backhand "to the middle" might cross the table in the middle, but by the time it reaches the opponent, it's moved diagonally into their backhand court. (So they need to aim the shot so it reaches the middle as it reaches the opponent.) Or a shot that seems to go to the middle just feeds a moving opponent's forehand attack off that middle shot. (So they need to judge better when to go to the middle, and perhaps do so more aggressively, or more towards the opponent's backhand side, since he's moving to favor his forehand.) Or a player might start a rally by attacking to a corner, planning on going to the middle on the next shot – but faced with a strong return, are unable to make a strong shot to the middle. (So they need to play the first attack at the middle, which often sets up a follow-up attack or put-away to a corner.)

So . . . are you really playing the middle? Here's a simple test - if the opponent is a bit awkward on covering your shot to his middle, then you've found the middle. If he doesn't, you haven't.