Tip of the Week

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(Want more tips? Here are 171 more, done for the USATT website from 1999-2003, by Larry Hodges as "Dr. Ping Pong." Want even more? Here's the complete USATT archive, with the 171 by Larry as well as ones by Carl Danner from 2003-2007.)

March 27 - Serve and Forehand Loop

Wednesday, March 29, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a common slogan in table tennis was “One gun is as good as two.” This was back in the days of the all-out forehand attacker. Many of the dominant players (especially from Asia) would mostly just block on the backhand – often aggressive jab blocks, but not penetrating attacks – and end the point with the forehand. Some would relentlessly attack with the forehand, others would use those quick backhand blocks to set up the forehand, but the game was mostly centered around the forehand attack, whether it was smashing or looping.

While the art of the all-out forehand attack is dying out, most of the top players still strongly favor the forehand, and often still cover the whole table with it when they can, though they don’t force it as often as players from the past. But there’s one time where top players will still sometimes relentlessly use the forehand – and that’s to follow up their serve. The whole idea of the serve is to force at least a slightly weak ball, and that’s all that’s needed for a top player to end the point – and the forehand is usually best for that.

So how do you go about developing a serve and forehand attack? Here are ten guidelines. (I’m assuming both players are righties; lefties and those playing lefties will have to adjust. Note that serve and forehand attack was my specialty during my playing days!)

  1. Depth of Serve. In general, long serves can be attacked and so are harder to follow up with a forehand attack. So most often you’ll want to serve short. However, generally not too short – if you serve to short, the opponent can take it quick off the bounce and both rush you and angle you. He can also drop the ball short. The “ideal” third-ball attack serve is one that, given the chance, would bounce twice on the other side, with the second bounce as deep as possible, ideally an inch or so inside the end-line. With this depth, a receiver can’t really rush you or angle you, and so you can follow with a forehand attack more often. But vary the depth – sometimes serve very long (first bounce near the end-line) or very short (especially to the forehand) to force the receiver to have to guard against many things.
  2. Placement of Serve. Below are guidelines. The key is to favor the best placement, but vary it so the receiver has to guard against them all, forcing more mistakes.

    -If you serve short to the backhand, you give the receiver a wide angle into your backhand, making it difficult to follow with a forehand. If you have fast feet, this can still be effective as you can crowd your backhand corner, knowing the receiver has no angle into your forehand and can only go down the line there.

    -If you serve short to forehand, you give the receiver a wide angle into your forehand. Since you have to guard against this, it leaves you open to a down-the-line receive into your backhand, taking away your forehand attack. However, many players aren’t comfortable returning down the line against a short serve to the forehand, and automatically go crosscourt, giving the server a third-ball forehand attack. So it depends on the receiver.

    -If you serve short to the middle, you take away both extreme angles and have less total table to cover. This is generally the best placement if you want to follow your serve up with a forehand attack. The down side is it allows the receiver to choose whether to receive forehand or backhand, and so he can use his better side. 

  3. ​​Spin Variation on Serve. Many of the best third-ball serves are backspin serves, since they will often be pushed back long, allowing you to attack. However, if you overdo this, you make things rather easy for the receiver, who can push your predictable backspin serve back more and more aggressively. Instead, vary the serve. One of the best variations is to fake backspin and instead serve a very low no-spin serve. Receivers will often pop it up, and their pushes will have less spin than if they pushed against backspin. Also throw in sidespin and sidespin-topspin serves. The more you mix up your spins, the more problems the receiver will have. Key for all of these serves, especially no-spin serves, is to keep the ball low. This both makes it harder to attack the serve, and often makes passive returns even more passive.
  4. Types of Sidespin on Serve.
    • -If you serve a left sidespin (such as a forehand pendulum serve, racket moving from right to left), then the receiver will tend to return the ball to your backhand side. Perhaps more important, it makes it tricky to return to the wide forehand, and so you can often stand more to your backhand side, allowing you to follow your serve with a forehand attack, even from the wide backhand. Most forehand attackers prefer attacking from the backhand side as it puts them in position to follow up with another forehand attack. This type of sidespin serve is best done to the middle or backhand. If you do it short to the forehand, you have to guard against the angle into your forehand, giving the receiver an easy return down the line to your backhand, which is easier to do against this type of sidespin. This doesn’t mean you don’t ever do it short to the forehand, but it should mostly be as a variation unless the receiver struggles against it.
    • -If you serve a right sidespin (such as a backhand serve, tomahawk serve, or reverse pendulum serve), then the receiver will tend to return the ball to your forehand side, especially if you serve it to the forehand side, where it’s awkward for many to go down the line, especially against this type of sidespin. This allows a relatively easy forehand attack. However, it also puts you on your forehand side, and so the opponent can block your attack to your backhand, taking away your forehand. It’s for this reason that many forehand attackers prefer to attack out of the backhand side, and so tend to favor left sidespin serves. This type of sidespin is also effective to the middle, as it will usually still be returned toward your forehand side, but with less angle. It can also be served into the backhand, though many players find that sidespin to the backhand easier to handle than a sidespin that breaks away from them.
  5. Positioning After the Serve. Where should you stand after your serve? There’s a simple way of determining this. Imagine a somewhat aggressive return to your wide forehand. Stand as far over to your backhand side as you can where you can still just cover that wide forehand shot. If the receiver can make more than just a somewhat aggressive return to your wide forehand, then you need to position yourself to cover that – and more importantly, work on your serves so opponents can’t attack them so easily.
  6. Ready Stance. Make sure after your serve you go into a ready stance where you are ready to move in either direction – weight on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent, relatively wide stance. Flex your knees slightly as the receiver is hitting the ball as this will save you time in starting your movement. The key is to be ready for that first step, no matter which direction it is. 
  7. When to React. Most players wait until they see where the receiver has hit the ball before moving. But you should move well before that – a receiver normally commits to a shot before contact. If you watch their swing when they receive, you can learn at what point you can see where they are going. Generally, by the time the receiver starts his forward swing you should be able to see where and what his return will be, and so should be moving into position to attack. Some players, mostly advanced ones, can disguise or change their shot or placement later in their shot, so watch out for that – but even they have to commit to a shot before contact.
  8. How Hard to Attack. Many players think that they need to rip the ball every chance. That’s usually a mistake. Instead, look to make well-placed aggressive attacks that put pressure on the opponent (winning many points outright) and set you up for the next shot. If you see an easy winner, by all means take it, but focus on placement more than sheer speed. Against a heavy backspin, sometimes the best option is a very spinny, deep loop, which sets you up for the next shot. (The very slowness of your shot even gives you time to get into position for the next shot.) In general, there are two types of placements when you attack. If you see an open corner, that’s where to go. Often opponents guard against the crosscourt, leaving themselves open to down the line attacks. Or they can only cover to the corner, leaving themselves open to more angled attacks. But assuming the opponent is in position and can cover the corners effectively, usually the best place to attack is right at the opponent’s playing elbow. It forces them to make a split second decision between forehand and backhand, leading to many mistakes and weak returns, and it takes away any extreme angles for their returning, thereby allowing you to continue to attack, often with the forehand.
  9. Follow Through Back into Position. It’s not enough to serve and forehand attack; you have to get back into position for the next shot. The key here is to follow through back into position. If you do a forehand from the wide forehand side, follow through back to your left. If you do a forehand from the wide backhand side, follow through back to your right. You may want to position yourself using the same positioning rule used for after your serve – as far to your backhand side as you can be while still covering a moderately aggressive return to your wide forehand.
  10. Mentality. If you want to have an effective serve and forehand attack game, you must have the right mentality for it. First, you must commit yourself to the idea that unless the receiver does something to stop it, you are going to serve and forehand attack. (This also applies to the two-winged attacker, who can commit to attacking from either side unless the receiver does something to stop it.) Second, understand that getting into position to attack with the forehand is more about proper preparation and reaction than foot speed. If you are in very bad physical condition, then you probably aren’t going to be running around playing forehands all over the place, but if you are in reasonably good shape, you can at least do this at the start of a rally, especially after your serve. 

Comments so far:: 2

March 20, 2017 - Everything You Wanted to Know About Down the Line

Monday, March 20, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Most players attack mostly crosscourt. There are good reasons for this – you have more table, and doesn’t give the opponent an extreme angle away from you on the return. But many players way overdo this. So let’s examine the facts about down-the-line attacks.

  1. Down-the-line is 9 feet. Crosscourt is about 10 feet 3.5 inches. That’s an extra 15.5 inches, making it a safer attack. But if you overdo it, it’s low percentage, since your opponent will be camped over there expecting it.
  2. Opponents often leave down-the-line open. When they see you attacking, they’ll immediately cover the crosscourt angle. Most players fall for this, since they are afraid that if they attack down the line, they’ll be open to a crosscourt angled return. It’s a legitimate concern – if the opponent is covering that line. At all levels, even among top players, there are many who guard against the crosscourt attack, and so are very good at it, relying on opponents who are afraid to go down the line.
  3. Aim crosscourt, go down-the-line. From the wide forehand, set up and backswing to attack crosscourt – then, at the last second, rotate your shoulders to the right and go down-the-line. The opponent will likely have moved to cover the crosscourt and you have an easy winner. Similarly, when doing a forehand attack from the backhand side, set up and backswing as if going crosscourt – then whip your shoulders around vigorously, taking the ball a little quicker, and go down the line. Again, it will often be an ace.
  4. What to do after a down-the-line attack. Since your opponent has an extreme crosscourt angle to block into, your ready position after your attack should be far enough in that direction that you can cover that angle – but you have to get there quickly. Don’t finish your follow through, and then move into position; you should follow through into that position. When you do a forehand from the wide forehand, you can use the momentum from your swing and from the right-to-left weight shift (for righties, reverse for lefties) to help get back into position quickly. When attacking a forehand from the backhand side, your weight should finish on your left foot (for a righty), and so you can push off that during your follow-through to get back into position.
  5. Practicing down-the-line. It’s great practice to attack down-the-line to a practice partner’s block. If you can attack this way consistently, then crosscourt is easy, plus down-the-line attacks in a match situation becomes natural from practicing that way. 

March 13, 2017 - Warm Up the Shots You’ll Be Using

Monday, March 13, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

One of the strangest things I see repeatedly at tournaments is watching players warm up for a match without warming up the actual shots they’ll be using. Most warmup with forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand, then perhaps looping versus block (and vice versa), perhaps a little footwork. Some will play out points, thereby technically using (and therefore “warming up”) all the shots that they use in game play, at least against that practice partner. But are they really maximizing the benefits of such a warm up?

Examine your game and see what shots you actually use in a match. Warming them up in the free-play of playing out points isn’t the most efficient way to warm each of them up. Instead, you want to systematically get each shot warmed up. That’s why experienced players come in early so they have extra time to get each shot ready.

Let’s start at the beginning. Do you serve in a match? Of course, and yet how often do you warm up your serves? Or are your serves so basic that they don’t need a warm up? If so, then you better practice your serves until they are more front-line weapons that need warming up. Any serve you have will be better if you warm it up, which leads to more and varied spin, and better control. Better control means you serve lower to the net, more accurately to the opponent’s side, and with the depth you choose. Warming up deep serves is especially important, since they are most effective if they go very deep on the table – but can you really risk serving that deep without risking serving off if you don’t warm up the serve?

Then there’s the receive. Do you warm this up, or try to do so one receive at a time in an actual tournament match? That’s not every effective, and likely will lead to many early losses. Instead, arrange with your partner to do some receive practice, where you throw common serves at each other. Probably over half of tournament serves are forehand pendulum serves to the backhand, so why would someone play a tournament match without warming up against this serve? Better still, scout out your early-round opponents to see what serves they use, and try to get warmed up against them.

And then we get to the actual shots you use in a match. Forehand to Forehand, backhand to backhand, and looping against block are a good start, but what about looping against a push? Isn’t that what loopers will be doing over and over in a match? And yet many only loop against the block, then try to get this shot going in the heat of a tournament match. Do some serve and loop drills with your practice partner – serve backspin, he pushes, you loop. When it’s your partner’s turn, that’s when you warm up your block against an opening loop against backspin, which is usually spinnier than one against a block that most players warm up against. (And then they wonder why, in the tournament, they block off when the opponent loops against backspin.)

Oh, did you forget about your backhand loop? Yes, everything you warm up on the forehand needs the same treatment on the backhand. Amazingly, many players “forget” to warm up their backhand loop, and wonder why they aren’t comfortable using it in a match, especially early on.

Then there are all the other shots you might use, both forehand and backhand – pushing (both short and long), smashing, flipping, counterlooping, perhaps some off-table defense – chopping, fishing, or lobbing. If it’s something you use in a match, you should warm it up. If you sometimes lob, do you think you’ll lob better in the middle of a match without warming it up or if you do a few in advance to get the feel of the shot?

Lastly, you don’t want your first points you actually play to be in a tournament match. So after your shots are warmed up, play out some points. Some play games; most just play out the points for practice, with whoever has the ball serving. Play real points, with real serves, just as if they were tournament matches. Mentally, play it like it’s your first-round match. Then, when you do play your first match, you’ll feel like you are already into the second round, mentally and physically warmed up and ready to play.

So perhaps put together a checklist of all the things you need to warm up for a match, and bring it to tournaments as a reminder. It doesn’t have to be completely comprehensive; there are dozens of loop variations, for example, and you might not be able to warm them all up in the time allocated. (That running off-the-bounce inside-out sidespin forehand counterloop might not make the list.) Perhaps create two lists: things you must warm up, and things you should warm up.  

March 6, 2017 - Footwork and Strokes: Use ‘Em or Lose ‘Em

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

Yes, I'm talking to you, the aging table tennis player reading this article, or the younger but lazier one. You both have the ability to move when you play, but you don't do it enough. Sure, you gradually slow down as you age, and so many older players become more backhand-oriented rather than attacking with their forehand, which takes more footwork. Sure, younger players may find that if they use less footwork and simply stand at the table, they won't get caught out of position. Both of these are defensible positions. But guess what? The loss of footwork begins with a single non-use of your footwork. The more you don't use footwork, the faster you lose it, which gives you more reason not to use it, which accelerates the loss of footwork, which . . . you get the idea.

It's not just footwork. When I was younger, I liked to counterloop off the bounce, or back up way off the table to counterloop. (Strangely, I was better at the two extremes.) Now that I'm older (read: stiffer and slower), these shots are harder to pull off. So it'd be best to stop using them, right? Then they'd become even harder to do from lack of use, making it even more important that I stop using them, accelerating the loss of these shots, which . . . you get the idea.

Let me rephrase what I said above: The loss of any part of your game begins with a single non-use of it. Because you can't stop using it without a first non-use. So keep using it, even if it leads to a few short-term losses.

February 27, 2017 - Forehand Follow-Through Back into Position

Monday, February 27, 2017
by: Larry Hodges

A common mistake when playing a shot from a wide corner is to finish the stroke in a relatively stationary position at that wide corner. This is especially true of forehands from the wide forehand, where players often don't return to a neutral position quickly enough for the next shot, and often have to lunge for the next shot if it's to their wide backhand.

The problem is they are not following through back into position. When you move wide to your forehand, moving back into position for the next shot needs to be part of the follow-through - in fact, the very momentum from the shot should be used to do so. Most often when going to the wide forehand you step wide with the right leg (for a righty). After contact, you should be pushing yourself back into position with that right leg, as well as using the momentum from your swing to do so. This gets you back very quickly, and allows you to come to a stop, in position, so you are ready for the next shot. (If you do a crossover to move extra wide, you can still use the momentum of the swing to get you moving back into position.)