Tip of the Week

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


October 16, 2011 - You must attack those steady deep backspin serve returns

Monday, October 17, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Many opponents push back deep any backspin serves, and will often even do so against a sidespin or even topspin serve by chopping down on the ball, often right off the bounce. And so you get a predictable backspin return off your serve.

If the opponent is going to give you these slow, predictable backspin returns, then you must take advantage of it. This means starting all of these rallies off with a serve and loop, either forehand or backhand. Simply decide you are going to do it, and do it. Yes, easier said than done, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You don't need a lot of speed as long as you get good spin, loop the ball deep on the table, and vary the placement to the wide backhand, wide forehand, and at the opponent's elbow.

Often it's best to serve short to the middle. By serving short, it makes it difficult for the receiver to attack the serve, and so you get those predictable long push returns. By serving to the middle, you cut off the extreme angles.

You should favor your stronger side - usually the forehand, though not always - but it's better to be able to attack from both wings when necessary than give away such a free attack. Don't over-anticipate the direction of the incoming push; wait and see the actual direction as a crafty opponent might aim one way and change directions at the last second.

How important is it to attack these long backspin receives? I've seen top players coach matches where they were literally confused that they had to actually tell a player to do this since it seemed so obvious and second-nature to them. 

October 10, 2011 - Trick Serves and Third-Ball Serves

Monday, October 10, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

If you have a tricky serve that opponents miss or pop up over and over, that's great. However, too much reliance on this can actually hold you back. The same tricky serve that your peers mess up against might be returned more easily by stronger players, including the ones you hope to learn to beat. For example, if you have a side-top serve that many opponents push back and so pop up, stronger players, especially after they see the serve a few times, might just drive or loop it, and suddenly your serve is a disadvantage. So instead of relying on winning off the tricky serve over and over, develop a good third-ball serve, one that players at nearly all levels will return somewhat passively, allowing you to attack. Then you can use the tricky serve as a highly effective variation that even stronger players might never adjust to.

Your typical third-ball serve is a short and low backspin or side-backspin, which is often pushed back, setting you up to loop (or in some cases, a regular drive). The irony is that if you do these serves well, opponents will tend to expect backspin, and so when you fake backspin but instead give side-top or no-spin (by contacting the ball near the base of the paddle but still exaggerating the serve motion), the opponent will often push and pop the ball up. Sometimes the no-spin becomes the main serve, with spin the variation, since no-spin serves are harder to push heavy or drop short than backspin, and if very low, are often harder to attack as well.

October 3, 2011 - Returning Long Serves with the Backhand

Monday, October 3, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

The key is that you have to *do something* when returning any long serve or you give the opponent a big opening. And that usually means attacking it. Against a long serve to the backhand, that usually means either backhand looping or hitting/punching a strong backhand. A player with good footwork may step around and loop with the forehand, but most can't do that on a regular basis unless they are very fast or they anticipate the serve. If the serve is fast, you can use the speed against the opponent with a punch block. If you have trouble attacking the serve, try shortening your stroke.

You want to place the ball, usually wide to the corners, or (if the opponent isn't looking to attack with the forehand) a strong shot to the elbow. Shots to the middle backhand or middle forehand put little pressure on the opponent, and are often ripped.

You want to hide the direction. For example, if you aim your backhand crosscourt to the wide backhand, then at the last second change and go to the wide forehand, you can catch an opponent off guard. If you aim to the wide forehand, many opponents will move to cover that, and then you can do a simple return to the backhand.

You want depth. Even a weak topspin ball that goes deep can be effective if it either has topspin or is to a wide angle. (However, you don't want to rely on this - a good player might still tee off on this.) Against some players who hang back to counterloop, a shorter, softer, spinnier topspin return is more effective, but don't overdo it or they'll get used to it.

A sudden chop, chop block, or sidespin block can also be effective, but only if you can control it, and usually only as a variation. If you can deaden the ball with a chop block or sidespin block, many opponents will have great difficulty. If the serve has sidespin, try sidespin blocking it back, using the opponent's own spin against him. (Go with the spin, not against it, i.e. against a forehand pendulum serve, your racket should go right to left for a backhand sidespin block.)

Lastly, variation is important. If your opponent knows what you are going to do, things get pretty easy for him. Even if you are going to loop all deep serves (as most advanced players should), you should vary the placement, depth, speed, and spin, and throw in sidespin loops as well. 

September 26, 2011 - Develop Your Game Around Your Playing Style

Monday, September 26, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

(The first three paragraphs of this come primarily from a response I gave in a blog comment.)

When you start out, you need to develop the fundamentals (see my article on Develop the Basics in the "How to Be a Champion" articles.) As you develop your shots, your playing style will gradually emerge. Some players have a firm idea on how they want to play almost from the start - hitter, looper, blocker, chopper, etc. Others aren't sure at first, often for years, as they develop their game. And the style often changes - I was an all-out hitter my first three years, then switched gradually all-around, with equal emphasis between looping, hitting, and steady countering, plus a little of just about everything else. 

Style comes from two things: what the player does well, and what the player wants to do. They are not always the same, but they usually have a large overlap as players tend to get better at the things they want to do (because they use them more), and they tend to want to do the things that they do well, since that leads to winning. So most often players naturally develop a style based on these two factors. Others really want to play a specific style, perhaps because they saw a top player play that way. They may simply want to be a chopper or lobber because of the spectacular points they play. Or they may develop a blocking style, but simply decide they want to play like most world-class players do and become a looper. (That's a primary reason why I switched from all-out hitting to more looping.) 

With my students, I regularly advise them on how their game is developing, with two things in mind. First, develop an over-powering strength, something that will dominate at whatever level they are at, and develop a style around that strength. Second, develop all aspects of the game you will use since having strengths do not help if opponents can simply play into your weaknesses. So I try to lead them into a style that will win for them. But that style also has to match what they want to do. There's no point telling someone to be a looper if he hates looping, like one of my students. 

Once you have begun developing a style, you should continue to develop that style. Watch players with similar styles, learn what they do and why (this is important - don't be afraid to ask the player), and incorporate whatever you think will work for you.

Since rallies begin with serve and receive, this means developing serves and receives that work for your style. This is probably the most under-utilized, under-thought, and under-developed part of most player's games.

For example, if you have a nice loop against backspin, it might not be to your advantage to push too many short serves back long, since this gives the opponent a chance to loop and so lowers the chance of a backspin return you can loop. It also might not be to your advantage to flip, which gets you into a topspin rally, and again takes away your loop against backspin. Instead, a player like that might develop a short push, which increases the chances that the opponent will push long, giving you that backspin ball to loop. Similarly, short backspin serves will often give you long push returns to loop. And if you serve topspin, you are unlikely to get a backspin return from most players. (This doesn't mean you don't vary in these other receives and serves, just remember they are variations to the shots that should be more central to your game. For example, a sudden long push receive against some players will often result in a push return to set up your loop.)

If you are a hitter or counter-hitter who likes to get into bang-bang topspin rallies, you might want to serve and receive more with topspin. Or you might serve short backspin and follow with a slow, very steady loop to get into those topspin rallies.

Find the unique aspects of your style that give opponents trouble and focus on winning with those shots. Germany's Timo Boll, the #1 European, forehand loops with a somewhat unorthodox extreme forehand grip. This gives him perhaps the best inside-out loop in the world (his lefty loops usually break to the left), and he uses this to great effect. Much of his game is used to set up this shot, which is a primary reason he's the only European who can often challenge the Chinese. At the same time, if a shot is too unorthodox, consider whether the benefits of the shot outweigh the negatives, since the very fact that it is unorthodox means it likely has problems, or it would become "orthodox." (Sometimes the unorthodox becomes orthodox, such as reverse penhold backhands or attacking short serves to the forehand with the backhand.)

One last thing to think about when developing your style. Since so much of style comes from serve and receive, sometimes the style comes from those shots. For example, if you develop a serve that players keep popping up, you might develop a nice smash, and you are well on your way to becoming a hitter - all because of the serve you developed. Or if you have a nice backspin serve, you'll get a lot of backspin returns, and so you might develop a nice loop, and you are well on your way to becoming a looper - all because of the serve you developed. So while you should develop serve and receive to match your style, sometimes style comes from the serve and receive. 

Ultimately, you should develop a personal style that's all your own, and really know your style. Given the chance, you should be able to write a book on your game; if you can't, either you don't know your game or you don't have a game. Sound familiar? See the August 15, 2011 Tip of the Week: The Book on Your Game

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September 19, 2011 - Balance Leads to Feet-first Footwork

Monday, September 19, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Many players move their playing hand and arm first when moving to a ball, when the first thing that should move are the feet. If you move your arm first, several very bad things are happening. First, it means you are slower in moving into position since you haven't started moving your feet first. Second, you will tend to reach for the ball--since by moving your hands first you are reaching for the ball--and so will generally hit an awkward shot. And third, by reaching for the ball, you go off balance, with your weight on the foot in the direction you are reaching, and so will have great difficulty moving the feet at that point, since you are now weighted down on the lead foot, the very one that should be moving first in the direction you need to move. (Try this and you'll see what I mean.)

Instead, focus on staying balanced. This means your weight should always be between your feet when moving. There might be a weight shift once you have moved into position (especially on forehand shots), but not before. Balance allows you to move quickly in either direction and to glide into position. It makes that first step very easy. (Remember to step first with the right to move right, with the left to move left.)

Most coaches do tell you to move your feet first, not the playing hand and arm, but players often have trouble following this. I've found that if you coach the player to focus on the balance aspect, then they more naturally move the feet first, since balance is what allows this to happen easily, and it's the playing hand and arm movement that takes a player off balance--so by focusing on balance, they stop doing that. Give it a try, and get your game into balance!