Larry Hodges's blog

March 31, 2011

Practice those alternative serves!

What do I tell students to work on just before tournaments? Well, there's the usual stuff. And you don't want to overtrain and show up tired, and you want to eat well and get lots of sleep. And you want to play lots of practice matches so you'll be match tough.

But one thing many people forget is to practice what I call "alternate" serves. Just by playing matches you'll be practicing your regular serves. But what about those surprise serves you throw out there every now and then for a free point? Fast & deep serves, tricky breaking serves, etc.? Those are the ones you need to practice. Unlike your regular serves, you often have to pull these serves out cold. The day before or the morning of a tournament, get some balls, go off to a table by yourself, and practice those serves. Imagine the score as deuce when you do so to emulate pulling off the serve under pressure. Do that a hundred times, and when the time comes to actually do it under pressure, it'll be second nature - you've already done it a hundred times in the last day.

How'd you like to try to rip a fast down-the-line serve at deuce in the fifth? Believe me, you don't - unless you've practiced it first!

Guam's Table Tennis Month

Yes, Governor Eddie Baza Calvo of the U.S. territory of Guam has declared April to be Guam Table Tennis Month! The proclamation says, "When students participate in sports, they learn valuable lessons like teamwork.  It also helps with social skills, teaches responsibility, and nurtures lifelong friendships.  Teams become families—families that demonstrate the diverse beauty found on Guam."

Off to the North American Championships

I'll be at the North American Champions in Toronto Thur-Sun. Root for USA! (Well, unless you're Canadian, then you can root for them.) Articles and results should be going up on the ITTF's North American Table Tennis Championships page.

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March 30, 2011

Seemiller vs. Malek 1979

Here's a Blast from the Past - the final of the 1979 USA Men's Singles Championships in Las Vegas, where Attila Malek upset Dan Seemiller. It's hard to believe it's been 32 years since this great match. The tape is 22:40 long. You can see how the game has changed, due to new techniques but even more so due to better technology. The sponge surfaces they use are far less bouncy than modern sponges; if a top player were given one of their rackets to hit with, they'd probably hit one ball and say, "What is this stuff?"

The biggest difference in play back then is probably backhand play. Note that both play their backhands pretty much flat in rallies. (Seemiller, of course, uses the "Seemiller" grip that's named after him, and so mostly jab-blocks the backhand.) Malek had a backhand loop, but seems to use it mostly against backspin. Part of this is because of the sponge they are using, and part of it is because the backhand loop simply wasn't considered as big a weapon in those days, and players weren't trained to use it in rallies as often, though that was changing rapidly in Europe.

They also have less power on forehand loops, though much of this is because of the slower sponges. Both loop from close to the table to make up for this, so opponents have little time to react.

My favorite quote: "Dan Seemiller not only looks like Jimmy Connors, he sounds like him." Both players are in great shape - players in those days did just as much physical training as modern players, though modern players know how to train better for table tennis, especially with weight training. Dan mentions he trains twice a day for about two hours.  Malek says he should practice eight hours a day, as he did in Hungary, but now "only" trains four hours a day.

Seemiller, who would win five USA Men's Singles titles and be the longtime USA Men's Coach, is now a full-time coach at the South Bend Table Tennis Club in Indiana. Malek, now a member of the board of directors for USA Table Tennis, is a full-time coach at the Power Pong Table Tennis Club in Huntington Beach, CA.

I recognize a few people in the often blurry background, such as Danny's brothers Ricky and Randy Seemiller (and I think father Ray Seemiller is sitting next to them), Perry Schwartzberg, D-J Lee, Eric Boggan and Brian Masters (both age 16), and that's Marty Reisman wearing the slanted hat and white (or is it pinkish?) shirt. The two Chinese ballgirls I believe are Diana and Lisa Gee, both about 9 years old and future USA Team members. Anyone recognize others, or know who the commentators are?

NA Championships

I'm off tomorrow to the North American Table Tennis Championships in Mississauga, Canada, near Toronto. Keith Evans is the USA Cadet Boys' Coach, but I'll be working with Tong Tong Gong, one of the members of the USA Cadet Boys' Team. Because I'm not the team coach, Keith will be coaching him and the other team members in the big team match against Canada (winner goes to the World Junior Championships) and in some singles matches, but at the least I'll be able to talk tactics with them between matches, and perhaps coach some of the singles matches. (Keith cannot coach against another USA player, so in singles I'll be coaching Tong Tong in those matches, unless he's playing another player from our club, MDTTC.) It is a protocol thing as I have to be clear that Keith IS the USA coach; I'm only helping out since I've worked with Tong Tong for quite some time. I know what it's like from the other perspective, to be the team coach and have other coaches come in wanting to coach specific players - I was the USA junior or cadet coach a number of times in the past, especially in the 1990s - so I have to be careful not to overstep my bounds.

Words quoted incorrectly

In a comment on my blog on Monday I wrote, "If you leave your long pips in the heat or play outdoors in the heat, and that changes it into frictionless long pips, then you have treated it with heat, thereby making it illegal." Note the three references to heat that I bolded, and where I specifically said it was the heat that was a treatment? Over in another forum, Olivier Mader wrote, "Sure, there are people like Larry Hodges who think that playing outdoors is treating but I believe that he would be in the minority with that view." Maybe I'm living in the clouds, but I just don't get people who will misquote someone like that. When you have to change someone's words to make a point, you've lost the argument while saying a lot about yourself.

If I were to say, "It's dangerous to go outside in freezing cold unless adequately dressed," would it be honest for someone to claim I said, "Larry Hodges says it's dangerous to go outside"? Of course not. It's lying by omission.

Another person wrote that I had said I was "skeptical of the pure long-pips blocking style." Actually, I wrote I was "somewhat skeptical of the long-pips blocking style." He took off the "somewhat" to (falsely) make a stronger point, and so instead of quoting me accurately, he only quoted me "somewhat" accurately. The fascinating thing is these people actually read my blog, and only saw the negative they wanted to see. When I invited them to make the case why I shouldn't be somewhat skeptical of that style, i.e. do something positive, where were they? (And watch how fast my words will now be misquoted or taken out of context! Some people simply cannot exist without enemies, real or imagined.)

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March 29, 2011

Breaking 2500 Revisited

Sometimes when looking for historical records, such as the youngest players to break 2500, you look so hard to the past you forget about the present. And yesterday, while compiling this list, I left out an obvious one - Michael Landers. He was born in August, 1994, and broke 2523 in at the Nationals in December, 2009, at age 15 years 4 months. This makes him the third youngest to do so, after Lily Zhang's 14 years 9 months and Adam Hugh's 14 years 11 months, and just beating out Han Xiao's 15 years 5 months and Keith Alban's 15 years 7 months.

An interesting question came up - who reached 2500 the fastest? That's tough to judge since we don't know when most of these top juniors started, only when they played their first tournament. But Landers might be in the running for fastest. Landers played his first tournament in December of 1994 (age 10), starting with a rating of 1056, and broke 2500 exactly five years later with a rating of 2523, undoubtedly one of the fastest to achieve this.

I'm a little proud; Michael came to a number of the five-day camps I run at MDTTC with Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang. I don't have complete records with me, but he came to our camps in July 2005 (age 10, rated 1256); August 2006 (11, 1777), and December 2006 (12, 2020). I believe he came to a couple of other camps, but I don't have a listing handy for all of them. (I may run over to the club later to look those ones up.) Of course, the main credit goes to Michael, his parents, and his coach, Ernest Ebuen, but can't we grab a scrap of the credit, maybe one big toe's worth?

MDTTC was a bit more instrumental in the development of such local juniors on the "2500 club" as Han Xiao (15 years 5 months), Peter Li (16 years 11 months), Marcus Jackson (17 years 2 months), Sunny Li (17 years 4 months), Amaresh Sahu (17 years 6 months), and a whole new group of cadets currently in the 2250 range.

U.S. Junior Champion and Men's Singles Finalist Peter Li might be of interest. He was born in January, 1993, and reached 2552 at the Nationals in December, 2009 (the same tournament Landers went over 2500) at age 16 years 11 months. Exactly one year later, at the 2010 Nationals, he broke 2600 with a rating of 2642 at age 17 years 11 months. (But there might have been a few others who broke 2600 at age 16 or 17; I'll let others work that out.)

Yesterday I wrote that Mark Hazinski was the youngest to reach 2550, 2600, and 2650 at 15 years 10 months. But only one month behind was Adam Hugh, who reached 2611 at age 15 years 11 months.

There was also a typo in the blog - it read, "Adam Hugh reached 2410 on Dec. 8, 2002. He was born on Jan. 5, 1988. So he was 14 years 11 months old when he broke 2500." The 2410 should have been 2510.

Videos!

  • My apologies to long pips blockers for this parody - but this video (48 sec) is hilarious! Yes, that's Professor Larry Bavly, mathematician, high-ranked table tennis player in the "heavy division," . . . and insurance agent? I'm wondering if a certain online community dedicated to the proposition that all racket surfaces are equal (but some are more equal than others?) will go bananas over this.
  • I have no idea what to make of this video (3:46), but it's Brian Pace at his most hilarious.
  • Here's Brian again, but this time more serious as he relates in this rather long video (13:36) the relationship between training and peak performance and improvement.
  • Brian's got a lot of other great table tennis videos on his website, Dynamic Table Tennis. If you want to see high-level table tennis demonstrated, go have a look. (Some you have to pay for - table tennis players have to make a living - but much of it is free.)

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March 28, 2011

Springtime

It's springtime, birds are singing, children are playing, the grass is growing . . . so why is it frickin' 27 degrees outside? Good thing table tennis is an indoor sport.

Injury roll call

After I won hardbat singles at the Cary Cup, I was hobbling about with various injuries in both knees, right leg, right shoulder, and upper back. Now, ten days later, four out of five of these problems have mostly gone away. The remaining nefarious injury that won't go away? My upper back is still a mess. I had to stop early on Friday at the club, where I was a practice partner for our elite junior program. On Saturday and Sunday, I coached and practiced with the juniors, but only with the beginning ones - I could barely move and so couldn't really play high level with the advanced ones. I'm off for a few days, then I coach Thur-Fri-Sat-Sun-Mon, so I better get better quick. Maybe I should lunch on Advil.

Youngest players to break 2500

At the ICC California State Open on March 19-20, 14-year-old Lily Zhang became the youngest player in U.S. history to break 2500, with a new rating of 2523. When the new rating came out, most of us were pretty sure that she was the only 14-year-old ever to break 2500. Was she? Immediately my detective instincts went to work.

One thing to take into consideration is that the ratings have inflated. For example, when Eric Boggan won the USA Nationals in 1978 at age 15, he came out with a rating of just 2448, which made him #2 in the U.S. after Dan Seemiller (2601), with Rick Seemiller (2447) the only other player over 2400. For perspective, in the current USATT Magazine, the #50 player in the Men's rankings is 2462. While techniques, training, and equipment have advanced, that's independent of actual ratings - if these were still at exactly the same level as in 1978, the ratings would still have inflated the same way. (Think of it this way: even if you have better techniques and equipment, so does your opponent.)  So there would be very few players who might have broken 2500 at age 14 until recent years. This is a good thing since it's painstaking to look up old ratings in crumbling magazines from long ago - you have to look in all of them to find the highest ratings. But all the ratings are online since 1994, so it's a lot easier now.

Who were the "obvious" candidates as possible 2500 players at age 14? Historically, the best juniors have matched their age, i.e. broke 2000 at age 10, 2100 at 11, 2200 at 12, 2300 at 13, and 2400 at 14, and 2500 at age 15. Han Xiao was the first to break 2400 at age 13. I checked on him and a few other obvious ones to see when they broke 2500.

Players like Eric Boggan and Rutledge Barry were challenging and beating many of the best U.S. players by age 14 but neither came close to 2500, or even 2400 at 14. Sean O'Neill reached 2500 at age 15 in 1982 - he matched his age every year from age 11 to 15. From way back then, I don't think anyone else really came close to breaking 2500 at age 14. At first I didn't think since had broken 2500 as a 14-year-old other than Lily. And then I hit paydirt.

Adam Hugh reached 2510 on Dec. 8, 2002. He was born on Jan. 5, 1988. So he was 14 years 11 months old when he broke 2500. So Lily is not alone. However, Lily was born in June, 1996, and so was 14 years 9 months old when she broke 2500. So I believe she is the youngest ever to break 2500. And it's also interesting that the youngest to break 2500 is a girl. Go girls' lib!

Others who reached 2500 at a young age since 1994:

  • Han Xiao was born on Dec. 19, 1986, and reached 2501 in May of 2002. So he was 15 years 5 months at the time.
  • Keith Alban was born in Dec. 1983, and reached 2537 in July, 1999, at age 15 years 7 months.
  • Mark Hazinski was born on April 20, 1985, and broke 2500 in February, 2001. (He actually went straight from 2412 to 2652.) So he was 15 years 10 months old at the time. He's the youngest to reach 2550, 2600, and 2650, so Lily now has another target!
  • Justen Yao was born on Jan. 29, 1993, and reached 2536 in Nov. 2008. So he was 15 years 10 months when he reached 2500.
  • Jeff Huang was born in Oct., 1991, and reached 2585 in April, 2008. So he was 16 years 6 months when he reached 2500.
  • Sunny Li was born in July, 1982, and reached 2536 in Nov., 1999, at age 17 years 4 months
  • Another interesting one - Judy Hugh, Adam's sister, reached 2418 at age 14.

Did I miss anyone? I'm debating whether to go through old magazines to find the actual ages for those who reached 2500 at a young age, such as Eric Boggan, Sean O'Neill, Scott & Jim Butler, Dhiren Narotam, and Chi-Sun Chui.

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March 25, 2011

ITTF Seminar in Maryland

We're up to ten confirmed participants (and a number of maybes) in the ITTF Coaching Seminar to be held at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, April 16-17 and 23-24, with a Paralympics session on April 30. (Schedule each day is 9AM-Noon, 1-4PM.) Here is the info flyer, and here is the USATT news item. If you are a player interested in becoming an ITTF coach, or learning how to coach, come join us! There's already a wide range of coaches, including several USATT Regional and State Coaches, and others who are not yet certified. I'm hoping to get 14-16 participants. If interested, please email me.

Straighten the belt, and the rest falls into place.

I bet you have no idea what this headline means or how it pertains to table tennis. Imagine when playing that your body is a belt. If your feet are in the wrong position, or if your grip is off, then it affects everything in between. If your foot positioning and grip are both correct, then like a belt that's been straightened, everything in between falls into place. Isn't that a great analogy? (Let me know if you have a better example than a belt.)

As a coach, I've noticed that the majority of technique problems do come from improper foot positioning or grip problems, although players (and some coaches) often treat the symptoms instead of the root cause. When you fix the root cause - often the two ends, i.e. the foot position and grip - the rest often falls into place. Not always - longtime problems with foot positioning and grip can create bad habits, and they can be hard to break. But getting the two ends right is a great step in that direction, and one of the top priorities with new players so they develop good technique from the start.

Long Pips and Color Rule Revisited

It was interesting yesterday seeing some of the online comments in other forums about my blog on frictionless pips. There were quite a few that attacked me for stuff I didn't write, especially in one particular forum. I wrote a lot of words - 1270 of them - so you'd think people who disagree with what I wrote would argue against the words I wrote, but instead some changed them, and then attacked me for words I didn't write. It's not worth responding to their posts directly since if a person is going to attack me for things I didn't write, they'll attack any response I make in the same way, and it's all very time consuming and tends to get nasty. I'm going to go over a few of the postings, and then at the end I have a question for you. (See the bolded part at the end.)

One wrote that because I was for the color rule back in 1983, I thought Dan Seemiller and Eric Boggan "sucked" - despite the fact that Seemiller was ranked in the top 50 in the world with the two-color rule and was U.S. Men's Champion the very first year they had the rule, and that Eric actually went up in the rankings to his highest world ranking ever (17th) after going to two colors. (His overall ranking went down some over the next few years, but he stayed in the top 40 or so.) It's easy to attack without getting the facts first. If they read the blog, then they could have simply posted the question, "Larry, if you were against the color rule, did you think Dan Seemiller and Eric Boggan sucked?" and I would have emphatically said no. They are arguably the two greatest U.S. players in the sponge era, i.e. the last 50-60 years.

I was accused of thinking that Peter Chen "sucked" just because I'm "somewhat skeptical" of the long-pips blocking style. Players like Chen and Olivier Mader, who play with the long-pips blocking style but with little attack, are very good players - it takes practice and skill to reach their levels - just not athletic ones, as most would probably agree. But that distinction that I wrote about was lost on those who read the blog with an agenda. If someone disagrees with what I wrote about athleticism, fine, but not one person actually made an argument against it. "Somewhat skeptical" does not mean I think those with the long-pips blocking style "sucks." To paraphrase a famous movie quote, I don't think those words mean what they think they mean. (They actually imply that I'm not sure and am open to persuasion - see my question about this at the end.)

Another wrote, "I guess he knows more than Waldner, who thinks FLPs is harmless and shouldn't be banned." And yet nowhere in the blog did I write that frictionless long pips (FLP's) should be banned, only that they were illegal, which is a fact. I really have no firm opinion on them other than that they shouldn't be used if they are illegal, and can only shake my head at someone claiming I wrote something that I absolutely did not write. Plus, of course, it's a silly bait and switch to say I think I know more than Waldner, and then bring up a value judgment that has little to do with actually knowing more than Waldner. (On a related note, does this mean that anyone who disagrees with Waldner on a table tennis subject thinks they know more than Waldner? Waldner also said that he was naturally talented from an early age. Does this mean that those who do not believe in talent are wrong because Waldner disagrees, and they should be refuted sarcastically by saying, "I guess he knows more than Waldner"?)

It was posted that "S-Jan" (an infamous Internet table tennis troll from the past) was "right about me," but it never specified what he was right about. Considering "S-Jan" made zillions of made-up accusations against numerous people during his trolling years in the '90s, it's a rather vague accusation to make. Plus, as I said in the second sentence of the blog, my thinking on long pips has evolved over the years, and so what he wrote in the '90s is somewhat meaningless to the discussion.

And just for the record, that wasn't me in the background in the video of Olivier Mader vs. John Wetzler saying something like, "Olivier's forehand is zero to negative rating and backhand of 1200 with double inverted rubbers." (According to Mader's posting, it was Cory Eider, though I don't really know - but it wasn't me. I was busy watching the player I was coaching, and barely noticed the other match or the discussion going on about Mader.)

On the subject of long pips, one person write, "In order for you to know if a rubber performs completely different from new can only be made if you actually have a new sheet to compare it with." That's simply not true. If a sheet of long pips is frictionless, and you know that it was not frictionless when new due to ITTF regulations, then you know it performs differently than a new sheet.

I could mention other postings, but it's not worth it. Not one person actually refuted the facts and rules I presented about frictionless long pips being a judgment call by the referee. Some really believe that an experienced referee, coach, or player can't tell whether it's frictionless, which of course they can - though, as I noted in my blog, you can only tell if it's not borderline. It's a judgment call, like many other calls a referee has to make.

It's the price of public blogging; there will always be people with an agenda twisting your words.

Now here's a serious question. Yesterday I wrote, "I'm somewhat skeptical of the pure long-pips blocking style, especially when a player basically covers the entire table by just reaching out and blocking everything back dead with long pips without sponge. In my opinion, it simply isn't very athletic, and table tennis is a sport."

As I wrote, I'm somewhat skeptical about this style because of its lack of athleticism, and from the very strong returns that can be made by passive blocking. Keeping in mind that I also wrote, "But it's legal, and as players and coaches, it's our job to figure out how to play against any legal surface," make your (civil) case as to why I shouldn't be "somewhat skeptical." You have the soapbox, if you so choose.

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March 24, 2011

Frictionless Long pips

As a coach, I've spent a lot of time over the years thinking about long pips, both how to play against and with them, and about whether they should be legal. My thinking on this has evolved over the years. I admit I'm somewhat skeptical of the pure long-pips blocking style, especially when a player basically covers the entire table by just reaching out and blocking everything back dead with long pips without sponge. In my opinion, it simply isn't very athletic, and table tennis is a sport. But it's legal, and as players and coaches, it's our job to figure out how to play against any legal surface. Besides, if you were to ban long pips, you'd essentially lose the chopping style, which is truly athletic and great for spectators. Plus not all long-pips blockers just stand there and block - some play an athletic forehand game, with the long pips often more a weakness than a strength.

Recently there's been a lot of debate about frictionless long pips. The ITTF made a regulation a while back that they are illegal. (Technically, no surface is frictionless, but they are defining frictionless to be under a certain amount of friction.) Some have taken legal long pips and baked them in the sun or treated them in some other way to make them frictionless, and argue that that's okay. It's not.

If a referee judges that the long pips are frictionless, then he knows that they have been treated in some way to make them frictionless. USATT rule 2.4.7 states, "The racket covering shall be used without any physical, chemical or other treatment." So when a player does something (such as letting them bake in the heat) to make his long pips (or antispin) frictionless, or does something similar to an inverted or any other covering, he is cheating.

Some might argue that since others cheat, it's okay for them to cheat. Sorry, two wrongs do not make a right. Only a small percentage of players cheat, and those who choose to do so are cheaters - and most of the time they are cheating against an opponent who is playing by the rules, unlike the cheater. How can a cheater justify that? (A separate argument could be made for cheating in a match if the opponent cheats, such as using illegal serves if the opponent serves illegally and the umpire won't call it, but that's a separate discussion.)

At the Cary Cup this past weekend, at least one high-rated player was using frictionless long pips. You could tell by the near complete spin continuation when he pushed against backspin, returning the spin nearly 100% as topspin, and the nearly 100% return of topspin as backspin when blocking. (Of course, there could be borderline rubbers where it's not clear, but it was pretty clear in this case.) A referee (or player or coach) experienced with frictionless long pips can rub a ball across the pips and tell if they are frictionless - it's a judgment call. And by definition, a referee can make this judgment call. Of course, not all referees will have enough experience with frictionless long pips to make the call. I don't know if the Cary referee could have - I wish I had asked him about it.

The USATT Tournament Guide specifically states that the referee "Is the final authority on interpretation of the rules and regulations as they apply to the tournament." Note the reference to regulations, which would include the ITTF regulation on frictionless long pips. The Tournament Guide also says, "In making decisions that are not fully covered by the rules, the referee should consider in turn: ITTF and USATT rulings, precedent, and the rule's intent." And it's pretty clear that the intent of the frictionless long pips regulation was to ban frictionless long pips. However, as far as I know, nobody complained to the referee at the Cary Cup, and so no official judgment call was made.

I considered complaining to the referee, but didn't want to disrupt the play of the top cadet player I was coaching. If it had been for a bigger match, say for a national title or a team match against another country, I might have reconsidered. Suffice to say I was confident the cadet could win the match, and he did so somewhat easily by playing very smart.

One defense used by players with frictionless long pips is that they are innocent until proven guilty. Sorry, that's not true; this is not a court of law. If you are using frictionless pips, you are guilty, period. You just haven't been caught yet. Those of us who can recognize frictionless long pips know these players are cheating, just as some of us can normally tell when an inverted player uses illegal speed glue by the sound. (Many modern sponges have the speed glue effect built in, so speed gluing has little advantage now - but those who do so are cheating just as much as those who use chemicals to increase the surface friction of inverted, use frictionless long pips, or who knowingly serve illegally, etc. But that too is a subject for another discussion.)

Now a little history - if that bores you, slowly back away from your computer screen. I'm sure there's a football game on TV. The color rule was passed in 1983, requiring different colors on the racket so players could see which side of the racket the ball was hit. I was one of the instigators for that - like most others, I thought it blatantly wrong that a player could use two very different surfaces that looked the same, but get two very different shots with the same stroke. For several years it led to very poor rallies as the game became a game of almost pure deception, with players making seemingly simple mistakes over and over, and twiddling the racket became the pre-eminent skill. It wasn't just choppers that caused anarchy with this; most attackers found that to survive in the suddenly ultra-deceptive table tennis universe, they had to use some a combination racket as well, and huge numbers went to long pips or anti on the backhand, which they used to set up their forehands. They could do any "spin" serve, and the opponent had to figure out whether it was spinny side (inverted) or dead side (long pips or anti). Similarly, they could flip the racket in rallies, and opponents would make error after error. I did a survey back then and found that over 70% of the players in the 100+ entry monthly tournaments I was running had gone to combination rackets, with over half using long pips or antispin. Think about that! Many of the other 30% were considering it, and nearly all were frustrated at what was happening to the sport - including most of the new combination racket users.

Here's a poem I wrote that was published in USATT's magazine that year, before the color rule was passed:

Little Jack Ding Dong,
Was rotten at ping-pong,
And he could not figure why;
So he bought some weird rubber,
And beat a top player,
And said, "What a good player am I!"

And then the color rule was passed, and life was good again. I vowed I would never complain about an opponent's legal racket surface again. I'm advanced enough that if I can't beat someone when I know what side they are hitting with, then it's my own fault. I've stuck to that, and expect my students to do so as well.

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March 23, 2011

Fifth-Ball Attack

On the forum today, someone posted questions about the fifth-ball attack, and why players tend to miss the fifth ball when the third ball is against backspin. Specifically, he wrote, "I've noticed that the 5th ball is missed quite often when the 3rd ball attack is against under spin."

Some quick definitions:

  • Third-ball attack means the server serves, the opponent receives, and the server attacks.
  • Fifth-ball attack means the server serves, the opponent receives, the server attacks with the intent of setting up a ball to put away, the receiver returns the attack, usually with a block, and the server attacks again, often trying to end the point.

The most basic third-ball attack is when the server serves backspin (usually short, at least at the higher levels so opponent can't loop it), the opponent pushes it back long, and the server loops, often looking to end the point on that shot. The most basic fifth-ball attack is when the server serves backspin (again, mostly short), the opponent pushes it back long, the server loops, the opponent blocks, and the server either smashes or loop kills.

The main difference between the third- and fifth-ball attack here is the back shoulder. (I wrote about proper use of the back shoulder in a previous article.) When looping the backspin, the back shoulder drops; when smashing or looping the fifth ball block, the shoulder stays up. (It may drop slightly if looping against a block, but the key phrase is slightly.)

After lowering their back shoulder to lift the backspin, it's common for players to inadvertently lower their shoulder again for the next shot, leading to shots that go long. Plus the fifth ball (often a quick block) comes out faster than the third ball (usually a much slower push), and so the player is rushed, and a rushed shot against a quick incoming ball often goes long. (It rarely goes into the net since a player's first instinct is to hit over the net. When rushed, even dead blocks are often lifted too much and sent sailing off the end.)

The poster also wrote, "One coach I read said that you never attack hard against the 5th ball under these conditions (3rd ball was against under spin), that you must hit a controlled offensive shot and that the 5th ball is all about placement." While I understand the thinking behind this - placement is a priority, and consistency is almost always more important than creaming the ball (with creaming the ball consistently being high in the list of things top players learn to do), I would argue that it is the third ball that should be the "controlled offensive shot" to set up the fifth ball. That's the whole purpose of the third-ball loop in a fifth-ball attack. While the server often does get weak pushes on the third ball that he can loop away for a winner, more often he should focus on placement, depth, and spin to set up a weak return that he can put away on the fifth ball. (But note that placement is key to put-away shots - many players can return power shots if they go right where they are ready, usually the middle forehand or backhand areas, or too-obvious crosscourt shots. Put-away shots should go to wide angles or to the opponent's elbow, and down-the-line put-aways are often nearly unreturnable.)

This doesn't mean the server should always try to rip the ball on the fifth ball; only that the purpose of the third ball loop is to set up a shot that he can rip, and that if he does get a ball he can rip, he should (you guessed it) rip it, i.e. smash or loop kill. If he doesn't get a ball he can put away, then he should do another "controlled offensive shot" to set up the next ball, i.e. the seventh ball.

Addendum, added later: As pointed out by Han Xiao on Facebook, if a player goes for a putaway on the third ball - as many do, especially Chinese-trained loopers - then, if it comes back, it comes back so quickly that you should take a step back and loop the next ball for control. It really all comes down to playing style and situation.

Lottery

Just for the record, none of the five Mega Millions lottery tickets I bought in Virginia on the way back from the Cary Cup on Sunday were winners. So the planned National Training Center, Nationwide Table Tennis League, and the hiring of the entire National Chinese Team as practice partners for the USA Junior & Cadet Teams are all cancelled due to this unexpected lack of funding. The sport of table tennis has suffered a great loss.

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March 22, 2011

Heavy Backspin Serves

When I give serve lectures at our clinics, I often demonstrate heavy backspin by serving with an extremely open racket - so open that it actually is aiming backwards, and you contact bottom front of the ball - and serve so the ball jumps back into the net. (It's more easily done with a high toss.) Here's a pair of great videos at TableTennisMaster that demo this - first Chinese star Ma Lin (shirtless) demonstrating the serve (1:18), and then a more detailed demo that shows how it is done (2:10). They call them "ghost serves." 

If you can serve heavy backspin serves and keep them very low and short (i.e. so they'd bounce twice if given the chance), they are almost unattackable. (A key word here is low.) Almost everyone pushes them back. At the higher levels, many players will drop them short. To combat this, and to get some easy balls, learn to both serve heavy backspin and "heavy no-spin," i.e. use the same motion as if serving heavy backspin but contact the ball toward the handle (where it's not moving as fast as the tip, where you contact for heavy spin), and so you get a nearly no-spin ball. Watch your opponents pop them up!

Peter Li Interview

Here's a great interview with Peter Li (and a short one with Marcus Jackson) at the Cary Cup Open. Also shown: the ending of game five where Peter Li defeats Paulo Rocha in the quarterfinals. (6:14)

Pictures from the Cary Cup

Here's a nice photo album. Too bad the pictures aren't captioned. The little kid shown numerous times is Derek Nie, who is about 4' tall and is rated about 1900. (He's from my club, MDTTC.)

Article & Photos of 1979 U.S. Men's Champion Attila Malek

I remember when he first came to the U.S. and started beating nearly everyone, and then pulled off the upset over Dan Seemiller in the final of Men's Singles at the USA Nationals. He was one of the first players in the U.S. who could play a two-winged looping game. Here's a nice article on him from the Orange Country Register, and a series of 13 accompanying photos.

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March 21, 2011

2011 Butterfly Cary Cup

Part 1: Getting there - Thursday, March 17

Tim Boggan had been staying at my house for two weeks as I did the layouts and photo work on History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. 11, so we went down together on Thursday, March 17. He was doing the coverage while I was playing only in the hardbat event, coaching the rest of the way. The drive down was uneventful other than the usual extravagantly expensive Tim kept treating me to (as he had for two weeks). I could eat for a week on what he paid for one of our meals. I spent Thursday night in Tim's hotel room.

Part 2: Hardbat - Friday, March 18

This was held on Friday, from 10AM to 4PM. I was the defending champion, so all the pressure was on me, right? Ah well, us champions have to get used to it. :) In my round robin, I had a tough match with Chris OBrian (no apostrophe in his name) and his big forehand smash, and he led much of each game, but I ran them both out near the end. (All hardbat matches were best of three to 21, using 38mm balls.) Jim McQueen was also a surprisingly tough match with his touch and backhand pick-hitting, but I adjusted and pulled away near the end of each game.

In the final four-person RR, I had to play Chris again. Down 6-11 in the first, I jokingly (or was it?) complained about the five edge balls and one net dribbler he'd already scored with! I'm not making that up. At one point he won three straight points on edges. Most of them were because he was playing everything to the wide corners, trying to get away from my forehand, so he was also missing balls off the side. He ended up winning that game, but I won the next two. The only thing worse than an opponent getting nets & edges is an opponent getting nets & edges who is also playing well! Chris has a nice forehand, and his angled backhands were also effective, even when they weren't clipping the edge.

The next match was Steve Hitchner. He attacked my serve and followed up his serve with aggressive backhands to wide angles, putting pressure on my forehand-oriented game. For 1.5 games, I still won somewhat easily. Then I just ran out of steam - he'd run me to death, a smart tactic. I had trouble running down his shots, and started chopping more, and next thing I know I'm practically dying. I led 20-18. He deuced it. I went up 21-20. Then he ran me around, I put a ball up - but he missed it, so I survived.

Before the final against Chu Bin Hai, I took a 15-minute break. Chu is an elderly pips-out penholder rated 2243 from Florida. He'd forgotten to bring shorts, and so was playing in jeans. (He'd get shorts for the next day.) Since he's used to pips, and since he'd steamrolled everyone he'd played so far with ease, the feeling was he was a big favorite - especially after he won the first, I think 21-15.

I was attacking every serve with my forehand, and following every serve with a forehand. I continued this, but started angling even wider into his backhand. He had a very efficient forehand and a steady backhand block, so I wanted to keep him blocking. I almost died running around hitting, and did throw in some chopping (usually ending the point by suddenly smashing one of his drives), and managed to win the match by scores of (I think) -15, 17, 15.

Here are the extremely heavy trophies I won for winning Hardbat Singles at the 2010 and 2011 Cary Cup Opens. Plus $500!!!

The Cary Cup's been good to me the last two years - two hardbat titles, two huge trophies, and $500, a nice supplement to my coaching work. The down side - I came out hobbling about on an aching right knee, right leg, upper back, and right shoulder.

That night I moved in with Tong Tong, his dad Chaoying, and Greg Mascialino, another top junior from Maryland.

Part 3: Tong Tong Gong - Saturday, March 19

My major task at the Cary Cup was to coach Tong Tong Gong, a player I've been working with for a year and a half or so. He's 13, rated 2256, and a member of the U.S. National Cadet team. Unfortunately, I can't really talk about the tactics - his opponents might be reading this! - but I can give the gist of it. I knew most of players, and was able to watch all of them play before Tong Tong faced them, so was able to come up with pretty good tactics. More importantly, Tong Tong knew how to follow the tactics, and was able to adjust as needed as the opponent adjusted.

He beat a 2144 player 3-0 to get into the "A" Division, where he was put in a group of nine players, so eight matches. First, his losses: to Gao YanJun (2609), Zheng Jiaqi (2527), Paulo Rocha (2474), and Raghu Nadmichettu (2368). Gao was simply too strong. He almost got a game off Zheng, but challenged that surprisingly good backhand loop of hers too much and lost 3-0. He got a game off often-practice partner Raghu. The interesting loss was to Paulo. Tong Tong went up 2-1 in games, and made it to 9-all in the fourth, 8-9 in the fifth before losing 11-8 in the fifth. It was a disappointing loss as he thought he had the shots to win in the fourth game, but couldn't pull them off. There were some spectacular rallies, and Tong Tong pulled off some backhand kills that brought back memories of Jim Butler. What made this even more interesting is that in his next match, Paulo upset Gao, and he would later be up 2-0 on top-seeded Peter Li (2646) in the quarterfinals before losing a close five-gamer.

Now to his wins. Tong Tong defeated Cory Eider (2341), John Wetzler (2299), Olivier Mader (2239), and Brenda Mun (2085, but after defeating Wetzler and Thor Truelson - rated 2274 - she'll probably be adjusted upwards. Tong Tong had upset Wetzler at the Teams in Baltimore, and showed that he still knows how to play him with his attacking forehand and long-pips backhand - though of course next time out Wetzler will be after him again. The two really interesting matches were against Mader and Eider. Mader is a pure long-pipped blocker with seemingly frictionless long pips. Normally he eats up junior players with their lack of experience, but Tong Tong is apparently wise beyond his years in the ways of long pips and won easily, I believe 7,4,7. Against Eider, he won the first, lost the next two badly, and was rather dispirited. I gave him a pep talk, got him to jump up and down a few times to get his feet going, and (helped by a few nets/edges in game four), won the next two games somewhat easily by the scores, though every point was a struggle.

So Tong Tong finished 4-4, in fifth place. The top four advanced, and so he missed it by one spot. He spent the rest of the day lamenting that match with Paulo, and on the way home we made up humorous revenge stories for the next they faced each other. One of them ended with the zombie of Tong Tong defeating the ghost of Paulo where they used a flaming ping-pong ball. Don't ask.

I wrote a paragraph here on what Tong Tong's improved on, but his rivals might be reading this. (Shhh!) Suffice to say he's returning serves better, his backhand is becoming lethal, and he has more power on the forehand. He still has trouble with [deleted] and [deleted], so any opponent that [deleted] will easily defeat him. :)

Part 4: Car incident - Saturday afternoon, March 19

I had a bunch of heavy stuff in my playing bag, and couldn't find Tong Tong's dad. But when I went outside, I saw that the car window was partially down, and I could reach in and unlock the door to put the stuff inside so I didn't have to carry it around. Unfortunately, it set off the car alarm, which was VERY LOUD. As numerous people stared and complained, I raced about, trying to find Tong Tong's dad Chaoying, since he had the key. During my rushing about, I hurt my left knee, which gave me matching aching knees. Fortunately, Dick Evans (one of the umpires) came by, and somehow was able to turn it off with his key. I was ribbed for being a "car thief" by a number of players. My knee still hurts.

Part 5: The Open - Sunday, March 20

I watched some of the matches, but didn't take notes. Lots of us Marylanders were at the tournament, including top-seeded Peter Li (2646), Champion Jeffrey Zeng Xu (2583), Han Xiao (2522), Marcus Jackson (2418), and about 25 others.

Here are the basic results, from memory - let me know if I got any of it wrong.

  • Final: Jeffrey Zeng Xun (2583) d. Gao YanJun (2609), 3-1.
  • SF: Zeng d. Peter Li (2646), 3-1.
  • SF: Gao d. Barney J. Reed (2574), deuce (or was it 11-9?) in the fifth.
  • QF: Zeng d. Marcus Jackson (2408), 3-2.
  • QF: Gao d. Michael Landers (2518), 3-0.
  • QF: Li d. Paulo Rocha (2474), 3-2.
  • QF: Reed d. Fernando Yamazato (2554), 3-0.

Part 6: Returning home - Sunday afternoon, March 20

And then we played travel bingo and told Paulo revenge stories all the way home. (Actually, Paulo's a very nice guy and cool and reserved during matches, but Tong Tong REALLY wanted that match!)

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March 18, 2011

Tournament Morning

This morning I'm playing in the Cary Cup. Though I'm "only" playing in hardbat (the rest of the way "just" coaching), I still have to prepare. What does that mean?

  1. Get up early. I don't want to feel rushed.
  2. Some easy jogging and stretching. I don't want to feel stiff.
  3. A good breakfast of waffles. Because I want waffles.
  4. Get to the playing site early. I don't want to feel rushed.
  5. Some more easy jogging and stretching. Yada yada yada on the stiffness thing.
  6. Check out draws. Duh.
  7. Find someone to warm up with. I usually arrange someone to meet with the day before, but didn't have anyone this time. Hopefully I'll find someone.
  8. For hardbat, I want to warm up the forehand, backhand, backhand chop, and serve. For sponge, the forehand, backhand, forehand loop, backhand loop against underspin, push, and serve. In both cases, play out points at the end.
  9. Stop warmup about ten minutes before match time so I can rest.
  10. Wait for match time, and then play.

Maybe this is a good time to mention my pre-match ritual, done after the two-minute warmup with my opponent, and after hiding the ball (or flipping coin) to see who serves. Everyone should have one; here's mine.

I take a few steps back from the table, toward the left so I can approach the table from the backhand side, i.e. in forehand position. I do a deep knee bend to loosen up the knees. (Careful, don't want to hurt the knees!) I stand up and do a quick foot shuffle to wake up the legs. I tell my opponent good luck. Since I always give away the serve at the start of the match (maybe I'll write about this next week), it's almost always my opponent's serve, so I hold up my left arm and approach the table, and go into my ready position. Then I lower my arm to signal that I'm ready, and we're off! (If it's my serve, it just means I don't have to hold up my left hand, and instead go to my serving ready stance.)

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