Larry Hodges's blog

April 11, 2011

Control the receive

I was watching some beginning/intermediate players in a tournament yesterday and noticed a huge number of points decided by the receive. Either the receiver was way too aggressive (and so made mistake after mistake) or was way too passive (and kept pushing topspin and sidespin serves off the end or side). While it's usually best to learn to play aggressive, receive is all about control, about consistently taking the initiative away from the server. If you can force a neutral rally on the opponent's serve and win half the points, you should win the match when you serve.

How do you control the serve? At the beginning/intermediate level you should focus on one thing only: is the serve backspin or not backspin? If the serve has backspin (including sidespin backspin), then you mostly push it back, though you can also loop it. If it's not backspin (i.e. sidespin or topspin serves), then you use your regular topspin shots, i.e. backhand and forehand drives (or perhaps loops, if you can do that). No-spin serves you can handle either way.

At higher levels you might want to do more with the receive, but ultimately it's all about control, whether you are quick-pushing to an angle, dropping it short, flipping, or looping.

Baltimore Orioles and Ping-Pong

The secret to the Orioles hot start this season? Obviously it's ping-pong!

"Mr. Control Freak Manager [Buck Showalter] allowed a ping-pong table to be placed near one end. The players engage in spirited competitions before games. The coaches dress in their own locker room. Jones says that Showalter rarely is seen."

How Reisman and Satoh Went Batty
[This is just something I wrote this weekend and thought it was, well, at least mildly funny. Satoh was the player who introduced sponge table tennis to the world (which led to inverted sponge) by winning the 1952 World Championships with it, while the charismatic Reisman, whom Satoh beat in the semifinals - he was the only one to even get a game off him - is notorious for pushing hardbat (and recently sandpaper) table tennis.]

As children, Marty Reisman and Hiroje Satoh went to the zoo together. They had a
ball together as they toured the lion compound, the elephant yard, the monkey
house, and saw many other animals. Then they came upon the bat house.

"I like that one!" Satoh said, pointing at a bat hanging upside-down from the
roof.

"I like that one!" Reisman said, pointing at a dead bat lying on the ground.

Satoh nudged the dead bat with his foot. "It's stiff."

"I don't care," Reisman said. "I want it."

So Reisman grabbed the hard bat and Satoh the inverted bat, and the table tennis
world was changed forever.

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April 8, 2011

Stroking Coaches

Imagine going to a nice steakhouse and ordering the finest steak. They bring it, and that's all there is - just the steak. No potato or other vegetable on the side. No salad. No bread. Not even a drink. A coach who only works on strokes is like a steakhouse that only serves steaks.

Now some players only want to work on strokes. They are fun to do and great exercise. And beginners should focus on them. But a coach who only works on strokes is like that rather limited steakhouse. Coaches also need to work on footwork, serve, receive, tactics, strategic development, the mental game, physical training, equipment choice, even nutrition.

On the other hand, did you ask for anything on the side at that steakhouse? Maybe it's available upon request. Similarly, if you have a coach who seems mostly focused on just strokes, try asking about other things. Maybe it's available upon request. Of course the coach should be offering these things on his own, just as the steakhouse should, but as players and diners you should do what it takes to bring out the best in your game and meal.

Ping-Pong Interior Decorating

For the table tennis diehards out there, why not decorate your house in ping-pong balls, like this?

Top Ten Ways to Increase Your Rating
(I'm going to make a Friday Top Ten List a regular thing.)

  1. Bribery and blackmail are tried and true winners here.  
  2. Coaching and practice. Sure, it sounds silly and old fashioned, but some people are into this type of thing.
  3. Memorize the USATT rating chart. Then for every match, calculate whether the odds favor you. For example, if your opponent is rated 113 to 137 points higher than you, you'll gain 25 points if you win, but lose 3 if you lose. Is he a 25-3 favorite or more? If so, run away!!!
  4. If memorizing the USATT rating chart and calculating odds is too hard for you, take the simple route. Default every match unless the opponent is rated at least 238 points higher.
  5. Cheat.
  6. The ratings in the USATT system slowly inflate. For example, when Eric Boggan won men's singles at the 1978 Nationals, he came out rated 2449 - and that made him the #2 player in the country, with only three players rated over 2400. Now there are about 80. So go to sleep in a time capsule and wake up in about 30 years, and watch your rating skyrocket.
  7. Hire a top player from China and have him legally change his name to yours.
  8. Hire a beginner and have him legally change his name to the name of your high-rated opponent.
  9. Switch to binary. You may be rated only 1000, but in binary that's 1111101000. Or, if you want it to look more legit, try base eight. Now that 1000 rating becomes 1750 - congrats! (Here's a base number converter for you.)
  10. Hack into the USATT computer. Sure, it's guarded by the best security that the CIA can provide - don't want Al-Qaeda breaking in and destroying this centerpiece of American supremacy - but any 12-year-old with a computer should be able to do it.

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April 7, 2011

Coaching and Hardbat and Sandpaper, Oh My!

For those who are distracted by various wars and government shutdowns, the U.S. Open entry form is out. It's in Milwaukee, June 30 - July 4. Here's info on it:

2011 US Open: usopenmilwaukee.com | Entry forms: Online | Domestic | International

Now's the time to go over the schedule in painstaking detail, calculating which events to enter to maximize the sense of grandiose accomplishment after you devastate the field in your chosen events.

For me, it's a headache trying to work out conflicts. I'll be there primarily as a coach - the father of a cadet player I'm coaching is paying my way. But I also like to win National Titles. While I'm basically retired from tournaments as a sponge player (that's how I normally play and coach), I've won a lot of national hardbat titles at the U.S. Open and Nationals, including Hardbat Singles (twice), Hardbat Doubles (10 times), and Over 40 Hardbat (4 times). Now I have to figure out which of these events (plus two sandpaper events? Over 50 Hardbat?) I can enter without conflicting with my coaching schedule. I may have to go back to college and get a degree in rocket science because that's what it's going to take to work it out.

My long-time Hardbat Doubles partner Ty Hoff - we've won six times, including at the last Nationals - said we can go ahead and enter and, if there's a major conflict, such as matches during the Cadet Singles event, we can drop out. That'll be a hard decision, but that's the most important event for the cadet I'm primarily coaching.

Watch the serves and receives of these great matches!

Wanna build a Table Tennis Clock?

Then build a Table Tennis Clock. Here's how.

On a completely non-table tennis note

Nine years ago I replaced the ceiling incandescent light in my office with a light with two roughly four-foot long fluorescent tube light bulbs. Since that time I've kept it on nearly continuously, sort of as a night light. Even when I'm away I leave it on for my dog. And nine years later, the same two fluorescent light bulbs are still running! Don't they ever run out? Or is this some supernatural thing?

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April 6, 2011

Rotating around the pole for fast forehand recovery

Yesterday I was coaching someone who had a pretty good forehand, but was often awkward in making two strong ones in a row. The problem was he tended to move his whole body forward into the shot, with his weight slightly off-center, and so to recover had to move his whole body back. It's a double-whammy because before he can even begin to move back he had to get his weight centered again. This is a common problem.

If you watch top players who seem to have the ability to hit repeated forehands (loops or smashes) with incredible rapidity - like a machine gun - you'll see that they don't move that much forward on these shots, if at all. Instead, they rotate their bodies around, as if there were a pole coming out of their heads that they spun about. When they finished their shot, they were in the same position, with weight centered, just rotated around. And since they were so well balanced and in position, they were immediately ready for the next shot. The result is a barrage of forehands that can be done incredibly quickly. It's also more efficient and thereby easier to control since you aren't throwing your body weight around so much.

Imagine that pole sticking out of your head, and hit or loop your forehands while going around it. Watch how fast you recover and how much better balanced you are. The next time someone quick-blocks back your forehand attack, you'll be ready for a second shot, and a third, fourth, etc.

The Backhand Loop

When I started out, only a few players really had backhand loops, and they were mostly top players. Players under 2000 who could backhand loop were rare. Even world-class players mostly used it only against backspin. It was considered too "advanced" for most players. Now just about anyone who can hold a racket is taught to backhand loop almost from the start, and many intermediate players can backhand loop over and over in a rally. The paradigm changed - now it's considered a necessary part of many players' games. Have you developed a backhand loop? Go to it!

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April 5, 2011

Fan and Peter-Paul Serves at the North American Championships

I though the most interesting thing to watch at the North American Championships were the top players' serves, especially USA's Fan Yiyong and Canada's Pradeeban Peter-Paul.

Fan has an extremely heavy and low backspin serve, which are far spinier than it looks. However, he was having trouble controlling his forehand pendulum serve. The second bounce, given the chance, is supposed to be near the endline, making it hard to loop or drop short. It seemed to be going too long, allowing opponents to loop. In many of his matches he switched to a backhand serve, often short to the forehand, with either backspin or no-spin. The no-spin serve especially seemed to give opponents trouble as they kept putting it slightly up or long, and Fan would jump all over them.

In one match against Peter-Paul in the semifinals of Men's Singles, Fan led 2-1 in games and was up 10-5. Serving at 10-9, Fan called a timeout and spoke with USA coach Yang "Alex" Shigang. Then he served the simple backhand serve short to Peter-Paul's forehand, the return went up slightly, and Fan ripped the winner. Fan turned to Alex and gave him a thumbs up.

Peter-Paul struck back. Down 2-3 in games and down 8-10 double match point, he served fast and spinny down the line, and Fan missed the loop. Down 9-10, Peter-Paul served deep again, this time to the backhand. Fan missed a backhand loop. Up 11-10, Peter-Paul served long to the backhand again, and Fan missed again. Game to Peter-Paul, match is tied up 3-3, and Peter-Paul won the seventh to complete the comeback. (Fan had defeated him earlier in the Men's Team final, the only USA win in their 3-1 loss.) I sometimes think that international players like these two miss off deep serves more than many lower-rated players because they know that if they don't really attack the serve hard, the opponent is going to counterloop a winner. And so under pressure to loop the serve very hard, Fan missed.

Later I asked him about the serves, and mentioned that I was coaching a top cadet who didn't mix his serves up that much. Peter-Paul stressed that mixing the serves up is key - but that should be obvious, right? Not to a lot of players who don't always approach serving with the idea that it's a weapon that can score points directly, either from misses or easy pop-ups. You should develop serves that consistently allow you to attack, but also develop serves that can win points outright. Then mix them in, and watch the opponent flounder.

Another interesting serve many should watch was the forehand reverse pendulum serve of Ariel Hsing. It looks like a regular forehand serve until the last second, and then she snaps the racket the opposite way, and often drops the ball short to the forehand, breaking away from the receiver with tremendous sidespin. Players had fits with it, and over and over set her up for third-ball attacks, both forehand and backhand.

One serve-related item: against short backspin serves, it seems most of the top players are mixing up short receive and quick, angled pushes. Not as many were flipping off short backspin serves. When they did flip these serves, opponents seemed very good at looping them back, putting the flipper on the defensive. When players did flip, they either did so very aggressively to the forehand, or quick, deceptive ones to the backhand. So most flips were done not against short backspin serves, but against short receives against their own backspin serves. (Against sidespin serves, flipping was more the norm, since you generally don't want to push them.)

Choe! Vs. Caw!

At the North American Championships, in the cadet (under 15) events, most of the USA players yelled "Choe!" when they won points. The Canadian's mostly yelled "Caw!" I have no idea where either of these come from, though I vaguely recall it was the Koreans who first introduced "Choe!" When the Canadians scored, they sounded like crows. Why do they make these screams? It's psychological in that it keeps them pumped up, as well as perhaps wearing down an opponent mentally.

Tampa Bay players play table tennis

Here's a video of the Tampa Bay Rays playing table tennis, featuring Andy Sonnanstine, David Price, and B.J. Upton. Several Rays players said that the hand-eye coordination needed to play table tennis was a perfect way to sharpen the skilled needed for the big leagues. (The bad news for them: it didn't pay off as the Rays started getting swept 3-0 by the Orioles - my team!) Here's an article about the Rays playing table tennis at the St. Pete Beach Community Center (a chapter of the Sunrise Table Tennis Club), playing table tennis champions like Ty Hoff, shown in the video on the left near the end.

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April 4, 2011

North American Championships

I just returned from the North American Championships. Results and articles are here. I don't have time to do a write-up - I got in very late last night, and I'm leaving shortly to coach (yep, the life of a table tennis coach) - so I'll write about one interesting thing.

A number of USA players weren't happy with the way the Stag balls and tables bounced - but they are the official sponsor of the ITTF Junior Circuit, so our cadet and junior players have to get used to them. The Canadians had more training with Stag equipment, and it showed on day one when the Canadians dominated many matches in men's, women's, and junior & cadet events. The USA players gradually adjusted, and by the second day things were back to mostly normal.

A lot of the problems some USA players had were mental. Once it got in their heads that the bounces were different or (according to some) erratic, some had great difficulty in adjusting and focusing. In the future, players need to try and train with the equipment that's going to be used at major tournaments, or come in early to train at the tournament site. I've already told one of our cadet players I work with to order a couple dozen Stag balls for future training.

Recap on the 13-year-old with long pips on both sides who made the Chinese National Team.

A number of people asked about this 13-year-old, and so I've reposted my article from Friday, April 1, with the most important parts in bold that should better explain the technical aspects of this revolutionary change in our sport and the future of this new Chinese superstar who's barely a teenager. Here is the article:

Another generation of top Chinese juniors is upon us, and again there's something new. Fang
Ping-Yi, a 13-year-old with a unique style from the Szechuan Province came out of nowhere
recently to make the Chinese National Team, finishing third at the Trials last week. While most
international stars use inverted, Fang uses grippy long pips on both sides, even the forehand. 
Long pips are normally a defensive surface, since it can't "grab" the ball for topspin attacks, but
Fang overcomes this by using an extremely slow blade, and thick sponge under the long pips.
Ordinarily a slow blade is defensive, but the slowness dramatically increases hang time
on the racket, allowing Fang to hit with power and  topspin with his off-the-bounce smashes.
Lots of us coaches will be watching young Fang to see how he develops.

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April 1, 2011

North American Championships
Are you following the news and results at the ITTF's North American Table Tennis Championships page? It started this morning. By the time you read this my voice will probably already be hoarse from coaching and cheering.

Zhang Jike's forehand reverse serve
This is one of the best demonstrations of the reverse pendulum serve I've ever seen. Read it, study it, use it. Just not against me or anyone I coach.

13-year-old Makes Chinese National Team
Another generation of top Chinese juniors is upon us, and again there's something new. Fang
Ping-Yi, a 13-year-old with a unique style from the Szechuan Province came out of nowhere
recently to make the Chinese National Team, finishing third at the Trials last week. While most
international stars use inverted, Fang uses grippy long pips on both sides, even the forehand. 
Long pips are normally a defensive surface, since it can't "grab" the ball for topspin attacks, but
Fang overcomes this by using an extremely slow blade, and thick sponge under the long pips.
Ordinarily a slow blade is defensive, but the slowness dramatically increases hang time
on the racket, allowing Fang to hit with power and  topspin with his off-the-bounce smashes.
Lots of us coaches will be watching young Fang to see how he develops.

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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