How often have you given up on a ball that your opponent is about to smash or loop-kill? And how many times have you gotten your racket on the ball against an opponent’s smash or hard-hit ball, only to put it off the end, further re-enforcing the futility of trying to win such points? It happens all the time. And it’s a crime.
Some will no doubt argue they don’t have the fast reflexes of a pro to return smashes. That’s a myth. You have fast enough reflexes, just not the proper reactions. A pro doesn’t see an incoming smash and react with incredible reflexes; he sees an opponent’s forward swing coming toward the ball, and reacts well before contact to where he sees the ball must be going. It’s that big head start he gets that makes him seem to have supernatural reflexes. He’s both moving into position and setting up for his return before the opponent even hits the ball. How do you learn to do this? By observing opponents and trying to read where their shots will go from their forward swing. If you do this regularly, it becomes a natural habit, and you’ll start reacting faster and faster. Most top players are barely aware of doing this since they’ve been doing it for so long, often since they were little kids, and so it’s all subconscious reactions.
But once you’ve reacted to the ball, you still have to return it. Here’s something you should live by when facing a smash or loop-kill: If you can get your racket on the ball, you should get it back. Unlike a loop, a smash doesn’t have much spin, and so the racket angle needed for returning a smash is easy to anticipate. All you have to do is practice getting the right angle, and lo and behold, if you touch it, it’ll go back. The same is actually true against a loop-kill as well – the racket angle needed to return one is almost the same for all, so once you get that angle, you can return them. (It’s often the topspin jump off the table that gives many players first against a strong loop.)
How do you practice all of this? That sort of answers itself; you practice it by having an opponent practice his smash (or loop-kill) while you block, counter, or fish. (No lobbing for this exercise.) At first have them go to one spot so you can practice getting the right racket angle until it’s second nature. Then have them move the smash about, and you watch their swing and try to see where their smash is going. Keep your shots deep; if you put the ball high and short, you have little time to react and they’ll have extreme angles. Soon you’ll be returning these “put-aways” like a pro – at least some of the time.