June 6, 2018

Waldner 2018
Many, perhaps most, consider Jan-Ove Waldner the greatest player of all time. I've never played him, but I've met and talked to him many times, even had lunch with him and other top Swedes when I interviewed them for an article. What would happen if he were in his prime today?

There's no way of making a perfect comparison. For one thing, Waldner played nearly his entire career with a 38mm ball, while we now use 40mm. Equipment has also gotten better. (Hidden serves are now "illegal," but it isn't really enforced, so that part won't affect him. Games to 11 instead of 21 won't make much of a difference.) So how would he do? Keep in mind that nearly always the next generation is "better" than the previous generation, with better techniques, better training, and better equipment. Only a true phenom like Waldner could hope to compete with players a couple generations later. (Of course, if Waldner were to have developed in modern times, he'd have access to these better techniques, training, and equipment, but we're going to look at him as he actually was, not as he might have been.) 

First, note that "greatest" is not the same as "best." Victor Barna is one of the greatest players of all time - he won Men's Singles at the Worlds five times. But I'm pretty sure that if I could go back in time when I was at my peak and play him when he was at his peak, using the rules at the time, I'd beat him easily, since I'll using Tenergy and throwing loops and serves at him that he's never seen before, and he'll be stuck with a hardbat. Similarly, the best modern swimmers are all faster than Mark Spitz, but he won seven gold medals at one Olympics, setting a world record in each of them. The best modern swimmers are better than Spitz, but Spitz was greater than all of the ones not named Phelps or Ledecky.

Getting back to Waldner, I think Ma Long has a better game than Waldner. He simply has too much firepower. But there's a catch - that's only after he's played Waldner at least once, perhaps more. Players who have played Waldner pretty much all report the same thing about, how uncomfortable it is to play him with all his misdirection, change of pace, and variety. These days nearly all coaches turn players into mini-Ma Longs or something close, and so the things that Waldner did to make players uncomfortable is mostly a lost art. It's not a matter of a player suddenly deciding he's going to try to change the pace or use misdirection; he'd have to have done it since he was a kid, while developing, so it's natural and instinctive, as it was with Waldner. Then you use these techniques as just another part of your game, to be used at the appropriate time, while focusing on the modern all-out two-winged looping game. 

Keep in mind that as good as Ma Long is, none of his shots are that much better than Waldner. He has a slightly better forehand, slightly better backhand, slightly faster footwork, and with his banana flip, is better at attacking short serves with his backhand. (In fact, that's probably the shot where he's most ahead of Waldner.) But Waldner had a masterful forehand - not quite as powerful as Ma Long, but dominant because of placement and consistency. Ma Long also has a better backhand attack from close to the table, but Waldner mostly (not completely) offsets that with his more all-around skills - he can loop, hit, or block, and his blocking is far better and among the best ever. Shot for shot, Ma Long seems to have an edge in almost any type of rally, though Waldner had more dominant serves, among the best of all time. 

So what is my conclusion? If Waldner were to suddenly show up in his prime, and ignoring the nitty details about the different ball size, etc., I think he'd cause havoc at first. Keep in mind that Timo Boll is 37 and still one of the five best players in the world - and he was never as good as Waldner at his best. In his first outings with Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, Waldner would give them great difficulty as they adjust to a game they haven't really seen, while Waldner will be a bit more comfortable against their styles. I'm not sure who would win at first, but I think it would be close at the start. But after they've played a few times, Ma Long's overall game would prevail, and Waldner would drop down a few spots in the rankings - my guess is he'd be #3, after Ma Long and Fan Zhendong, and he'd battle with them as well or slightly better than Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov. 

But the repercussions of Waldner showing up now in his prime? Suddenly the things he does that few others do would once again be on display. Players would see how effective it is to have misdirection, change of pace, and variety, and want to add those aspects to their games. And coaches would have a pretext to teach this part of the game early on, where before they felt compelled to teach only the "modern" game of relentless attack. Perhaps rather than attacking ten balls it would be better to throw something different 10-20% of the time, and catch the opponent off guard as Waldner did so well?

Of course, one problem is that most of the stuff Waldner does that I'm talking about was self-taught, so it's more important for a coach to encourage and guide it while the player experiments and finds out what works and when. You don't just throw a change-of-pace or misdirection shot at an opponent who is in position and ready for it - you do it when it will catch him off guard and set up a follow-up shot.

The key point is that the modern game is more advanced than what players did in the past, but that we've gotten so much into turning players into clones of the current best that we ignore aspects of the game that, if developed, would enhance their games.

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