August 20, 2018

Tip of the Week
How to Quadruple Your Chances of Winning Those Five-Game Matches.

Hidden Serves - the Ma Long Serve
I've recently gotten into some discussions about Ma Long's serve. He's the reigning World and Olympic Champion, and while his world ranking has dropped to #7 due to lack of competition (plus his recent loss at the Bulgarian Open to Liam Pitchford), he's still generally considered the best player in the world.

But the simple reality is that he, like many other world-class players, rarely serves legally. Most of his serves are forehand serves where he throws the ball high and towards him, and as it comes down, he thrusts his head forward and down. The ball illegally goes behind his head, and he contacts it behind his chin, so the opponent can't see contact. Then his racket follows the ball, making it appear that he contacts the ball below the head. That's one of the main advantages of this technique. 

But ask yourself this - why would he and so many other top players spend so much time developing such an obviously illegal serve, where they have to bend their body into a pretzel, throw the ball behind their head, and do that vigorous head thrust just before contact, and then let the receiver see contact?

Here's the key rule on hidden serves - I've bolded the key parts.

2.6.4 From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server's end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry.

Here is the video (13:43, with time between points removed) of the Ma Long - Liam Pitchford match. Both players are hiding their serves. (Most top players do, not just Ma Long.) Watch Ma Long's first two serves near the start, and you can see his head thrusts out and down as the ball goes behind it, with contact behind his chin. Immediately after contact the racket continues down, making it seem as if contact might have been below the head. (You can use the space bar to start and stop the video, and use the period and comma keys to move forward or back one frame at a time.)

Here's the still image just before contact. Note how the ball is next to his ear, with his racket directly behind it. Here's the very next frame, where he's contacting the ball. Juggle between the two, and note how his head has dropped down in the second frame to keep contact behind his chin.  Note that in the first frame, the ball has just gotten behind Ma's head. With the ball moving toward Ma, and his head thrusting it out, it continues to even more behind his head. 

I've played and coached against players with Ma Long type serves and know contact wasn't visible - that's the whole point of this behind-the-head serve motion, that it hides the ball until just after the split second of contact, while making it difficult for umpires to know for sure, especially with the racket following the ball downward and forward. I've watched players practice these serves and coaches teaching it to them. Just last year I played a kid who was about 12 but had already perfected the Ma Long serve. I never saw contact. I complained, to no avail. And so I had to return the serves defensively or be erratic, and lost to a much weaker player. The idea that our sport has reached the point where our coaches are teaching such openly illegal serves to 12-year-olds sickens me - and yet it makes perfect sense as we allow this type of cheating in our sport. 

Too many of us are in denial - first saying the serve can't be illegal, then saying, well, maybe it's illegal, but contact is visible, while ignoring both the video evidence and the logic of why players develop such intricate serves designed to hide contact and then supposedly choose to allow the opponent to see contact. We are living in bizarro land. 

There is a legitimate debate over whether an individual umpire should call these serves. They are illegal, but the problem is whether you want one umpire calling them, while the rest are not. This leads to inconsistent umpiring. What should happen is all of these serves are called, and then the players would stop using them. But alas, we are in a situation where few umpires call them, and so players use them, either to gain an advantage or to nullify the opponent's advantage since so many opponents are hiding their serves.

But there is no legitimate debate over whether illegal serving is widespread. We can see it with our eyes. Just watch the video, and those of other elite players. I'm wondering if we are the only Olympic sport that allows such open cheating? And before you object, of course it's cheating, by definition - to "act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage." There is an argument that if both players are doing it, then it is not cheating since neither is doing it to gain an advantage - they are doing it so their opponent doesn't get an advantage. But not all players hide their serves, and so when they do so against an opponent who doesn't, they are cheating. Whoever does it first in a match is also cheating. There's a simple way of looking at this - if both players played by rules unless the other play didn't, then both would play by the rules. Wouldn't that be great?

It's sort of like a 100-meter race at the Olympics where one player steps forward two meters, the race officials allow it, so another follows, and pretty soon nearly all of them have stepped forward those two meters, while arguing that it's not cheating since the others are doing it. But what about the ones who don't, who stay back? And do we really want to turn the 100-meter race into a 98-meter race? But the race officials don't want to be the bad guys who call out the players for breaking the rules, and so they allow the players that two-meter head start, if they choose, and pretend all is fine.

One argument I've often heard is that umpires shouldn't call a hidden serve because it affects the course of the match, especially when it's close. But why should this affect anything? Umpires should call the serve as the rules specify, regardless of how it affects things or the score. (I'm putting aside the "consistency" argument here, for now.) I know this is not always easy, but that's part of the job of being an umpire. I greatly appreciate baseball umpires who take so much flack while trying to do their best, and I similarly respect table tennis umpires who do the same. But again, there is that problem of whether to be the only one calling these illegal serves.

Some argue that if we were "strict" about enforcing the service rule, then we'd be faulting just about every serve. I strongly disagree - just for example, my serves are all legal, and so are many others. (I've never been faulted for serving illegally in my entire career, in hundreds and hundreds of tournaments.) But there's also a distinct difference between the effectiveness of different illegal serves. Comparing the problem of someone doing a five-inch toss instead of six, to a hidden serve is apples and oranges. There's a MUCH bigger advantage to hiding contact than from having a slightly short toss. We need to focus on the illegal serves that have a big impact. That doesn't mean players shouldn't be faulted for more minor serve problems such as a five-inch toss, but that's simply not a big issue, at least at the higher levels. Hidden serves is the elephant in the room.

But why don't more top players complain? Three main reasons. First, many have, but they have long learned that complaining about it is pointless, and so they are forced to simply learn to return these illegal serves, reading the spin from how the ball travels through the air and bounces on the table, which is much more difficult than reading it from contact, and leads to more mistakes or less effective returns. Second, most top players have long ago realized they too have to hide their serves if they don't want to give their opponent an advantage, so most of them hide their own serves, either regularly or semi-regularly, and so it would be hypocritical to complain at this point about the opponent. And third, hidden serves are one of the big dividing lines between top players and almost-top players. The established players are used to hidden serves, the up-and-coming ones less so, and so by allowing hidden serves, top players more easily beat these up-and-comers.

I've also heard some say that if the umpire doesn't call the serve, then the serve is legal. That's nonsense - it's just rationalizing the fact that they got away with breaking the rules, and the serve is still illegal. It's like saying a burglar isn't committing a crime unless he gets caught. However, there is a legitimate argument that it's okay to serve illegally if the umpire doesn't call it (at least at the higher levels), since doing so is widespread among top players and so up-and-coming players have to learn to do this to compete. Many would disagree with this argument. I'm not happy with this situation, but it's an inconvenient truth.

One misconception about all this is that the umpire can't tell if a borderline serve is hidden from where he sits on the side. But the call shouldn't be whether the serve is hidden or not - the call would be from the following rules:

2.6.6 It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect. If either the umpire or the assistant umpire is not sure about the legality of a service he or she may, on the first occasion in a match, interrupt play and warn the server; but any subsequent service by that player or his or her doubles partner which is not clearly legal shall be considered incorrect.

So, by definition, if the umpire can't tell that the serve is legal (i.e. not hidden), then the serve is illegal. And yes, it's easy to do a forehand serve where the umpire can see this - it's how I serve, as well as Samsonov and others. But few umpires apply this rule, and instead go by the dictum that if they aren't sure the serve is hidden, then they don't call it. And so players have learned to serve so contact is hidden, but not so blatantly that the umpire will call it. The part that's harder to figure out is why they don't call a serve that goes behind the head, which is so blatantly illegal - the ball must be visible to the receiver from the time it leaves the serving hand. But that's usually rationalized with the idea that even though the ball is (illegally) hidden, contact is all that counts, which of course isn't what the rules say. And once given that, players can then get away with hiding serve after serve.

Ironically many players who hide their serve don't do it nearly every time, like Ma Long does. Some pick and choose when to do so, usually doing it at key times. The reason is that if you hide it all the time, then opponents get used to it, and so focus on reading the ball as it travels through the air and bounces on the table. But if you let them see contact much of the time, then when you suddenly hide one, they miss it badly. Also, even players like Ma Long will use serves where contact is visible, such as his occasional backhand serve, because while these serves aren't as effective if used regularly, if used sparingly the variation is effective since it takes time to adjust to any good serve.

Note that a good hidden serve isn't one where all one does is hide contact. The top players who hide their serve not only hide contact, but they try to fake a different spin. For example, they may serve sidespin or no-spin, with contact hidden, then follow through vigorously down to fake backspin. A good hidden serve looks like one type of spin from what the racket is doing before and after contact, but does something different at contact.

How did we get to this situation where top players regularly hide the serve and get away with it? The "short" answer is this.

When the hidden serve ban first came about in 2002, it was mostly enforced and most players stopped hiding their serves. Then, a few top players discovered that if they did borderline serves in a way that the umpire wasn't sure whether it was hidden or not, most umpires wouldn't call it, though a few did. I believe Wang Hao was one of the first big stars to hide his serve consistently and get away with it. Umpires didn't want to be the "bad guy" and call such serves when they weren't sure if they were actually hidden, even though the rules say they should - it's human nature to want to be sure before calling such serves. It started with a just a few players. But when umpires didn't call them for it, others started to do it. Since other umpires weren't calling them, and with the argument of being consistent with other umpires, they didn't call them either, and pretty soon it became commonplace.

So players found ways to hid contact where the umpire wasn't sure. Some would get called for hiding it with their body, shoulder, or arm, but then the Chinese discovered that throwing it behind their head was more subtle and less likely to be called. I believe it was in the early 2010's that this type of serve started to came out. It was in 2012 (the Olympic year) that I first noted the emergence of this style of serve. Several U.S. players who trained in China before 2012 copied the serve and told me that an entire generation of players were now using it there. In contrast, some note how USA's Wang Chen has been faulted a number of times for her hidden serves, but that's because she more openly hides it with her arm rather than develop these more subtle methods. Some still hide the ball with the arm, shoulder, or body, but more and more the behind-the-head method is dominating. 

Note that another reason umpires are hesitant to call such serves is because, as shown in this very discussion here, many spectators are fooled by the server into thinking the serve is not hidden, or at least contact is not hidden, and so object to them being faulted. Umpires, being human, realize this and so are less likely to call such seemingly borderline serves. 

The saddest part of all this is that coaches at some point have to give up-and-coming kids (and often their parents), "the talk," where they explain that many of their kid's opponents are going to hide their serve, and so if he wants to compete on an even level, he has to as well. Or he can train and train and lose to weaker players who do. Yes, an inconvenient truth until ITTF or someone solves the problem.

A few years ago I made a proposal on this, the Net Visibility Rule. I sent it to the ITTF Athletes Commission (then chaired by Samsonov), but alas, nothing has come of it. (They are looking into it, but Samsonov said they are facing bureacracy - and he's no longer chair. Saive is the new chair, but I haven't contacted him.)  I've also tried to get the USATT board of directors to take action, first by asking our umpires and referees to enforce the rule, and then by sending a letter to the ITTF asking them to prioritize this issue. The first attempt lost 1-6-1 (I was the only one in favor) as they didn't want to penalize our players. The second was also rejected as they thought my proposed letter would insult umpires by insinuating they weren't enforcing the rules, and so set up a three-person commission to rewrite it. That was on June 20, exactly two months ago, and we haven't heard back from the yet.  

MDTTC August Open
Here's the write-up, photos, and video from the tournament I ran this past weekend! It had a powerful draw, with seven players over 2550, eight over 2500. The Open final was Sharon Alguetti over brother Gal Alquetti. 

Bulgarian Open
Here's the home page for the Bulgarian Open, which finished yesterday, with complete results, articles, pictures, and video. Here's an interview  (2:05) with Liam Pitchford, who upset Ma Long at the tournament. Here's video of the match (13:43), with time between points taken out. Here's the ITTF article.

Liam Pitchford Beats Ma Long
Here's the article by Eli Baraty, where he analyzes the match.

Bty Training Tips: Jinxin Wang – Backhand Loop in Tournament Play
Here's the article and video (2:27).

New from Samson Dubina

New from EmRatThich

Our Biggest Mistake: Talent Selection Instead of Talent Identification
Here's the article from Changing the Game Project.

Can Engineers Play Table Tennis?
Here's the article from Coach Jon.

Tomokazu Harimoto Talks about Tenergy
I usually avoid equipment articles here, as I have a conflict in interest - I'm sponsored by Butterfly - but these seemed interesting about the equipment of the 15-year-old Japanese whiz kid, #6 in the world. (I use Tenergy 05 on forehand, Tenergy 25 on backhand.) Here are the four articles.

USATT Insider
Here's the issue from last week.

National Collegiate College Newsletter
Here's the August issue.

ITTF Executive Committee Concludes Mid-Year Meeting in Prague
Here's the ITTF article.

ITTF Announces Record Number of Challenge Series Events for 2019
Here's the ITTF article.

WAB Club Feature: PowerStroke Table Tennis Club
Here's the article by Steve Hopkins on this club in Saint Augustine, Florida.

Colorado Springs' Olympic City Title Could Be Threatened
Here's the article by Han Xiao, former long-time U.S. Men's Team member, 4-time U.S. Men's Doubles Champion, and one-time U.S. Men's Singles Finalist.

Ma Long Training with Chinese Team Member Lin Gaoyuan
Here's the video (7:07), from Arnaud Scheen.

Tomokazu Harimoto - Service Training at the Korea Open
Here's the video (3:23) of the 15-year-old whiz kid from Japan, now #6 in the world.

Why Anyone Can Take Up Table Tennis
Here's the video (2:16) from the BBC.

Table Tennis Prodigy Estee Ackerman
Here's the video (1:36) from Fox 5 News. "Don't let her smile fool you. Estee Ackerman is a self-proclaimed pingpong prodigy. She has been playing for more than half her life." Esteen and I are both normally sponge players, but we won Hardbat Mixed Doubles at the Nationals last year!

Nittaku ITTF Monthly Pongcast - July 2018
Here's the video (14:53).

Great Point Between Vladimir Samsonov and Quentin Robinot
Here's the video (34 sec). Former world #1 Samsonov of Belarus is down to #54 in the world, but was #8 last year. Robinot of France is world #96, was #65 last year.

Two Little Kids, Great Point
Here's the video (13 sec).

Playing Ping-Pong Across the Border
Here's the article from the Korea Herald, which features Hyun Jung-hwa. "Decades later, South Koreans still remember shedding silent tears as they watched a South Korean table tennis player stroke her North Korean teammate’s face before pulling her into a gentle hug -- right before the disbandment of the first inter-Korean sports team in history."

History of USATT – Volume 21 – Chapter 13
Here’s chapter 13 of Tim Boggan's latest volume, which covers 1993-1994. Or you can buy it and previous (and future) volumes at This chapter covers "Tournaments Abroad." Volume 21 is 438 pages with 1667 graphics, and covers all the wild things that happened in 1994-95 - and I'm mentioned a lot! Why not buy a copy - or the entire set at a discount? Tim sells them directly, so when you order them, you get it autographed - order your copy now!

Water Pong
Here's the video (28 sec)!

Raining Ping-Pong Balls
Here's the picture! (Here's the non-Facebook version.)

New Minions Playing Table Tennis Video
Minions playing table tennis with lots of volleying (15 sec)! I've posted links to past videos and pictures. Below is my current lost, including this one.

Non-Table Tennis - New Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories Published
I have three new stories out!  My story "The Plaything on the Tesseract Wall" is in the new issue of Analog Science Fiction. My story "Satan's Soul" is out in Galaxy's Edge. And my story "An American Christian at the Pearly Gates" is out in Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern World, a new anthology that satirizes bad religion. Meanwhile, I've started a new science fiction novel, but am still mostly in the research and planning stage. Here's my science fiction & fantasy page, which includes my blog and bibliography. I plan to put up a new blog entry there today or tomorrow.

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