By Larry Hodges
In modern table tennis, the forehand is usually the more powerful shot – the point winner. But as rallies get faster and fast, the backhand counter becomes more and more important. If you don’t have a good backhand, you’re at a big disadvantage. At tournaments, in match after match, I find opponents who don’t know how to score with their backhands. Even worse, they don’t know how to stop their opponents from scoring with theirs.
The backhand counter should be a controlling shot first. You can score with it by outlasting your opponent, moving him around, or by attacking. Anyone with a decent backhand can win (some) points simply by outlasting an opponent, but he would not be taking full advantage of the shot.
When countering backhands, don’t keep hitting the same shot over and over like a drill. Move the ball around, change speeds and spins and force your opponent into a mistake. Experiment and see what works best for you.
There are four spots on the table you should aim fro: wide to the backhand (outside the corner), deep to the backhand corner, to your opponent’s middle (aim for his playing elbow which will not necessarily be in the middle of the table), and the wide forehand. Between the corners is no-man’s land and you should never to there (stay within about six inches of the corners), except when going to the opponent’s middle.
Your basic backhand counterdrive should be deep to the backhand corner. This gives you maximum depth, the most table to aim for and a good angle into the opponent’s backhand. He will have to move to make his shot and cover a lot of ground if he wants to use his forehand. A ball that doesn’t go wide enough lets your opponent hit a shot without having to move to it, making it easier for him to hit a forehand.
Off a short ball, you can’t hit your shot even wider, outside the corner. A short ball is easier to attack than a deep ball, so you should play it more aggressively, maybe even smash it. Now your opponent really has to move! Yet most players either are not aggressive enough on this shot, or they don’t go wide enough – they keep the shot inside the corners, a poor strategy.
A ball hit to a player’s middle (playing elbow), forces him to decide to hit a forehand or backhand. This is especially effective against a shakehands player. But be careful. Never hit a weak shot to the middle or your opponent may blast it.
When your opponent is out of position toward his backhand side (remember those angled backhands?), you can snap in a quick, often point-winning shot to his forehand. But you must go to his WIDE forehand. Off a short ball, go very wide. When you go to the forehand, try to disguise your shot. Also, try hitting it quick off the bounce – don’t give him time to get to it.
In a game situation, you have to be able to put these shots together in combinations. If you go to your opponent’s middle and he returns it with his backhand, he’s left his backhand side open. Go for it. If he moves prematurely to cover it, go to his forehand because he’s already committed his weight in the wrong direction. If he gets the forehand penetration shot back, be ready to attack his now vacant backhand, or if he moves too quickly again, go back to his forehand. You might even go to his middle on your second shot.
You might also try a strategy of hitting backhands deep to the corner over and over, waiting for a weak return to attack. If your opponent starts edging, over to his backhand corner, he might be looking for a forehand shot. Oblige him and hit a backhand to his open forehand side. You can also try other strategies, such as mixing up hard and medium shots to break up your opponent’s timing.
When playing a lefty (or a lefty playing a righty), things are different. Now your basic backhand shot is down the line – stay away from that forehand until you are ready unless his forehand is weaker than his backhand, of course. From your backhand side, your widest angle is to his forehand and since the backhand is a quicker shot than the forehand, you should take advantage of it. Don’t hesitate to attack the wide forehand with the backhand, especially if your opponent is slightly out of position, or gives you a weak return.
When you force your opponent away from the table, don’t keep hitting every ball deep to him, otherwise you’re just helping him play you. Mix in a few shorter, softer shots to bring him back and leave him vulnerable to a hard hit shot, especially one to the corners. You would rarely want to hit two soft shots in a row but to alternate soft and hard is a good tactic, because it brings him in and out. When your opponent is away from the table, he leaves the wide corners open. To keep you from going there, he must keep his shots deep.
Conversely, if you are forced off the table, you must hit your returns deep.
If your opponent’s backhand is quicker or more powerful than yours, don’t try to stay right up at the table with him as you will be less consistent. Of course, if you back up too much, you’ll give him more time to set up plus you’ll expose yourself to angled shots. So try to find a middle ground where you can compete with him and seek other shots and strategies to use.
Remember, the forehand is the more important shot but you must develop both wings, relying more on consistency off the backhand and power off the forehand. If you play both wings, you gain an advantage and provide yourself with the opportunity to score with the backhand.