Hardbatters of the Past Present Future

September 4, 2012

Tip of the Week

Multiball Training.

Coaching New Players

This past weekend had three new kids in the Beginning Junior Class I teach, Sat 10:30AM-Noon and Sun 4:30-6:00 PM. (All three came for the Sunday session.) All three started out really well. One of them picked up the strokes so fast she was doing footwork drills by the end of the session - and she's just six and a half! I've taught the class since it started in April, and about eight of the new players have gone on to take private lessons, including one who is starting with me this Wednesday.

One issue I still struggle with after all these years is how soon to bring on new techniques. Is it better to spend the first few sessions focusing on just the forehand, or spend time equally on forehand and backhand? When to introduce pushing? How much focus on serves? In a class situation, I generally focus more on the forehand early on, introducing the backhand perhaps in the second half of the second session. I introduce serves generally on the third session. I postpone pushing until the player can stroke effectively from both sides while doing footwork.

When doing private coaching, where you have more time, in a typical one-hour session I introduce the forehand, backhand, and serving in the first session, but again focus on the forehand more early on. The reasoning behind focusing on the forehand first (in both classes and private coaching) is that it's best to get one side really ingrained before focusing on the other side, and you have to choose one side - so I go with the forehand first. This would have been a no-brainer a few decades ago, when the game was somewhat dominated by forehand players, but now the game is more evenly divided between forehand players, backhand players, and those who do both equally. Another reason to focus on the forehand first is that it leads to more mobile footwork than if you focus on the backhand, where players tend to stand in one position more. (One remedy - have them do side-to-side backhand footwork, which most players neglect to do, instead focusing only on forehand footwork.)

Hardbatters of the Past, Present, and Future, part 2

In my blog on Friday, Aug. 31, I addressed the questions of how good were the best hardbat players of the past, compared to modern hardbat and sponge players, and where I also wrote about Cheng Yinghua playing hardbat. I wrote more about this yesterday in response to questions on the about.com forum. Here's what I wrote, with a few changes so it won't seem out of context.

I remember watching a little bit of the hardbat doubles match where Cheng Yinghua played with Julian Waters [at a USA Nationals about ten years ago]. However, Cheng didn't really practice for that match, other than a short warm-up with Julian. As I mentioned in my blog, it was only after about half an hour of intense practice with me that a light bulb sort of went off in his head, and from there on he dominated. If Cheng at that moment had then played doubles with Julian, he would have dominated the match and you would have been duly impressed with his attacking and counterhitting.

He also can chop surprisingly well, since he chops to students regularly with various rackets. However, one of the things I learned long ago about hardbat is that chopping hardbat to hardbat is very different than chopping against a sponge looper, which is what Cheng is used to. This is why Derek May's chopping with a hardbat isn't as effective as Steve Berger's, even though Derek is a far better chopper in the sponge game. While Cheng's hardbat chopping would dominate most players, the best hardbatters wouldn't have a lot of trouble with it. When you chop hardbat to hardbat, you have to learn to dig into the ball more aggressively than with sponge or against a loop, and you have to do a lot of spin variation. If you don't, the better attackers will go right through you. This is why, for example, Marty Reisman once beat a 2000 sponge chopper 21-0, since the chopper was only getting balls back without doing anything to make Reisman miss.

In a hypothetical match with Miles, assuming Cheng (at his peak) practiced for many months, I don't know what would happen. I do know that both players would have to work very hard for the match. In any hitting/counter-hitting duel at less than smashing speeds, Cheng would dominate. So Miles would be chopping and pick-hitting - no big deal, since that's primarily his game. When Miles pick-hits at full speed, that's where Cheng would be at a disadvantage as it is very difficult to counter-hit or even block against a smash with a hardbat, while it is surprisingly easy, for the best hardbatters, to chop them back from off the table - and Cheng doesn't really have that in his arsenal at a comparable level.

But Miles would have his hands full because Cheng's not going to have much trouble reading his changing spins, and would be attacking pretty hard with few mistakes. (But he won't have a devastating point-ending loop.) At his peak (i.e. when he was much younger), Cheng could hit as hard as the best. Of course Miles can return nearly everything, and the varied spin will force mistakes. If he does enough stiff chops, Cheng will eventually push or drive one soft, and that's when Miles might go for the smash. There would be great rallies because both of these players are incredibly consistent at what they do - Cheng attacking aggressively, Miles chopping aggressively.

One unknown is how well Cheng would develop his drop shot against Miles' chopping. Cheng has great touch in dropping spinny serves short with sponge, and showed nice touch with a hardbat when I played him, but we don't know how well his sponge touch, after a few months of practice, would convert to hardbat touch and instincts at the level needed. On the other hand, I have a feeling Cheng would play a patient topspin game, mixing in hard, medium, and soft topspins while he looks for a shot to put away, and so wouldn't drop shot too much.

Regarding serves, it's not just the hidden serves that'll give Miles trouble as much as the semi-circular serves, where Cheng can use a fast motion and give varied spins that are difficult to read, something that Miles not only said nobody did in his day but to the end told me he didn't believe it was possible to do. (I had a long argument with him on this, pointing out that many 1800 players can do this, but he really didn't believe me.) However, I'm sure that Miles would have adjusted and would have been able to chop most of the serves back effectively, though the serves would wear him down a bit for a few points at least each game. (If he had to attack the serves, then he would have had far greater difficulty, but chopping allows you to take the ball as late as possible and just float it back.)

It's sort of funny to me that most people are either on one "side" or the other - they either think Miles would kill Cheng, or that Cheng would kill Miles. I'm pretty sure it's somewhere in between. Miles has the advantage that he was about the best of the hardbat players in his era. Cheng has the advantage that he systematically trained his attacking strokes, footwork, and reflexes eight hours/day from age five to about 25, and has modern serving techniques Miles never saw. As good as Miles was, I don't think he could compete with the best out of thousands of kids training full-time from age five with a hardbat with top practice partners and under the tutelage of professional coaches (teaching both hardbat and modern techniques, such as modern serves), but of course Cheng did that training with sponge, and so never developed the hardbat defensive game, though his sponge attack and counter-hitting does convert rather well to hardbat. Overall, we're talking one heck of a nice match, and I would love to see it. Anyone got a time machine?

I don't think most current world-class players could convert to hardbat and challenge the very best hardbatters of the past. Every one is different, and some are more adaptable to change than others. A player like Cheng, whose game is based on control, is better at adapting then, say, an all-out two-winged power looper. But any world-class player, with practice, is going to dominate with a hardbat against all but the best current hardbat players.

Liu Guoliang's Love Story

Here's an article about Liu Guoliang falling in love at age 16, and the problems that ensued since the Chinese team had strict rules about this type of thing. Liu's most romantic memory? "Walking in the rain." 

SportsCenter's Top Ten Plays

David Wetherill of Great Britain made #1 on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays with a diving shot off a crutch. Here's a link to the video of the match (42:49), which should take you straight to the where the shot takes place, just after 37:30.

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