Hidden Serves

April 25, 2014

Fan Zhendong vs. Cho Eonrae

Here's a great video (14:32, with time between points removed) between China's Fan Zhendong (world #3) and South Korea's Cho Eonrae (world #20) in the 8ths of the Qatar Open on Feb. 18-23. Spoiler Alert! Cho wins deuce in the seventh, -12,10,7,7,-9,-8,10. Here is my analysis of the first five points. Fan is in red, Cho in black. Not all points are shown; for example, the second point shown is actually at 3-1. (FH = forehand, BH = backhand. Alas, the direct links to the start of the points make you go through the short ad at the start each time.)

POINT 1: Fan does reverse pendulum sidespin serve short to FH. Cho comes in with FH as if receiving down the line, freezing Fan (who has to cover for the down-the-line shot), and then drops it short the other way, to Fan's FH. Fan steps in, threatening to go very wide to Cho's FH, instead flips down the line to Cho's BH.  Since Fan is leading over table, Cho attacks very wide to Fan's BH. Fan has to move quickly, and does a safe backhand topspin to Cho's wide BH. Cho spins off bounce to Fan's wide BH. Both players are trying to avoid the other's FH, and since these aren't highly aggressive shots, they are going wide to the BH rather than the middle, where many attacks go. After his previous backhand loop, Fan is moving back to ready position and is caught slightly when Cho goes right back to the wide backhand. As Fan moves to do an awkward backhand loop, Cho steps around to counterloop with his FH, but Fan BH loops off. Point to Cho.

POINT 2: Cho does FH reverse pendulum serve to Fan's BH. Fan backhand banana flips, but his shot nicks the net and goes off. I can't read the spin from this angle (Cho's body is in the way), but while the obvious thought was the serve was backspin, I suspect it was no-spin from the angle of Fan's racket. His contact with the ball is almost directly behind it; if the ball was heavy backspin, he'd be going more around it with sidespin rather than go up against the backspin directly. (That's a secret of the banana flip.) Point to Cho.

POINT 3: Cho fakes a regular pendulum serve, but does another reverse pendulum serve. It's half-long to the FH, barely off the end, and Fan loops it rather weakly. But since Cho has to guard the wide FH angle, he's slow in stepping around, and so he takes the ball late and goes off the end. Point to Fan. I'm guessing Cho hasn't gotten his rhythm yet or he'd make that shot, even rushed.

POINT 4: Fan does a regular pendulum serve. The motion looks like he's going long to Cho's backhand - watch how Cho starts to step around. Instead, Fan serves short to Cho's FH, forcing Cho to change directions. See how off balanced he is as he receives? He manages to drop it short, but is still a bit off balance as he steps back, and so is slightly caught when Fan drops it back short. He does a weak backhand attack, which Fan easily backhand loops. Since Cho is leaning over the table with his backhand side a bit open, Fan goes to his wide backhand, forcing Cho to block. Fan now does a stronger backhand loop to Cho's middle, forcing a weaker block, and then Fan steps around and rips a FH to Cho's middle. The whole point was like a chess match, where a small advantage is gradually turned into a winning point. Point to Fan.

POINT 5: Here's where Fan apparently pulls a fast one. He does a pendulum serve, but it looks like he's hidden contact - but just barely. Here's an image just before the ball disappears behind his non-playing arm, and here's one just after, with the arm now hiding the ball. Can Cho see contact? Most likely contact is hidden, but becomes visible the split second afterwards. Here's one the split second after the arm gets out of the way, where you can see the ball against the racket. It happens so fast it's almost impossible to be sure, but it looks like he contacted it with a regular pendulum serve, heavy backspin, but hidden by the arm, and then, the split second after, as his arm moved out of the way, his racket moves slightly in the other direction as if doing a reverse pendulum serve with sidespin. That's what Cho likely saw, and so he backhands the ball right into the het. (This was the standard technique at the high levels before hidden serves became illegal - hide contact, but show the receiver a fake contact the split second afterwards to mislead them.) Point to Fan. 

Was this last serve legal? You decide. Here are the pertinent rules.

2.06.04: From the start of service until it is struck, the ball … shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry. 

2.06.05: As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net. The space between the ball and the net is defined by the ball, the net and its indefinite upward extension. 

2.06.06: 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. 

Veep

Back on October 10, 2013, I blogged about spending a day on the set of the HBO TV show Veep. Well, the episode, "Clovis," airs this Sunday, at 10:30 PM in my area (east coast). I was basically their table tennis advisor, and I brought in three top table tennis players who should appear in the episode: Khaleel Asgarali (2314), Qiming Chen (2221), and Toby Kutler (2154). See the blog entry for info on what we did. So you can recognize them, here's a picture of Khaleel Asgarali. Here's Qiming Chen (on right). And here's 14 seconds of Toby Kutler doing multiball training.

You won't see me in the episode, but there's a scene where the character Mike McLintock (played by Matt Walsh) discovers the snack bar at Clovis. You'll see him talking through a window with the Clovis employee who runs the snack bar, and who fixes him some sort of drink (I think a milk shake). While you can't see me, I'm sitting right behind the Clovis snack bar employee, on the left, hidden by the wall and enjoying the show. (They did this scene about a zillion times, with Matt playing a bit differently each time, so I'm curious which version they went with.)

Knee Problems - Again

Here we go again. Last night during a class I was teaching I demonstrated a forehand smash. I thought something felt funny in my right knee afterwards, but it wasn't until about ten minutes later that my knee started to act up again. And now I'm limping about, hoping I can coach. (I have a 90-minute session tonight, so it's not a busy night, but then the weekend is very busy.) This is not a good thing for an active coach. On the other hand, it's been a while since my knees/arm/shoulder/back acted up.

I've had problems with both knees. When it's my left, I can usually compensate better, but my right knee is my push-off leg for all my forehand shots, plus it's hard to move to the right when it's acting up. We'll see how it is when I coach tonight.

Chinese Table Tennis Association Sticks with Old Ball (for now)

Here's the article.

Zhang Jike Feels Pressure With His Responsibilities in Tokyo

Here's the article.

Team USA at the 2014 World Championships

Here's a video (3:06) honoring the U.S. National Team at the World Championships in Japan. That's me coaching Crystal at 0:54 and 0:56 - see big picture on right both times. (But just for the record, Jack Huang is her primary coach, though I often coach Crystal in tournaments when he's not around.)

USA Men's Team at the Worlds

Here's video (1:26) of the most intensively serious workout they've ever undergone, and some chitchat. And here they are relaxing and playing cards. Here they are on the subway returning to the hotel.

USA Table Tennis Champions of the Century, Part 1

Here's the video (6:38) by videomaster Jim Butler. This one covers Eric Boggan, Dan Seemiller, Jim Butler, Sean O'Neill, Hank Teekaveerakit, Attila Malek, and Lily Zhang.

How You Could Send Something High in the Atmosphere

Here's an article on the use of ping-pong balls to send things into the upper atmosphere for scientific experiments.

7000 Pingpong Balls Dropped for Legacy Week

Here's the article.

Office Prank - 100+ Ping Pong Balls

Here's the video (2:13)!

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December 26, 2013

Hidden Serves at the Nationals

There were a lot of problems with hidden serves at the USA Nationals. For example, in the Men's Singles Semifinals, David Zhuang was faulted several times for this, and I commend the umpire for this. He often pulls his free arm out of the way immediately, as you are supposed to, but then brings it back just before contact to hide the ball. And yet, even there he got away with a few hidden ones. For example, see the service winner at 8-9 in the second, where he ties it up and goes on to win that game, though he'd go on to lose the match to Cory Eider. (Link should take you to 2:43:42 in the video.) Can't quite tell from the video? Here's a freeze frame image.

But it was also happening in junior events, in particular by one player in the mini-cadets (under 13). There were several matches where the player's opponent, coaches, parents, and spectators bitterly protested, but the umpires didn't enforce the rule, leading to often comical mishits on the receive. In one match, the player hiding the serve won at 5,3,4. Later the two played again, and this time a different umpire enforced the rule, faulting the illegal server several times in the first game - and this time the other player won.

Because I was worried the players I coach would play someone who was hiding their serves, I complained to the deputy referee, who was the acting referee at the time. I know how difficult it is to umpire - I've umpired hundreds of tournament matches and was once a regional umpire - but the rules do say, "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that s/he complies with the requirements of the law." (Bold is mine.) Like it or not, that's a pretty specific statement, and means that if the umpire isn't sure whether the serve is hidden or not, he cannot possibly be "satisfied" that the serve complies with the requirements of the law, and has to warn or fault the player. And if a player is hiding a serve, there's no way the umpire can say that he's satisfied that the serve is not being hidden, though of course he might not be sure - in other words, not "satisfied."

To my astonishment, the deputy referee insisted that "satisfied" meant only that the player probably served legally, or several other similar vague definitions. When I pointed out that "satisfied" meant "believe something to be true," both he and another referee/umpire argued vigorously with me, saying I was wrong. However, as the Merriam-Webster definition shows clearly, I was 100% right. The pertinent definition is "to cause (someone) to believe something is true."

You cannot say you are not sure if the serve is hidden and simultaneously say that you believe the serve is not hidden; that's a direct contradiction. And yet, a number of umpires seemed to believe they could! Sorry, but you can't have both ways. But this was the argument made by the deputy referee and a number of others.

My opinion? It's a combination of convenience and group think. It's not an easy rule to enforce since most enforcement of it isn't saying the serve is illegal, but saying the umpire couldn't tell if the serve was visible. And so it's much easier to fall for the group think where satisfied means something other than what it really means. As I wrote yesterday, I Princess Brideian finally told them, "I don't think that word means what you think it means." I then wrote out the exact definition from Merriam-Webster, but I don't think it swayed them. Alas.

Things actually got worse after this. I was told there was a video of the player in question serving illegally. The deputry referee refused to look at it. I asked why not. He said, and this is a direct quote, "Because we don't." I point out that was not a reason not to look, and asked three more times, but he would only say the exact same words: "Because we don't." I pointed out that the referees and umpires of every major sport - baseball, basketball, football, etc. - look at video to improve their officiating, but he still refused, and only got angry about my repeated requests for an actual reason. I argued that since it is the responsibility of the referee to make sure that the rules are enforced, how could he not look at a video to see if a player was not following the rules, and then look for a way to make sure they were enforced, i.e. by instructing the umpire to follow the rules? But he refused to even consider looking at a video or watching a match of the player in question. It was like Galileo arguing with church officials to look through his telescope.

So we're stuck with many referees and umpires who will not enforce the rules, and worse, will not even look at evidence that rules are being broken. There's no easy way to say this, so I'll say it like it is; they are allowing players to win by cheating.

I'm told that at the international level, the umpires are far stricter in junior events, and that hidden serves are faulted - and so some of our up-and-coming juniors may face a shock when they go overseas. However, at the same time, they are lax in international men's and women's events, and so the top men and women often do get away with hiding their serves. It's not a good situation. What do you tell the players to do? If an opponent is hiding his serve and the umpire allows it, then I guess you have no choice but to do so yourself. But it gets trickier - how can a player learn to return such serves unless his practice partners also hide their serves? And so we're stuck with a choice between training all year long and losing to players who are allowed to cheat, or teaching our players to cheat so they can compete.

I'd like the referees and umpires who do not enforce these rules to do three things.

  1. Explain to kids who train all year why they let opponents win by cheating;
  2. Explain whether they think coaches should teach their students to cheat so they can compete;
  3. Explain to parents why coaches are teaching their kids to cheat.

The irony is that since the service rule isn't always enforced, many players who do not hide their serve are lax some of the rules. For example, a player I coach got faulted three times at the Nationals because he didn't pull his free arm away as soon as the ball had been projected when doing high-toss serves. He wasn't hiding the serve; he was actually pulling his arm out while the ball was still above his head, but in the umpire's judgment, he hadn't pulled it out quickly enough, and so got faulted. As long as all the umpires are instructed to enforce the rules this strictly, I don't see a problem. Pulling the arm out of the way immediately isn't hard, and no one hides the ball unintentionally; it takes practice to do so.

My Tip of the Week on Monday was inspired by these hidden serves: Returning Hidden and Other Tricky Spin Serves. Some players are better at reacting to hidden serves than others, and often this is simply a matter of how quickly they take the ball off the bounce. For example, the player I mentioned above who lost at 5,3,4 tends to take the ball very quickly off the bounce, and so when caught off guard by a hidden serve was unable to react as quickly as a player who habitually takes the ball later.

I've always said there are three main ways to hide the serve so that the umpire might not call it. Well, at the Nationals I learned there is a fourth way. Sorry, I'm not going to post a tutorial on these four ways to cheat or how to do them!

Seamless Plastic Poly Ball

[I blogged Monday about the USA Nationals, and buried in it all was a segment about the new seamless plastic poly balls. It was easy to miss, and really deserved a segment on its own, so here it is again.]

A month ago I had ordered a packet of the new poly balls, the non-celluloid seamless plastic ones. As I blogged previously, they weren't really acceptable. However, Kagin Lee had several of a newer version (Xu Shaofa balls, also seamless) and he let me and others try them out. Verdict? These ones are usable, and only subtly different from a regular celluloid ball. Even the cracked sound is almost gone. I had several of our junior players try them, and they also said they were usable. One had said of the earlier version, "Unacceptable but fun to use," but these passed both his and my test for usability. So I think this problem has been solved.

NOTE added later: I also compared the ball to a Nittaku 3-star, and found them the same size, unlike the previous poly balls I'd tested, which had been slightly larger. I also bounced them side by side, and found the new poly ball had the same bounce as the Nittaku, as compared to the previous version which was faster, i.e. bounced higher. Because of ongoing arm problems, I couldn't loop with any power and so relied on others to judge how they looped, though they looked pretty much like any other looped ball. 

Alameda Coach

During the USA Nationals last week I found myself coaching against players from the Alameda Table Tennis Club in California. Afterwards I met coach Pieke Franssen (from the Netherlands), and discovered my blog was responsible for his being there at Nationals with them. Below is an email he sent me afterwards.

Hi Larry,
We met some days ago in Las Vegas. I told you that you and your blog were the reason why I am in the States right now. I saw your post about a northern Californian table tennis club looking for a full-time coach. Then I wrote to them and I came over for a visit to see the club and meet their players. I like it a lot now here and want to return to Alameda to coach if we can arrange the visa. I send you my resume, so you know a little bit more about my background. I hope we will meet in the future again. Best of luck with your center!
Best regards, Pieke Franssen

Chinese Team's Military Training

Here's an article where Ma Long talks about it.

Top Five Angry Players in Table Tennis

Here's the video (5:14).

Under 1200 Final at USA Nationals

Here's the video of the last few points (3:20) - go to 2:53 to see the celebration of all celebrations!

Twas the Night Before Vegas

Here's Adam Bobrow's poem, with great apologies to Clement Clarke Moore.

Merry Christmas from Junior Stars from Around the World

Here's the video (56 sec).

Santa Claus Plays Table Tennis

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February 24, 2012

Service fault controversies

Over the past 14 months (and many tournaments) I've been involved in six specific incidents involving hidden serves. Five different times I've called for umpires or complained to umpires about opponents hiding their serves against a player I was coaching. Each case became a controversy as either the umpire wouldn't call the hidden serve, or if they did, and the opponent (or his coach or others in his contingent) became quite unhappy. In the other case where I complained about a fault on my player, an umpire simply got the rules wrong and faulted my player incorrectly for hiding a serve that clearly wasn't hidden. (Just for the record - players I coach were also correctly faulted several times along the way. Only that one time did I complained about a service fault called against a player I coached.)

Other than unhappy people, what's the one thing each case had in common? In every case I was right about the serve, as shown by video and photo sequences taken from the video. (I'm not going to fan the flames by publishing them, but if you were directly involved in one of these hidden serve controversies, feel free to email me and I'll show you the video and photo sequences.)

This isn't bragging. It's rather easy to see if a serve is hidden or not from the sidelines behind the players, where the coach sits, far easier than it is for the umpire off to the side. It's not a matter of being able to tell if the serve is hidden; it's a matter of choosing to speak up rather than let the opponent have the advantage of illegally hiding their serve. Some think a player or coach should just live with the disadvantage of having to face hidden serves, but I just don't buy that.

I generally don't worry about illegal serves unless the opponent is getting a serious advantage out of it. This usually means only on hidden serves, where players hide the ball with their arm, shoulder, body, or head. Other service rules are often abused, but none cause nearly as much trouble for the receiver as hidden serves. (Quick-serving out of the hand is sometimes a problem, but is so obviously illegal that any competent umpire will call it on the first instance.)

I've heard some crazy rationales for why it's "okay" to hide one's serve. (Note - hiding the serve means hiding the ball from the opponent during the serve motion, which is illegal, making it difficult for the opponent to read the spin on the serve. Usually this means hiding contact; sometimes it means hiding the ball until the split second before contact, when it's almost impossible to pick up the contact.) Here are some paraphrases of some of the best excuses:

  • "No one's called me on it before." (I know of at least one player who has used this excuse probably a dozen times. Thank about that! But even if it were true, then that doesn't change the fact that the serve is illegal; it simply means there has been lax umpiring.)
  • "That's the way everyone's serving." (Not true, but a lot do get away with it.)
  • "Why would you call me on serves?" (Because you are hiding your serve.)
  • "I'll call my opponent for serving illegally in practice, but no way should you call him on it in a tournament." (This is one of the stranger ones.)
  • "He's from your own player's club!" (So why is he hiding his serve against someone from his club who is not hiding his serve?)

It is true that many players get away with serving illegally, and umpires are notorious for not calling hidden serves in international matches. It's unfortunate but true that to compete internationally, our top players may have to develop hidden serves to compete against opponents who hide their serves and the umpire doesn't call it. And I have no problem with players hiding their serve if the opponent is doing so. But you better learn to serve legally if you are called for it - without argument - and you really shouldn't hide your serve against an opponent who is serving legally.

Unfortunately, these incidents have caused a lot of tension and are rather frustrating. Some think players and coaches shouldn't call opponents for hiding their serves, and are quick to show their anger at those who do. Others simply angrilly deny that the serves are hidden, despite the many witnesses (often including umpires and referees) and video that show otherwise. Alas.

By the way, in 36 years and about 600 tournaments, I've been faulted for my serve exactly once - and the umpire and referee both admitted afterwards they had made a mistake, that the serve was legal and shouldn't have been faulted. What happened? I'll write about that next week.

Service seminars

I plan on running a series of one-hour Serving Seminars at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, probably starting sometime in April or May. These will cover serving technique from beginning to advanced. The seminars will be both lecture/demonstration and on-the-table practice. Afterwards I may keep up a weekly 30-minute service session where players can get together and practice their serves. More on this later!

2012 U.S. Open

Here it is, the home page for the 2012 U.S. Open in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 30-July 4. See you there!

Table Tennis Sports Psychology Book

Here's a new table tennis sports psychology book, "Get Your Game Face On! Table Tennis" by Dora Kurimay and Kathy Toon. I've downloaded it to my Kindle but haven't read it yet.

Kessel’s Handy Guide to Ruining Volleyball Player

While this was written for volleyball coaches, most of it applies to table tennis coaches as well! Some of my favorites:

  • "Never show what you want, if one thousand words will do.  All explanations should be as wordy as possible to demonstrate your vast knowledge of the game."
  • "Make sure to always tell the player what he or she did wrong."
  • "Teach volleyball [table tennis] the way it is supposed to be taught, on the chalkboard."
  • "Make sure to bawl players out about their mistakes, win or lose.  It is better to do this in front of a whole gym full of spectators, rather than in the locker room, or worse, one on one in private."

Table Tennis Benefit for Alzheimer's

Adam Bobrow, Susan Sarandon, and Soo Yeon Lee are among those who will take part in this benefit on March 4 in Los Angeles.

Kuwait Open Highlights Tape

Here's a highlights video (3:38) from the Kuwait Open of Jun Mizutani (JPN) vs. Kim Min Seok (KOR) in the quarterfinals, set to music.

Lady Antebellum Table Tennis

After a sold-out show on Feb. 17, the members of this country pop music group put on "The First Annual Lady A Ping-Pong Classic" (3:09).

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September 20, 2011

More on Serving

On Friday, I gave my periodic "Practice your serves!" reminder, a public service for the benefit of the vast throngs of table tennis players who forget to practice their serves unless I remind them. Over the weekend I put up two more articles on serving, both previously published in USA Table Tennis Magazine: Serving Short with Spin and Serving Short the Productive Way. Want more? Here are 19 articles I've written on serving. (The two new ones are at the end.)

The Shoulder Method of Hiding the Serve

I've blogged about hidden serves a number of times, but I want to point out the most popular method of hiding serves so you can watch for it. Think of it as a public address announcement for the benefit of umpires, who are in the unenviable position of having to call hidden serves, as well as for players and coaches who have to call the service rule on opponents who hide their serves.

It's not enough these day to just hide the serve these days; illegal servers now are able to hiding their hiding! (Hopefully you will read the following so as to watch for it, not to learn to do it - though of course some will do that, alas.) Most umpires watch the non-playing arm closely to make sure the serve isn't obviously hidden by that. The rule says that the non-playing arm must be "pulled out of the way as soon as the ball is projected upwards." However, most umpires aren't strict on this as long as the arm is pulled out before contact so as not to hide the ball. And this is where they are getting fooled.

Most players who hide their serves now do it with their shoulder. They leave their non-playing arm out as long as possible, and then pull it back just before contact. Since most umpires are watching the arm to make sure it is pulled out in time, they think the serve is legal. What they don't see is that by keeping the arm out, the server is able to keep his shoulder thrust out. While the arm is pulled out of the way before contact, the shoulder lags behind and doesn't quite come out of the way until just after contact, and that's what hides the contact. It's like a magic trick, where you distract the observer with one thing (the arm) so they don't see the more important thing (the shoulder). 

And just as a reminder, here are the pertinent parts of the service rule about hiding contact:

  • Rule 2.6.4: "From the start of service until it is struck, the ball ... shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server..."
  • Rule 2.6.5: "As soon as the ball has been projected, the server's free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net."
  • Rule 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."

Three more coaching articles by Samson Dubina
(Here are all his coaching articles.)

Deng Yaping

Here's a short profile of the great Deng Yaping, now 38 years old and with a Ph.D from Cambridge.

Dora Kurimay

Dora Kurimay, top table tennis player and sports psychologist, is interviewed at The Pongcast. Then check out her table tennis sports psychology page.

Table Tennis and More Commercial

Here's a commercial (1:29) for Table Tennis and More, a club in Phoenix, Arizona. Why doesn't your club have one?

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August 23, 2011

Hidden Serves

At the higher levels (i.e. 2600 and up), most players hide their serve because most umpires simply are not enforcing the rules. The main rule in question is, "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he complies with the requirements of the Laws."  Many players have learned to just barely hide contact from their opponent, but they do it so quickly and subtly that umpires, sitting off to the side, aren't sure if they have hidden the serve - and instead of warning and then faulting the player for not fulfilling the rule quoted here, they let it go. And so those who cheat are rewarded.

There are always exceptions, such as world #6 Vladimir Samsonov, who never hides his serve. How good would he be if he did so? But he plays against hidden serves regularly, and developed his game before hidden serves were illegal, and so can return them effectively.

Before, illegal hidden serves was mostly a problem at the highest levels. Now it's spreading to the cadet levels. It's survival of the fittest, and the "fittest" are those who win, and more and more these are the ones who hide their serves.

The problem is you cannot learn to return hidden serves unless you practice against them on a regular basis for a long time. (It's not easy learning to read spin from the way the ball travels through the air and bounces on the table, and to do so quickly enough to react properly.) And you can't do this unless your practice partners use them. So the only real way to teach players to return hidden serves is to teach them to all to hide their serves. Plus, even if you learn to return hidden serves, you have to use them yourself if you want to compete evenly.

The problem is that this is cheating. But unless they illegally hide their serves, players cannot compete with their peers who hide their serves. I've watched far too many matches where two players seemed evenly matched, but one player gets clobbered because his serve returns go all over the place - in the net, off the side, straight up or off the end - because they simply can't return hidden serves since they haven't practiced regularly against these illegal serves.

It's frustrating to coaches who train up-and-coming juniors. What do we tell them? To cheat? Or to accept that all their training is wasted as far as competing with their peers who are willing to use these illegal serves?

The ITTF is aware of the problem, and is looking into solutions. I wish they'd hurry. (One proposal talked about is to require the serve to be visible to both umpires, or to where the umpire would sit if there was an umpire. This would make it almost impossible to hide the serve from the opponent.)

Suggested rubber and blade combinations for beginning and intermediate players

At the request from the forum, this morning I wrote an extensive article on this for my blog. Then I realized it really should be a Tip of the Week. So look to see it next Monday morning. Instead, I wrote above about hidden serves. (I had Tips written for the next two weeks, but I'll bump each a week. So you can also look forward to "Five Steps to a Great Spin Serve," and "The Myth of Thinking Too Much.")

History of U.S. Table Tennis, Volume 11

You can now begin reading Tim Boggan's History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. 11, which covers 1981-82. Chapter One went up yesterday; a new chapter will go up each week for the next 35 weeks - yes, there's 35 chapters. Better still, visit TimBogganTableTennis.com and buy a volume or eleven! Here's the dedication page and acknowledgement page, where Tim thanks those who helped out. (I'm in both, in particular the dedication page, for doing the page layouts and photo work.)

George Hendry, RIP, one more time

Here's Tim Boggan's obit of Hendry. (Tim quoted a stanza of my Ode to Hendry from 1992, which I reprinted on Friday.)

U.S. Teams Dominate in Canadian Junior and Cadet Open

Here's the story.

U.S. Paralympic Team Shines in Rio

Here's the story.

Ping Pong Albums

Here's a 1997 album called Momus Ping Pong, which features a table tennis oriented cover, including a large gorilla with a ping-pong paddle. Here's a video of the album (4:33). Here's a 1979 Pablo Cruise album called Part of the Game, with turtles playing ping-pong on the front cover. Here's a larger picture of the cover. Here's a video of the album (3:47). Anybody want to review these "table tennis" albums?

In China, no more Ping-Pong Diplomacy

At least that was the headline of a story in Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section!

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July 5, 2011

U.S. Open Ratings Champions - No Fear!

When I looked over the rating champions at the U.S. Open, what jumped out to me was that, for once, most of the champions were actually players that were seeded very high in the event. Often players like that avoid playing in such events in order to protect their ratings (sigh...), leaving the event to lower-rated "ringers." Not so much this time! Here's a rundown of these champions - congrats to all these fearless champions! (Note that in three cases, a player is actually rated over the cutoff, but that's because the ratings used for eligibility purposes is well in advance of the U.S. Open; otherwise, players wouldn't know until the last minute what events they were eligible for.)

  • Under 2600: Gao YanJun (2607) over Adam Hugh (2570). Over by 7 and under by 30 points.
  • Under 2400: Raghu Nadmichettu (2390) over Mark Croitoroo (2319). Under by 10 and 81 points.
  • Under 2250: Klement Yeung (2239) over James Therriault (2206). Under by 11 and 44 points.
  • Under 1950: Cameron Siou (1930) over Jeremy Hazin (1631). Under by 20 and (gulp) 319 points.
  • Under 1800: Marina Leitman (1811) over Edmundo J. Lozada Salazar (1759). Over by 11 and 41 points.
  • Under 1650: Natasha Carr-Harris (1535) over Alex Bu (1530). Under by 115 and 120 points.
  • Under 1500: Edward Guo (1328) over Rohan Mannem (1283). Under by 172 and 217 points. Mannem didn't win here, so he got his revenge in...
  • Under 1350: Rohan Mannem (1283) over Paul Scobey (1267). Under by 67 and 83 points.
  • Under 1200: David Stone (1167) over Wilson Chen (1209). Under by 33 and over by 9 points.
  • Under 1000: Anton Berman (641) over Michael Gustafson (798). Under by 359 and 202 points. Someone's a bit under-rated? And just for the record, the fearless Gustafson, with the 798 rating, also played Under 800 but didn't reach the final - but he did get revenge on the girl who took him out of Under 800, beating her in Under 1200.
  • Under 800: Anton Berman (641) over Wang Yee (756). Under by 159 and 44 points.

The Evil Fayed: Nuking U.S. Cities and Terrorizing Hardbat

Here's Abu Fayed discussing the destruction of America on "24." Here's Adoni Maropis (at the U.S. Open) terrorizing the hardbat community, where he's achieved a 2110 hardbat rating. He reached the semifinals of Over 40 Hardbat at the U.S. Open. (He made the final at the Nationals in December.) Yes, he has knee problems, and is a little soft on the backhand, but he has that look that says I will tear out your liver and feed it to your children. So try to catch him in a good mood. (Table tennis pictures are by Steve Hopkins.)

Hidden Serves - not always noticed

I wrote yesterday about some of the problems with hidden serves. One irony I didn't mention is that often a player doesn't even notice when an opponent hides his serve. Like all other shots in table tennis (at least for a well-trained player), you don't consciously react to shots. Your subconscious reflexively reacts to the various incoming spins. So when returning a serve, it's the subconscious that's actually reacting. When the serve is hidden, the subconscious doesn't see contact, and so often misreads the spin - but the conscious mind doesn't always notice since you don't normally consciously react to the contact. A well-trained player learns to blank out his conscious mind while playing, and so doesn't consciously see contact unless he makes an effort to look for it. Of course this doesn't change the fact that at the higher levels, many players hide their serve and most umpires don't call it, so for now, players will just have to learn to read hidden serves by watching the ball, as players used to do before hidden serves became illegal.

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July 4, 2011

HAPPY 4TH!

2011 U.S.Open

I flew back to Maryland last night from the U.S. Open in Milwaukee - didn't have any coaching duties today. At the airport in Milwaukee there was a Killerspin table set up with sponge paddles and barriers! I watched for a while as parents played with kids, often "coaching" them in ways that made me squirm a bit. I debated whether to help out, but decided they were having fun, so who was I to tell them what to do?

Because I had a bunch of stuff to take back to Maryland, I had two bags to check in at Airtran, which would cost $45. The attendant told me that since first-class passengers get two free bags, I could upgrade to first class for $49, and get the two bags free. So for $4 I traveled first class. The only other time I did that was nearly 20 years ago when I traveled with Andre Scott - we had regular tickets, but when they saw he was in a wheelchair, they put him in first class (for free), and since they had an open seat next to him, they gave that to me.

Funniest part of the U.S. Open for me was watching opponents struggle with Sun Ting's ("The Sun King") serve. Whenever he serves, it's showtime as opponents miss shots all over the place. The problem isn't so much that they misread the type of spin as they misread the amount of spin. How he puts so much spin on the ball without seemingly doing so is a mystery that only Albert Einstein might have solved. Alas, Sun Ting lost 11-9 in the seventh (from up 3-1), 4,-2,-4,-11,9,8,9, in the quarters to Canada's Pradeeban Peter-Paul. Sun Ting has been at my club, MDTTC, for the past month, and will be here for another month. He defeated Ma Lin in a tournament a few years ago, and had a 2730 rating from the 1999 North American Teams, when he was 15.

The players I coached had up and down records; unfortunately, we were 0-5 in five-game matches this time around. Have to work on that. Because I was mostly coaching or playing hardbat, I didn't see many big matches, and so can't report on them.

My Hardbat Results at the Open - skip if not interested!

While I was there primarily to coach, I did enter three hardbat events. (I normally play with sponge.) I had to default out of Open Hardbat because it conflicted with the junior team competition. I've won that event twice at the Open and Nationals, and while I probably wouldn't have won it, I had a good chance to do pretty well, maybe make the semifinals, and after that, who knows?

I made the final of Over 40 Hardbat. (I've won this four times at the Open or Nationals, including the last Nationals.) In the preliminaries, I had to play Peter Cua, one of the top Philippine hardbat players. He had me 16-11 in the third (two out of three to 21 in hardbat), but I went on a hitting binge and won ten in a row. (I told myself to just take the shots and let the shots happen, and they happened.) I had another huge battle with Jeff Johnson in the semifinals, who as usual ran me all around the court in a battle of his steadiness versus my forehand hitting/backhand chopping, and despite a near comeback by him late in the second game I won two straight, 15 & 16. In the final I played Richard Gonzalez, but his forehand hitting and heavy & varied backhand chopping was just too much, and he won easily, 13 & 11. I think I may be able to take on his chopping in a rematch, since I'm good against that, but it had been a while since I'd played a hardbat chopper of that level - but if I had, he'd have just attacked more, and his attack was way too strong. The guy was a member of the Philippine National Team and I believe is their hardbat and sandpaper champion.

I also played hardbat doubles with Ty Hoff. I've won that event ten times, six times with Ty (including at the last Nationals), and we did pull off a nice win over Dan Seemiller Sr. and Jr. - I had to smash Dan Sr's loop from down 19-20 match point in the second to deuce it! - but we lost in the semifinals to Jeff Johnson and Scott Gordon. They in turn lost to the Philippines, Richard Gonzales and Joseph Cruz. Those two pretty much dominated all hardbat play.

Tip of the Week

This week's Tip is about Coaching Against Yourself. It's short and to the point. 

Reverse Pendulum Serve

Here's a great example of the reverse pendulum serve, by 2010 U.S. Open Men's Singles Champion Sharath Kamal of India. It's shown in both real and slow motion. (37 seconds long.)

Hidden Serves

Unfortunately, Sharath Kamal, like many others, doesn't always serve legally. Here's a video of him on Youtube from the 2010 Egypt Open - it's not easy finding videos that give the right angle so you can see if the serve is hidden. See his serve 29 seconds in. Here is a four-sequence screen shot of the serve, showing how it disappears behind his body. At the 2010 U.S. Open, he and many of his opponents served illegally, hiding the ball (and especially contact) as they served, but umpires rarely call this.

Notice how with the arm stuck out, it's easy to thrust out the shoulder and hide contact. If the player pulls the arm back, as the rules require, then the shoulder isn't naturally thrust out, and if the player does thrust the shoulder out while pulling the arm back, it becomes rather obvious. This is what happened at the U.S. Open a few days ago when, at the request of the players I was coaching, I twice had to call an umpire against the same opponent because he sometimes stuck his arm and shoulder out, thereby hiding the serve. (This led to a very unhappy parent; hopefully he and I can put aside our disagreement on this so as not to be a distraction to the kids. After all, if the serves are legal, then there shouldn't be any objection to having an umpire.) The opponent may not even have been aware he was doing it, but the umpire warned him immediately to pull his arm in - on the second serve after the umpire came to the table - and the rest of the way the serves were pretty much all visible.

It's important players know the service rules, so there are the pertinent ones regarding hidden serves. (Bolds are mine.)

Rule 2.06.04: "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 doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry." (Here are the service rules.)

Rule 2.06.05: "As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net."

Rule 2.06.06: "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect."

Rule 2.06.06.01: "If either the umpire or the assistant umpire is not sure about the legality of a service he may, on the first occasion in a match, interrupt play and warn the server; but any subsequent service by that player or his doubles partner which is not clearly legal shall be considered incorrect."

Many players push the service rule to the limit - which in itself is okay in most cases - but they serve with the ball so close to the body, with the arm or shoulder thrust out, that it's difficult to tell if the ball was actually hidden or not. Many forget that a "tie" goes to the receiver, i.e. if the serve is not clearly legal, then it's supposed to be a warning or a fault, even though many umpires don't call this.(See 2.06.06 and 2.06.06.01 above.) So when a player serves with the ball so close to the body, or with the arm or shoulder stuck out, and the umpire can't tell if the serve was visible or not, then he's supposed to give a warning and then a fault. But many umpires do not. Some umpires enforce the rule about the arm being pulled out of the way, but then ignore it when the player continues to hide the ball with the shoulder, even when it's seemingly obvious.

On the other hand, illegally hiding the serve is so prevalent at the higher levels, since umpires usually don't call it, that many coaches believe you should just accept it, and learn to return such serves, while (at least publicly) saying you shouldn't do them yourself. The problem is that it doesn't take that long to learn (or teach) illegal hidden serves, but it's extremely difficult these days for a junior to learn to return hidden serves effectively because they are against the rules, and so if the junior trains in a junior program, he won't see hidden serves unless the other juniors are being trained to serve illegally. So he only sees them infrequently at tournaments. As he reaches higher levels, he sees them more and more, but by then he's already been trained to read the spin of legal serves, and now has to almost start over, when of course to really be able to return these serves at a high level he'd have to start training against them at an early age.

Of course a coach could spend his coaching time serving illegally to the student so he can learn to return hidden serves. But since most students only have limited hours of private coaching per week, you can't spend much of that time on that, and it takes a tremendous amount of time to learn to read and return such serves effectively.

So what's a coach to do? Call for an umpire every time an opponent serves illegally, thereby causing hassles while often just getting an umpire who will not call hidden serves, and so essentially giving their stamp of approval to the illegal serves? Teach illegal serves to all or most of their juniors so they can both practice against them and use them in tournaments as so many others do, and ignore the fact that it is illegal, and to be blunt, cheating? Or just serve legally, and accept the fact that they will always be at a large disadvantage when opponents do not? I've talked it over with some of our cadets and juniors, and most don't want the hassle, and lean toward just accepting that some opponents are going to serve illegally, and they'll just have to try to learn to return them, and accept that because they serve legally they are at a severe disadvantage. Is this fair?

There is currently a new service rule proposal being worked out that may solve the hidden serve problem. I'll post about that later, since I'm not sure if they want to go public yet.

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