Poly Ball

February 24, 2014

Tip of the Week

Backhand Sidespin Push.

Adham Sharara Interview - More Changes Are Coming!

Here's an interview with ITTF President Adham Sharara. Some of the things he says will make some players nervous or even downright scared. Three of the main things he talks about are ending Chinese domination, slowing down the game by using a ball with less spin and speed (bounce), and starting to restrict rackets with a bounce test. Here are excerpts, and my comments. (Note that I'm saving for last the most revolutionary item - the testing of rackets, i.e. a bounce test, and an apparently new racket approval process.)

When asked why he thinks it's necessary to end Chinese domination, he uses the example of USA basketball, and says, "Hence, we felt it’s necessary to take our sport to other nations and requested China to help others. Table tennis should be played everywhere. Otherwise, it’ll become very boring." I'm a bit leery of the whole idea of making it a goal to end a country's domination, though of course he might have a point about it being more interesting when more countries are competitive.

There does seem to be one difference, however: I believe that when the USA basketball teams dominated, the whole world watched when they played. With China dominating, the world doesn't seem to watch when they play. I think this has more to do with USA media, which is (of course) biased toward USA and tends to dominate or at least influence the rest of the world's media. I'd rather the focus be on China helping to spread table tennis by continuing to do what they are already doing, which is to send their coaches all over the world to train players in other countries. Then it's up to the rest of the world to catch up with China, with the help of these Chinese coaches. That's what we're doing in the U.S., for example. With the help of seemingly zillions of new Chinese coaches and practice partners, and many dozens of new training centers opened in the past 7-8 years, we have by far the best junior and cadet players in our history. In a few years they may be challenging anyone in the world . . . except maybe the Chinese. (USA top juniors and cadets: sic 'em!)

Then they get into balls and rackets. We'd been told that the change to the new poly balls was because celluloid balls are extremely flammable, and it was becoming very difficult to ship them around the reason for insurance reasons. But Sharara says:

"We’re also changing balls. FIFA made the balls lighter and faster, but we’re changing balls from celluloid to plastic for less spin and bounce. We want to slow down the game a little bit. It’ll come into effect from July 1, which, I think, is going to be a very big change in the sport."

We already switched from 38mm to 40mm balls to slow down the sport, and now the change to poly balls is for the same reason. While this might technically slow the ball down and reduce spin, it also will likely have two apparently unforeseen effects, which also happened when we increased the ball's size. First, with a slower ball, players have more time to get into position and throw their entire body into the shot, and so you favor big, power players who rip everything even more - and so the ball speeds are even faster. (On the other hand, a bigger ball does slow down faster due to air resistance, and so is easier to return, as we learned with 40mm balls. But will the new poly ball be slower due to a substantial size increase, or just slower off the racket? Apparently the latter, though the new balls may be slightly larger than the 40mm ball we've grown used to.) Second, with less spin, you make defensive chopping at the higher levels even more difficult as they rely on heavy backspin to succeed.

Finally, we get to the question on rackets. Sharara says:

"In the past, we’ve tried various ways to control the power of the racquet. But players are always ahead of us. They’ve tried other means, which made the action faster. Now we’ve decided to measure the racquet from the outside. The racquets will have a bounce limit as well. We’ll introduce this next year."

Rackets are already tested, mostly for continuity and any traces of illegal glue. This would be a new test, presumably measuring the actual speed of the blade and covering. (There aren't that many rules on blades, which is the racket without covering - they can be of any size, weight, or thickness. About the only rules about blades is that they must be flat and rigid, and at least 85% natural wood. Here are the current ITTF rules on rackets; most of it is about the coverings, not the blade itself.) How far would this new bounce test rule go? Would rackets need to pass a test to be approved, thereby making many older or homemade rackets illegal until tested? Would they be tested at tournaments? That's be another task for referees.

We'll just have to wait and see how these things transpire. Meanwhile, on Saturday one of the kids in our junior class asked me why one of the balls we were using was smaller than the others. It turned out a 38mm ball had been mixed in with the regular 40m ones - the second time this had happened recently. I have no idea where they are coming from; someone at the club must be bringing them in. Later that day I brought one out during a lesson and hit with it, and boy did it bring back some nostalgia! Those balls really react to topspin, curving down like a hawk diving for prey.

Larry's Trademarked Terms

From now on you have to pay me $1 anytime you use any of these terms I've invented. I'm pretty sure I've invented some others but can't remember them.

  • Frobbing (half lobbing, half fishing - sort of a low lob or high fish)
  • Topspinny Backhand (off-the-bounce backhand loops but with a shorter stroke than a conventional backhand loop)
  • Heavy No-Spin (fake spin with a big serving motion but actually no-spin) (Addendum added later: Actually, others were using this term before I did, but I'm trying to steal credit!)
  • No No-spin (fake no-spin serve but actually spinny)

Lily Zhang Qualifies for Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games

Here's the ITTF list of qualifiers (page down to Women's on page 4, and see the third item, "ITTF Under-18 World Ranking). So her world under 18 ranking qualified her for the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games.

Xu Xin Wins Qatar Open

Here's the ITTF home page for the event, with results, articles, pictures, and video. Here's another article on it from Table Tennista.

McConaughey vs. Harrelson

Here's an article on how Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson turn table tennis into extreme sport.

Ping-Pong Trick Shots

Here's a new video (6:08) with an incredible compilation of trick shots. The first one might be the longest trick shot ever.

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February 5, 2014

Today's Blog…

…will be shorter than usual. Because of our after-school program, and because I'm rather busy on weekends, I've worked every day this entire year (other than Jan. 1 and two days when I had the flu). Due to icy conditions, local schools are closed today, so no afterschool program. I normally have three hours of coaching on Wednesday nights, but two are off today, so only one hour today. (Plus a dental appointment at 11AM.) So I'm basically taking the day off, though I'll likely use it to catch up on things, such as working on my upcoming book Table Tennis Tips.

Poly Ball

  • My Thoughts on the Poly Ball: They are pretty simple. I haven't really looked into how or why the rule is coming into place - there's a lot of controversy about it. To me it's very simple: do the new balls play like the celluloid ones? The newest one that came out by Xushaofa plays very similar. (I blogged about this on Dec. 26 - see second segment.) According to this article (which I linked to yesterday), the balls are accepted by the Chinese team and endorsed by Ma Long. So I'll accept them as well. Personally, however, I'd rather stick with celluloid, as would many others. For those who would like to fight the change, see next item.
  • Petition to Keep Celluloid Balls: Here's an online petition to keep Existing Celluloid Table Tennis Balls.
  • ITTF Approved Poly Balls: Yesterday I wrote about the ITTF approving the first plastic ball, the Xushaofa. This morning there are two more up, the DHS 40+ and the Double Fish 40+. Here's the listing.
  • Liu Guoliang considers the Poly Ball a "potential hazard."

Serving by Bengtsson

Here's an article on Serving by top coach and 1971 World Champion Stellan Bengtsson. (The article is from 2010, but I don't think I've ever linked to it.)

The iRacket

Here it is! (Why do I have this sudden urge to invade some other country? Think about it until it comes to you.)

Care for a Little Outdoor Table Tennis While it Snows?

Here are some snowy ping-pong table pictures.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Table Tennis Superbowl Ad

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the ad (14:39), where they interview Ian Rappaport, the "unsuspecting" person who had the wild night in the ad. They discuss the table tennis aspect starting at 4:15. "I'm a big ping-pong player," Ian says. (Here's the complete ad (3:44), which ran in several parts. The table tennis starts exactly two minutes in. "Prepare to be crushed in tiny tennis," says the long-haired wigged Arnold.)

Non-Table Tennis - Win a Free Copy of Sorcerers in Space!

Here's the online raffle where you can win a copy of my humorous fantasy novel. Or just buy it here (save a few dollars) or at Amazon. (Available in print or ebook format. Stars a kid who has to put aside is table tennis ambitions to save the world!)

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February 4, 2014

Not Going Against or With the Spin

When counterlooping, you'll notice how top players tend to counterloop with lots of sidespin. They rarely counterloop with straight topspin. To do so would mean contacting the ball directly on top of the ball, and going directly against the incoming topspin. The ball would then jump off the paddle, and it would be tricky keeping it on the table. Instead, they mostly contact the ball on the far side, which avoids taking on the incoming topspin directly while putting a sidespin that curves to the left (for a righty). Some do the opposite, and contact the ball on the near side, and the ball curves to the right, again avoiding taking on the incoming topspin directly. (This is a bit more difficult.)

Of course once they are into a counterlooping duel, the incoming counterloop usually has sidespin, and if you counterloop it back with sidespin (assuming both are contacting the ball on the far side), you are taking on the incoming sidespin directly. But that's not much of a problem because by doing so it becomes trickier controlling the sideways movement of the ball, just as taking on the topspin directly makes controlling the up-down movement of the ball more difficult. But you have a much wider margin for error with sideways movement; few players miss because they go too wide, while many miss by going off the end.

You actually get a bit more topspin when going directly against the incoming topspin, where the ball rebounds back with topspin, if you can control it. The same is true against an incoming loop with sidespin and topspin - if you go directly against the incoming spin and loop back with your own sidespin and topspin, you get a bit more spin overall. (And that is one reason why in counterlooping rallies both players continue to sidespin loop.) However, the difference here is minimal as players are often throwing themselves into each shot, thereby getting tremendous spins regardless of the incoming spin.

When the backhand banana flip, you face the opposite. (Side note - I call it a backhand banana flip for clarity, even though there is no corresponding forehand banana flip.) Against a heavy backspin ball, it's difficult to lift the ball with heavy topspin and keep it on the table. The table is in the way, and so you can't really backswing down as you would when doing a normal loop against a deeper backspin. The banana flip solves this problem by having the player spin the ball with both sidespin and topspin. Contact is more sideways, which makes lifting much easier as you are no longer going directly against the backspin. Intuitively this doesn't seem to make sense to a lot of people until they try it out, and discover how much easier it is to flip the ball, often with good pace as well as good spin (both topspin and sidespin).

Some players face the same thing when looping against deeper backspins - they have trouble lifting the ball. This is mostly a technique problem. However, some top players do sidespin loop against heavy backspin, which makes it easier to lift. Jan-Ove Waldner was notorious for this, often sidespin looping over and over against choppers until they gave him one to loop kill. But the difference here is that you have room to backswing, and so you can actually use the backspin to create your own topspin.

Sometimes you want to go against the spin. For example, when pushing it's easier to load up the backspin against an incoming heavy backspin as you can use that backspin to catapult the reverse spin back, giving you an extra heavy backspin. You get a lot more backspin when pushing against incoming backspin than you do against an incoming no-spin ball. And with a banana flip, against a topspin serve it's easy to go against the spin by contacting the ball nearly on top, using the incoming topspin to rebound off your racket to give you an extra heavy topspin.

Teaching How to Tell Time

Yesterday I made the mistake of teaching a 7-year-old how to tell time. He was used to digital, and had no idea what the various hands on the clock meant. So I taught him. He not only was fascinated by this, but the rest of the session he became a clock-watcher. He didn't completely get the idea, and kept running over to the clock and trying to figure out the time (usually getting it wrong). I tried to convince him that time slows down if you keep watching the clock, but to no avail. This was the second time I've made this mistake - I taught another kid the same age how to tell time sometime last year, with the same result. Never again!!!

New Coaching Articles by Samson Dubina

There are a number of new coaching articles up on the news section of his web page.

Juicing for Athletes

Here's a video (5:28) about table tennis coach and cyclist Brian Pace's new book, Juicing for Athletes.

ITTF Monthly Pongcast - January 2014

Here's the video (12:33).

ITTF Approves First Poly Ball

They also now mark all approved balls as either celluloid or plastic. Here's the listing: see item #49 (you'll have to go to page 2). The approved Xushaofa ball is the same one I tested and blogged about on Dec. 26. (See second segment.)

Ma Long Endorses New Plastic Ball

Here's the article.

Prince Plays Table Tennis on New Girl

Here's the video (45 sec) of Prince on the TV show New Girl, which includes a segment where he plays table tennis.

Sony Commercial

Here's an ad (32 sec) for Sony TV that features Justin Timberlake (on right) and Peyton Manning playing table tennis.

A (Ping-Pong) Table for Two?

Here's the cartoon!

Non-Table Tennis: My Thoughts and Ranking of the Academy Award Nominated Movies

I've now seen all nine movies nominated for Best Picture for the Academy Awards. Here's my personal ranking and short analysis of each. Note that all nine were good, so finishing last here merely makes the picture one of the best of the year. I'm pretty sure my #1 will win best picture.

  1. 12 Years a Slave: Will and should win Best Picture. Brought something new to the screen: slavery as seen by someone who, like us, learns about it as he experiences it. Pretty brutal movie.
  2. Gravity: Also brought something new to the screen: the experience of being in space. One of the few movies you really should see in 3-D. It reminded me of Jurassic Park. Both are examples of "special effects movies" that also have good stories and good acting. Along with "American Hustle," has a chance to challenge "12 Years a Slave" for best picture.
  3. Captain Phillips: Great performance by Tom Hanks, great drama. Rather than demonize the bad guys, shows it from their point of view as well so you see why they did what they did.
  4. Philomena: Surprisingly good. I went in thinking this would be a somewhat boring movie, but it got better and better as it went along. When I see old pictures of people I almost immediately wonder what happened to them, and so this movie was almost an extension of that as the main character tries to find out what happened to her long-lost son. It got even more interesting when we find out what happened to him, and she tries to learn more about him.
  5. Nebraska: Interesting movie, but pretty grim, despite the intermittent humor. I kept hoping I don't end up like that when I'm old. I kept wondering how in heck could they end this movie effectively, and they found a way. (Though I found it a bit convenient that the bullying character just happened to walk out of the bar at just the right time.)
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: Fun movie. We all know about the extravagances of Wall Street, so it didn't really add to that. A little long for the story.
  7. Dallas Buyers Club: This was a tough one to rank. Ultimately it came out toward the bottom because I could never like the main character. He started out as a ridiculous redneck character because he was surrounded by ridiculous redneck characters. Then he changes because he's now around new types of people, and begins to take on their traits. So he's basically just becoming whoever is around him. Not much of a thinker.
  8. Her: A bit long and slow at times. Nice concept.
  9. American Hustle: Entertaining, but didn't have the substance of some of the others. Surprisingly, this is the main challenger to "12 Years a Slave" for best picture, and it has a chance. 

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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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