Ball to the Eye

June 25, 2014

The Tactics of Doubles and Serve & Attack

Today during break from our MDTTC camp I gave another one-hour lesson on tactics to Kaelin and Billy. We spent the first 20 minutes on doubles tactics, the rest on serve and attack. The two are playing Under 4200 Doubles at the U.S. Open next week. Both are righties rated about 2000, ages 15 and 16. Here's a summary. In each of the discussions above we also played out examples at the table. 

I explained the importance of one of them focusing more on control, the other on attack. We decided that Kaelin, since he has fast footwork, should focus on constant attack (i.e. trying to loop everything) while Billy would focus on control (i.e. setting up Kaelin). While Kaelin has the tougher physical task, Billy has the more difficult mental task as he has to do things that aren't as natural, as he looks to set up shots for his partner instead of doing his own shots. I went over some of the ways of doing this, especially on receive - pushing short (with last second changes of direction), faking crosscourt flips but then going down the line instead, etc.). 

We also went over doubles serves. Most doubles serves center around backspin and no-spin serves that go very low toward the middle of the table. But you need to test out the opponents with other serves or you may miss out on some easy points. I showed how easy it is to attack and to angle if you serve too wide in doubles, and yet some players have trouble with this. I also showed how awkward it can be to flip against short serves to the middle. 

We discussed receive. Rule one - loop anything deep. Both players are going to receive forehand, so this is the easier part. Many world-class players now receive forehand against deep serves, but if you serve short (as most do), they reach over and banana flip with the backhand. (Of course they also push, usually short.) Against short serves you use mis-direction as you mix in short and long pushes, and either aggressive or deceptive flips. I also showed them how to angle the racket to meet the spin directly when pushing, by dropping or raising the racket tip. This makes it much easier to drop the ball short. Between two righties, if the server does a forehand pendulum side-back serve, the receiver should drop the tip on the backhand, or raise it on the forehand, so that the paddle is aiming to the left. Against the opposite spin, he should do the reverse.

We discussed rallies. Rule one is to try to hit shots toward the player who just hit the ball, on the far side from his partner, so they get in each other's way. Since players in doubles are often moving into position as they hit the ball, they often have trouble blocking since in singles players are usually more in position. So looping first with good placement is generally even more important in doubles than in singles. Attacking down the line will often catch an opponent off guard in doubles, and is often the best place to smack winners. But it also gives the opponents an extreme angle, which often gets your partner in trouble.

We discussed footwork. Many players move too far off to the side after their shot, leaving them out of position for the next shot. Instead they should move mostly backwards and slightly sideways. A more advanced type of doubles footwork is circling footwork where the players circle about clockwise after each shot so that both players can approach the table from the backhand side, i.e. favoring the forehand. However, this takes lots and lots of practice to get right, so I suggested a hybrid, where whoever serves or receives steps back and circles over to the left so that he gets a forehand shot. Once you get past that first circling, it's tricky, so after that they should mostly move in and out, improvising when necessary.

Then we moved to singles tactics. We had a lengthy discussion of serve and attack (with numerous examples at the table), especially after serving short. This should center around serving half-long to the middle, so that the second bounce, given the chance, would hit near the end-line. By going toward the middle, the receiver has to make a quick decision on whether to receive forehand or backhand; has a rather awkward forehand flip; has no angle; is drawn out of position and so leaves a corner open; and the server has less ground to cover. (For players who favor one side against short serves - usually the backhand - you might move the serve some the other way.) the main disadvantage of serving short to the middle is that so many players do this that players get used to it; the receive can receive with his stronger side (forehand or backhand); and has both angles to go after, though no extreme angles. 

Serving short to the forehand is a bit riskier as it gives the receiver an extreme angle to flip into. If the serve tries to cover this, he leaves the down-the-line side open. However, many receivers find it awkward to receive short to the forehand, and many can't flip down the line (so you can just serve and get ready for a forehand). I also pointed out the value of serving short to the forehand, but not too wide, so that the serve is midway between the middle of the table and the sideline. This can be more awkward to flip then a serve that goes wider, almost like flipping from the middle, plus there's less angle to go after.

Serving short to the backhand takes away the angle into the forehand, so a forehand attacker can serve and stand way over on his backhand side and likely play a forehand from the backhand side. But it's often where a receiver is most comfortable receiving short serves. (So it's often better to serve deep breaking serves to the backhand if the receiver can't loop this serve effectively, forehand or backhand.) When a forehand attacker serves to the backhand he should stand as far to the backhand side as he can while still able to just cover a shot down the line to his forehand, knowing that usually those shots aren't too aggressive.

We also discussed the differences between serving short backspin, no-spin, and side-top. If the receiver tends to push the backspin serves long, then you can either look for a forehand loop, or just stand in the middle of the table and attack either forehand or backhand. Many players like to follow these serves with a backhand loop, since this allows them to stay in position to attack from either wing on the next shot, plus it forces the opponent to adjust to a different loop than just forehands. When serving backspin players are often more likely to flip very aggressively than against no-spin as a receiver can use the incoming backspin to flip with topspin. Against a low no-spin serve, it's easy to flip medium fast, but aggressive flips are usually more difficult. 

On the other hand, when you serve short no-spin (with the focus on keeping it very low, though this is true of all serves), you can more likely anticipate a weaker return that can be attacked with the forehand. If they push it long, it'll tend to be higher and with less spin. If they push short, it'll tend to pop up. So even two-winged loopers often become more forehand oriented when serving short no-spin. 

When serving short sidespin or side-top, the serve is likely to be flipped, but if the serve is done well and kept low, it won't be flipped too aggressively with any consistency. The key here is that the opponent is unlikely to drop the serve short, and so you can serve and hang back a bit, looking to attack either with your stronger side or from either side. 

We also started to get into the tactics of long serves. I'll likely write about that and other tactics issues tomorrow.

MDTTC Camp

Pleasant surprise yesterday! After six days of struggling to hit forehands or serve, the six-year-old girl I mentioned previously suddenly made a breakthrough today. I'd been pulling my hair out trying to get her to hit a proper forehand (though she'd managed to pick up a decent beginning backhand), but day after day, no matter what I did, the minute no one guided her stroke she'd revert to this slashing, racket twirling, wristy stroke that had no business existing in this plane of existence. And then, as if by magic (and after lots and lots of imploring), she suddenly figured it out yesterday. Now she's hitting proper forehands, and even made ten in a row!

And then, perhaps 20 minutes later, she suddenly figured out how to serve, even managed to make 9 out of 10. For perspective, in the first six days of the camp, in nearly an hour of total practice, she'd made exactly one serve. Armed with a serve and a workable forehand, she was able to join in a game of "Master of the Table," and twice was master. (One of them came about when she served on the edge, and then the Master missed his own serve. To become Master of the Table you have to score two points in a row against the Master.) We often call the game King of the Table, but the girls objected!

I taught several players how to push today. I brought out the soccer-colored balls so they could see if they were getting any spin. It's always funny watching their eyes go wide the first time they see the ball spinning and realized they put that spin on the ball. Also, I have to confess that at one point I did say the following: "I'm a pushy pushover for power pushing pushers."

Rolling Ball Loop Drill

Here's video of an interesting looping drill (1:34), where your partner rolls the ball to you (under the net), and you loop it as it comes off the end. I've done this at a number of camps - it's not just for beginners, it's also good for teaching players to loop those slightly long serves. One key is to set up so you are almost directly over the ball, looking down on it - which is exactly what you need to do when looping slightly long balls.

Interview with Table Tennis Sports Psychologist Dora Kurimay

Here's the video interview (7:19). She had a new ebook out recently, Get Your Game Face Out Like the Pros!

100-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

Former USATT President Sheri Pittman Cioroslan is doing an article every day during the last 100 days of Adham Sharara's ITTF presidency, counting downwards from 100. Previous ones are linked from the USATT News page, as well as in my past blogs. Thirty-two down, 68 to go!

  • Day 69: Thomas Weikert Speaks about Peace and Sport

Crystal Wang - Youngest U.S. Team Member in History

Here's my feature article on Crystal in USA Table Tennis Magazine. 

Lily Zhang Featured by ITTF

Here's the article, "Lily Zhang the Shining Star in Tokyo, the Top Seed and Senior Member in Burnaby."

Timothy Wang Featured by ITTF

Here's the article, "Timothy Wang Aiming for Las Vegas Reprise but Beware Teenage Colleague."

Incoming ITTF President Thomas Weikert Reveals Direction of ITTF

Here's the interview. It's rather short. 

Exercise Makes the Brain Grow

Here's the article. So go play ping-pong!

Ping-Pong Ball to the Eye

Here's the video (35 sec). 

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