Control vs. Leverage
by Han Xiao
A lot of times coaches cannot mold every last detail of our strokes, since different people move differently, have different body types, have vastly different playing styles, etc. Furthermore, many of us do not receive consistent coaching and are left to our own devices. Therefore, when it comes to mechanics, it is important to understand some basic concepts that will allow us to adjust our strokes independently to the strengths of our games. One of these concepts is the tradeoff between control and leverage.
Control is easy to understand. It is the ability to consistently place the ball where we want to. The higher the degree of control, the fewer unforced errors we make and the more precise our ball placement can be. On the other hand, leverage is used to generate speed and/or power efficiently. Depending on the player, leverage may be used to generate more power, or it may be used to generate more spin. Either way, having more leverage produces a heavier ball, and what some coaches call a higher quality ball. Note that these coaches tend to ignore ball placement when comparing the shot quality of players.
Now, why is there a tradeoff between control and leverage? It’s due to the way shots are affected when you bring your racket closer to the body or extend your arm farther away from the body. Keeping your forearm very close to the body will allow for a lot of control while sacrificing leverage. This is because physically, a longer lever arm will produce torque more efficiently, while a shorter lever arm will produce torque less efficiently. Just think of it like a bicycle pedal. A pedal with a longer lever arm will allow the rider to generate rotation much more efficiently than a shorter pedal. However, the tradeoff here is that keeping your racket very close to your body will reduce the chance of error since your stroke will generally be smaller and be controlled mostly with your legs and core. This means that there are fewer things that can go wrong. For some players, there is a psychological effect where the decreased reliance on the arm to execute the stroke means fewer wild arm swings.
A good example of two players who use these more controlled swings are Jun Mizutani and Timo Boll.
Mizutani and Boll are world class players and can put a lot of spin and power on the ball. However, relative to some other world class players of their level they have relatively controlled forehands. Playing controlled swings is especially effective for beginning to intermediate players who otherwise make many unforced errors, pips out players, and players who are quick but not physically strong, among others. To take advantage of their extra control and smaller swings, these types of players should try to use quickness and timing to gain the upper hand, while focusing on using their legs, body, forearm, and wrist to generate as much leverage as possible with a smaller swing.
On the other end of the spectrum, keeping the racket far away from the body generates a lot more leverage while sacrificing some placement and control. We’ve already discussed the main reasons for this, so we won’t repeat the same points again. Instead, here’s an example of this type of player, a match between Wang Liqin and Kalinikos Kreanga:
This is a noticeable difference between this match and the match we watched earlier in terms of the technique of the players. In this match, there is relatively less emphasis on timing and placement and more emphasis on spin and power. Players who play with more leverage generally display this type of characteristic on most of their attacks. This style is, of course, a bit riskier to play and is more suitable for players who aren’t particularly quick with their hands but have good footwork, players who are very one-winged and need to hit a lot of winners, and players who are just physically strong enough to overpower their opponents like Kreanga and Wang in their primes.
The tradeoff between control and leverage in terms of the stroke is a general tradeoff, and the weaknesses of each type of stroke can be compensated for a bit. For example, extra power can be generated using the legs, core, and shoulder when using a more controlled stroke. On the other hand, when using a larger stroke for more leverage, more focus on using the body to guide the stroke can create more control and consistency. However, the tradeoff still remains due to simple physics.
It is interesting to note that in the modern game, most top players are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, with most players leaning more towards the controlled end while relying on the changes in equipment and advancements in technique to generate a little more power than previously possible. The top Chinese players generally have the largest swings, due to their different equipment that requires more leverage in order to be effective as well as the amount of practice they put in to control these strokes. Here is a contrast of two players, Xu Xin of China and Tiago Apolonia of Portugal:
It’s quite clear to see the differences between the two players when they are competing against each other, especially how much heavier Xu Xin’s forehand attack is and how Apolonia relies on timing, surprise, and placement to win the majority of his points.
For us, it is important to understand this tradeoff so that we can use it to fine tune our own games and to make sure that we are playing to our strengths in competition. For example, if you are a quicker player without a lot of power even when attacking full force, it is probably counterproductive to take big swings at the ball constantly as you are probably making more unforced errors without receiving many benefits in return. You will more than likely be more effective focusing on timing, placement, and deception while using more controlled, smaller strokes. On the other hand, if you are a slower player who is physically strong but not quick, using a little more leverage by extending your arm slightly farther from your body can help you put more pressure on the opponent, even if it takes more practice and an adjustment period to be able to execute consistently. Understanding this concept will allow you to tweak your strokes in practice to be the most effective for your game and be more effective in competitive play.