Thoughts on the Plastic Ball
by Han Xiao
The plastic ball has been out a while now, and many people have had different things to say about it. Now that it has been some time, I want to take a look at some of the effects that the plastic ball seems to have had at the highest levels. In order to illustrate some of my thoughts, I wanted to refer to a couple of different matches from the 2015 World Championships. The first is Lee Sangsu’s upset over Dimitrij Ovtcharov:
The second match is Fang Bo’s victory over his compatriot, Zhang Jike:
Although these matches are a small sample size, I wanted to use them to illustrate some things that I’ve noticed as well as heard from other players, and also point out the effects these changes have in competition.
The biggest impact of the new ball is that it is physically more difficult to generate spin and power. One player that generated a lot of headlines is Quadri Aruna of Nigeria, who plays a very physical game relying on forehand topspins and counterattacking. However, aside from Aruna, players that rely mainly on heavy spin and power seem to be struggling to adjust to the new ball. In the two matches we’ve picked out, Zhang Jike and Ovtcharov both have great difficulty, partially because they’re used to being able to apply much more pressure on the opponent with their strokes. Normally, players like this produce such a heavy ball that the opponent is forced to play passively and reactively unless they take a massive risk. However, with the new ball, the quality on these heavy balls is noticeably weaker, allowing the opponent to pressure back quite easily with timing and pace. Since players who play these types of heavier balls often play with slightly slower timing when playing stronger shots, they can be put on the back foot quite quickly. This is especially apparent when Ovtcharov is continuously surprised by how aggressive Lee Sangsu is able to be in backhand to backhand exchanges. This has a huge effect on Ovtcharov’s confidence throughout the match. In the meantime, players that rely mainly on timing, pace, and placement are not affected nearly as much. Ma Long is a good example of a player who has thrived. Fang Bo is also a similar mold of player, and in his match against Zhang Jike we can see how much pressure he is able to apply from both wings due to the timing and speed of his attacks.
Another point is that many high level players have told me that defending and counter attacking is quite difficult with the plastic ball against a strong first attack due to the flight of the ball being difficult to judge. As a result, getting the first attack now is even more important than with the 40mm celluloid ball. In the matches I selected, you can see that the player who gets the better of the short play or who can banana flip first consistently has a big advantage and puts the opponent on the back foot immediately. Of course, this was already the case with the previous ball, but in many cases with the celluloid ball players could stay in the point quite easily, whereas now even world class players are having trouble sometimes handling opening attacks as well as off the bounce pressure. This may be something that players adjust to as they get more experience with the 40+ ball and as ball production continues to improve, but for now being able to win the short game is extremely important.
These two big points cause a number of effects in terms of tactics in these and other matches. Trying to set up a counterattack is riskier than before, so many tactics such as pushing deep more or serving half long on purpose are used more sparingly. Banana flips are being used whenever possible to try to gain the initiative. Overall, players who excel in the short game and who can attack with timing and placement are finding it easier to adjust, while players who prefer to play with heavy spin and power are having trouble due to the decrease in their shot quality.
Although this in no way is an absolute truth regarding the new ball, it is a trend that I believe exists and that I think will hold for at least the near future. Although it isn’t necessary for everyone to change their playing style to adjust, it is useful to note some of these things in case, for example, you find that your shots aren’t as penetrating as before, causing you problems in matches. If that’s the case, then some adjustments may be necessary. Personally, I feel that more focus on the short game and gaining the first attack is more important than ever right now, along with the ability to attack with good timing to put pressure on the opponent. Putting emphasis on these aspects of your game in training might help you adjust to the new ball and get you better results in competitive play.