Backhand to Backhand Exchanges - Butterfly Table Tennis
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Han Xiao, Coaches Corner

Backhand to Backhand Exchanges

Backhand to Backhand Exchanges
by Han Xiao

Backhand to backhand exchanges are a very common occurrence in the modern game, especially at the beginning of points. By this I do not mean that players are exchanging backhands for five or ten shots, but rather a quicker exchange of two or three backhands each before one player scores or the pattern changes to open up the table. However, in these two or three quick exchanges you can really dictate the point by how you play and put yourself in great position for the rest of the point. There are several ways you can do this:

  1. Overwhelm the opponent with pure quickness and/or pace. This is the most basic, most straightforward method, and it isn’t likely to work often unless combined with some other tactic at a high level. At low levels or against a player with an especially weak backhand it can be effective just to take the ball off the bounce or hit a couple hard backhands into the opponent’s backhand. Since it isn’t the most effective strategy on its own, we won’t go into too much more detail here.
  2. Surprise the opponent by going for a big swing. Sometimes this tactic can work and put you in position to win the point. Once in a while you’ll win the point outright. This involves waiting a little bit longer and taking a big swing at the ball, usually with a backhand loop. This is a very difficult tactic and also very risky, and therefore should be used sparingly. It also depends on the opponent giving you a suitably weak shot to swing at.
  3. Use spin to prevent the opponent from stepping around or attacking with pace. This is particularly effective due to how safe a tactic it is when executed properly. The opponent needs to compensate for the topspin you are putting on the ball and therefore cannot hit the ball as hard as they would like. When used in combination with some other tactics, this is an extremely effective tactic at all levels.
  4. Change the placement of the ball subtly to force movement from the opponent, keep them off balance, and hopefully force a weaker return. This doesn’t mean changing the ball to the opponent’s forehand, although that is an effective tactic sometimes. However, since we’re focusing on gaining advantages backhand to backhand, what I mean here is being able to attack the opponent’s wide backhand as well as the opponent’s elbow. This is a tactic that takes a lot of practice but is probably the most important one. It has synergistic effects with a number of other tactics on this list as well. For example, if you press the opponent’s elbow with a quick backhand off the bounce, it is very probably that you will get an attacking opportunity on the next ball, whereas simply hitting a backhand off the bounce straight into a strong opponent’s backhand corner will not yield the same opportunity. Mastering the ability to subtly change the placement of the ball to force the opponent to react is key to consistently gaining an advantage in backhand exchanges.
  5. Change the timing and pace of the ball. Sometimes changing the timing or pace of the ball can throw an opponent off balance or surprise the opposition. Going from slow to quick is an effective tactic many times if you can catch the opponent off guard, especially when combined with good placement. Changing from quick to slow is much more difficult to master, and when executed poorly simply gives the opponent an opportunity to take control of the point. If you are using inverted rubber, it’s not often advisable to try to suddenly play a really slow ball as a surprise factor unless the opponent is off the table, you are chop blocking or putting extreme topspin on the ball, or some other exceptional circumstance. If you are a pips player, such as a short pips player, this can be much more effective due to how the ball will bounce less on the table when you take pace off the ball, presenting a very difficult ball for the opponent. Suddenly playing a slow ball into the opponent’s elbow with any kind of pips is a great changeup that can force the opponent into errors or slow down the opponent’s attack. Advanced short or medium pips plays can incorporate a sudden chop block into their game for the same effect.
  6. One more tactic that I’ll go into is very specialized but very effective when executed well. Using a higher arc on the backhand, in combination with spin and placement, can really hamper the opponent’s ability to attack with the backhand. This is especially effective against players who play quick off the bounce on the backhand and don’t fare well taking bigger swings at the ball, such as players who like to attack aggressively off the bounce as well as players who have weak backhands and prefer to just block. It keeps them from being able to put as much pace on the ball while also making it very difficult to step around and use the forehand. It is a very safe play and can easily open up attacking opportunities. To illustrate this it’s best to provide an example. Canada’s Wang Zhen is one of the best at executing this very specific strategy, so I’ll provide a match of his so you can see the tactic at work. It is quite a long match, so feel free to skip around to look for backhand exchanges early in points:

Video courtesy of Gerry Chua, gfrontosa YouTube Channel

These tactics are all tactics that can give you a large advantage in backhand exchanges, usually opening opportunities to hit a more aggressive backhand or use the forehand to attack. Sometimes you can even win a point outright if the opponent does not react correctly. Overall, the key to backhand exchanges is to stay calm and stay balanced while executing a combination of these tactics to unbalance the opponent. It can be difficult to stay calm during a backhand exchange as many players in the back of their mind are thinking about how they need to cover the wide forehand. To practice staying balanced and calm, you can do a drill where you backhand exchange with a practice partner, who at any time can aggressively switch the ball to your wide forehand, after which you play out the point. Once you improve at this drill, it can really improve your confidence in covering the wide forehand, allowing you to stay balanced during backhand exchanges without worrying about covering the forehand corner. The drill can also be done as a multiball drill.

The tactics we’ve discussed here are very effective if you can use them in combination with each other. For example, if you can place the ball effectively with good spin and occasionally change the pace or timing of the ball, you will give your opponent fits and eventually learn to use openings where the opponent is forced to react with a weak return to look for your own attack. If you’d like to see a lot of these tactics at work, watch this match from 2003 between Kong Linghui and Oh Sang Eun. There are some longer backhand exchanges in this match as well, allowing you to clearly see some of the backhand exchange tactics at a high level from both players. I hope you learn something from watching and can incorporate some of these concepts into your own play. Enjoy!

Video courtesy of Mistrzowie Tenisa Stołowego YouTube Channel.

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