Ball Placement Tips
by Han Xiao
I was watching some intermediate players play last week and among the points there were some very long and exciting rallies where both players were keeping the ball on the table quite well but nobody was gaining any sort of advantage. The reason was because nobody was using ball placement to their advantage; both players were content to place the ball near the middle of the table or straight to their opponent’s forehand or backhand corner, as if it were some kind of training exercise. This reminded me of a time when a junior player who had just returned from his first international competition came home and told me that the number one difference he noticed was the ball placement of his opponents. He said that he never realized how uncomfortable a slow opening could make him until he played internationally against high level competition.
Ball placement is an extremely difficult thing to master, but many attacking players never even really take the time to analyze it. Many of us prefer to attempt to hit a clean winner by hitting the ball with as much pace as we can. Some more advanced players may attempt to impart heavy spin and have their opponents make an error or misread the ball. However, I find that at lower levels only blockers sometimes use placement to gain a large advantage over their opponents. Let’s go over some basic tips of ball placement, especially for those who are attacking players and rarely think about the placement of attacks.
- Unless the opponent has a glaring weakness on either their forehand or backhand side, the backhand and forehand pockets are areas that we desperately want to avoid under normal circumstances. These are the areas just to the left and just to the right of the opponent’s body. The exception to this is when the opponent is in a very passive situation and we are content to keep the rally going, such as if you are playing a player who has a very weak backhand and who is now fishing or lobbing with his backhand. In this situation, it is a completely understandable tactic to continue attacking to the backhand corner consistently, with the intent of attacking off the bounce or attacking to the forehand if/when the opponent decides to try to use his or her forehand. However, the majority of the time, these are areas we would like to avoid in competition as much as possible.
- Aggressive shots should be placed towards the body of the opponent as much as possible, sometimes even when you feel that you can finish the point. The higher the competition level, the more this is true since the opponent very likely can defend well and even counterattack when given the opportunity from either wing. A shot well placed to the body handcuffs the opponent and gives you a much better follow-up shot. This is trickier to accomplish against penhold grip players and requires very precise placement or a more aggressive attack, since penhold players can quite easily hit a backhand from the middle of their body. The precise placement of an attack to the body against any player should be right at the player’s elbow, preventing the opponent from using their forearm in their stroke at all unless they move out of the way of the ball. This type of attack is also very low risk compared to a stronger or wider attack. This skill should be trained almost every training session through serve and attack drills. If your training partner also practices attacking to the body or elbow, you can also practice defending against this tactic.
- When blocking and returning serve, the body is still the preferred place to place the ball when being aggressive as well as for drop shots. However, another great way to place the ball is to place the ball very wide so that it cuts the corner of the table and travels outside the sidelines. This can be done with pushes, flips, and other types of returns, even a half long drop shot. The key for this type of return is that you don’t need to put too much pace on the ball, just control the ball and place it so that the opponent has to move and cannot make a strong attack as a result. This can also be done in training, but it may be a good idea to begin training this type of return with multiball. Have your training partner serve different types of serves to you, and just focus on placing the serve return in the desired location while keeping the ball low. Once you have the control down, you can then incorporate these returns into serve receive drills.
- The types of placement explained above are also useful within the rally. This all sounds extremely simple, but it can be quite difficult to execute. In rallies, it’s important not only to place the ball well, but be able to play combinations of different placements. One of the most common tactics is to play the opponent’s body once or twice, followed by a shot wide to one of the corners. This opens up the table for further attacks. Here is a point where you can see this type of placement in play. In this point, even though Jun Mizutani loses the point, watch how he places the ball as the point develops to keep Timo Boll scrambling, especially the balls into the body followed by the next ball wide to a corner:
- Finally, remember a couple of things about ball placement that make it very difficult. The first thing is that when attacking the opponent’s middle, the middle is a moving target. The middle is not always the middle of the table, but moves with the opponent’s body. Aiming for the opponent’s elbow is usually a good starting point, but advanced players also want to be able to anticipate where the opponent is trying to move to. Secondly, the effectiveness of hitting extreme angled shots depends a lot on the opponent’s positioning. Watch if the opponent is cheating to one side or another from neutral position. Neutral position changes based on where you are hitting your shot from, so more experience will let you know whether your opponent will be able to move easily to cut off an angle or not.
Again, all of this is very obvious when you think about it. It’s one of those concepts that is simple, but not easy. It’s very difficult to apply these concepts when you’re in the match unless you’ve trained them specifically, so it’s important to work on your ball placement constantly in practice. Having better placement will allow you to put your opponents off balance, off the table, and have them playing much more passively in your matches, allowing you to take the initiative without much risk.