Modern Topspin Strokes
by Han Xiao
To round out our short mechanics series, we’re going to take a look at modern topspin technique. If you missed the previous two articles, we took a look at weight transfer and proper leg use as well as how to follow through correctly. Having an understanding of those concepts will help you make the most of today’s topic, so if you haven’t read through the previous topics, I strongly encourage you to go back and take a look!
Many players playing with inverted rubber probably learned to forehand and backhand loop by grazing the ball to produce topspin. This was often accompanied by a rather exaggerated shoulder drop and allowing the arm to drop below the table on the backswing before executing the topspin stroke. If you were already playing table tennis in the late 70s or early 80s and emulating the Hungarians, especially players such as Jonyer and Gergely, you were almost certainly performing these types of large, windmill topspin strokes. Let’s take a look at what that looked like:
Note how large the strokes are, how many loops are performed when the ball is dropping and even under table level, and how much the ball is being grazed to produce topspin. Since that time, strokes have been changing due to the speed of the game as well as changes in equipment. Although the change wasn’t overnight, the modern topspin stroke involves a much shorter backswing with more emphasis on the body than the arm. Let’s take a look at a few examples. Here is a very short clip of Jun Mizutani, including some slow motion replay:
Before we go too far into analyzing, we can also take a look at Timo Boll, who we’ve looked at before in a previous article:
There are several things we can note from these two videos. First of all, it’s immediately noticeable how much shorter the backswing is on these two forehand loops are than the strokes from the 80s. There is a small shoulder drop, but in general the arm isn’t dropping far below table level if at all. In fact, the arm moves almost exclusively due to the rotation of the body and the drop of the shoulder on the backswing. This shoulder drop and backswing can be dropped slightly lower along with the rest of the body when looping against backspin, but against topspin the drop is quite minimal. The ball is taken on the rise or the top of the bounce if possible. Most of the power is generated through the legs and core, while the arm and wrist mostly responsible for snapping through on the follow through. Both Boll and Mizutani have a follow through that is quite sideways across the body, although this is by no means the only way. It’s very much acceptable to have a follow through that is more forwards. Something else both these players do on most of their loops which is much more of a trend now is that they keep their arms relatively close to their bodies. This produces less power since you have less leverage, but allows you to return to ready position very quickly and keeps your body quite compact, which is great for longer rallies.
An interesting thing to notice with these two players is that Boll is a bit older than Mizutani, which shows somewhat in the way they contact the ball. Whereas Mizutani is hitting the ball quite solidly before grazing up and forward to produce topspin, Boll grazes the ball much more finely right from the first moment of contact. This is another example of how the topspin stroke has evolved, especially in very recent years. Unless you are using a very hard sponge, like Chinese rubber, allowing yourself to hit the ball solidly and then starting to graze right after first contact can produce a bit more speed and power without sacrificing consistency, and with the changes in rules and equipment most players are no longer grazing the ball as finely on their loops.
We can see some of the same things on the modern backhand loop. Here’s a rather thorough compilation of backhand highlights from Adrien Mattenet:
As we saw on the forehand, the modern backhand loop is performed with a much shorter backswing primarily consisting of cocking the wrist in preparation for contact. The racket is almost always above table level, the ball is taken on the rise or at the top of the bounce except when counterlooping, and contact is much more solid. There is still some grazing to produce topspin, but mostly after the ball is first contacted. After that, the follow through is a natural continuation of the stroke, with the arm and the wrist snapping through before returning to ready position.
It can be difficult to adjust to producing topspin while still hitting the ball solidly on first contact, since it’s mostly about practicing and finding the right feeling when contacting the ball, and also requires the ball to dwell on the racket for quite a long time to make the contact consistent. This takes a lot of practice and adjustment, and will probably benefit advanced players the most. However, all inverted players can still benefit from learning a more modern topspin stroke in order to improve consistency in longer and faster rallies. Using a smaller shoulder drop, shorter backswing, and keeping the arm up rather than letting it drop will allow you to return to ready position quite quickly, exert less energy when looping against topspin, and very comfortably contact the ball early to put pressure on the opponent. One important thing to keep in mind when practicing this is that keeping the arm up is quite different from keeping the shoulder up. If you find that your shoulder is quite sore when practicing these techniques, especially the forehand loop, then you probably aren’t relaxing the shoulder but rather lifting it as you’re attempting to keep your arm lifted. Something else to note is that if you are using an extremely hard sponge such as a Chinese rubber, you may need to adjust the stroke since you will need to graze the ball more to maintain consistency.
Although there are many matches you can watch online now where modern strokes are on display, I personally will recommend watching a recent match between Timo Boll and Marcos Freitas if you have the time. This shortened version is about six and a half minutes long. Both players clearly exhibit the modern style topspin strokes that we’ve talked about, even in the many counterlooping points they engage in. Enjoy!