(by Steve Hopkins)
There are a lot of different ways to play our game – and it is played at many different levels. This isn’t an article about our US Team members striving to hone professional skills to become relevant on the World stage, and it isn’t an article about young players honing their skills to reach their potential. This IS an article about an aging player who has spent most of the last decade between 1900 and 2100 working for the last year to achieve a goal – and coasting into the New Year with a rating over 2100.
To provide some background, I have a pretty solid understanding of the game – I coach kids at my club, I played for a college team that won a national title, and I’ve been one of the top players in the places where I’ve lived. But I’m over 50 and I haven’t crossed 2100 in thirty years. In fact, one of my writing specialties at Butterfly is providing “non-pro” equipment reviews designed to give regular players an idea of what all of this amazing technology feels like when you aren’t a world-class athlete with amazing armspeed, perfect footwork, and an advanced technique.
MY NOTES ON REACHING 2100:
(1) I lost some weight. Playing solid points and some solid games (and pulling off the occasional upset) at 215 pounds is possible, but performing consistently for a whole tournament day at 195 pounds is a whole lot easier. I’m not a nutritionist or personal trainer, so I’ll recommend everyone get advice from a professional. But for me, being a little lighter on my feet translated to more peak moments during matches and the ability to have more sustained quality practice.
(2) I worked on my serves. I had two different goals in mind – the first was to steal a couple easy points each game by creating two or three misses. The second goal was to create rallies that played to my strengths. That is, I was less concerned about creating the perfect pro serve (which might require a pro-level third ball attack, or that might create awkward spinning returns) and more concerned about steering the service returns to a place where I was most comfortable executing a good next shot (and ideally rallies that could be started without excessive movement as I am not as young or as quick as I used to be).
(3) I narrowed my focus. I have spent a lot of time tinkering with things. That Fan Zhendong’s banana flip from the forehand side, or Krystian Karlsson’s big sweeping backhand, or Mima Ito’s poke serves, or Adam Bobrow’s under the table snake lob are all really fun to play with – but for a 2000 level player, there are limited opportunities to win points that matter with one amazing shot. In fact, the opposite is true more-often-than-not, as most of the time when I go for a massive one-touch winner, it doesn’t land so I’m either throwing it in late in a rally that’s already mostly over, or closing out a lopsided game. The eleven points that I need to win generally come from more normal things. My best service return is usually a strong, deep push. My best defense is usually a stiff block to a corner. My best attack is usually a medium speed topspin. My best “winner” is usually a shot deep to their backhand. And my best strategy is generally to focus on changing speeds and spins and to make sure that I’m in position to return my opponent’s high percentage shots and to counter-punch when they are out of position. Truthfully, if I can win two extra points per game off of improved serves, and two extra points per game off of long push returns, I’m 100 rating points better right there.
(4) I booked a few extra tournaments. There is a difference between playing for fun and fighting for every point in a competitive setting. I have had good tournaments and bad tournaments. Playing in different places and under different conditions helps – each event is foundational and helps with the next. And let’s face it, there are advantages with certain types of match-ups – so sometimes the draw matters. And the extra focus at the tournament helps one target what weaknesses need to be addressed. I played all-out at the tournaments and tried to stay with my game plan regardless of the results. That sometimes provided some tough lessons (like that Krystian Karlsson big sweeping backhand works a lot better in the loose competition of practice than in games with focused opponents). I had some mixed results – some really solid matches where I narrowly lost, and some upset losses that I felt I should have won. I played great in practice for a couple months before any of my improvement started showing at tournaments. And it too playing four events in eight weeks to break through and have consistently good play for a full tournament.
(5) I gamed the system. The rating system is set up to benefit those who play more. That is, one can have a series of horrible losses and drop 20-50 points for each moving down incrementally for each loss. But when the pendulum switches directions and you have a few lucky wins, you jump up based upon a mathematical formula for that one event – where you are placed between your best win and worst loss. Or to say that differently, if you have 4 bad tournaments that you chalk off as learning experiences and follow that up with one solid tournament, you may be better off (rating-wise) than playing 5 consistent tournaments with average results. By playing several tournaments in a short period, I lost some points (while improving). So when I did have my breakthrough event where I was consistent from start to finish, the effect of my wins was maximized (from a rating perspective) and instead of clawing my way through the 2000s, I jumped my way from the upper 1900s into the low 2100s. And I’ll make this one additional confession – I had one tournament on my schedule that remained after my breakthrough event – and when I achieved the results I was looking for, I sat that event out. I would never sign up for a tournament and then duck a particular match, but achieving my goal and deciding to enjoy it over the holidays is apparently right in my personal wheelhouse.
A USATT rating is a snapshot of a particular moment. Just as I’ve often felt that I was playing better than what was reflected in that rating, at this moment, I may be a little overrated (I may have some points to share at our upcoming Rhode Island Winter Open). That said, I’m enjoying it. I’m over 2100 (at age 52), and it feels great.
Visit ButterflyOnline.com for the latest table tennis news and results.