Playing Against Choppers
by Han Xiao
In most professional table tennis teams around the world, especially in China, you can usually find at least one chopper on the team, even if this player does not usually participate in league matches. As a result, most professional players have the opportunity to practice against choppers and to compete against choppers regularly. However, many beginning and intermediate players do not have this luxury and often struggle against choppers in league and tournament play, even choppers who don’t necessarily have solid fundamentals. Today, we’re going to review some tips and tactics that may help you perform better against choppers.
1. Before playing the match, make sure you understand what equipment the opponent is using and what characteristics the equipment has. A ball chopped with long pips will behave differently than a ball chopped with short pips or a ball chopped with inverted rubber. In general, a chopper will have an easier time chopping with long pips, but the resulting ball will be easier to read and more predictable. A chopper chopping with short pips needs a greater degree of skill and control to control the ball, but can more easily vary the spin and make the ball difficult to read. Finally, a defender using inverted rubber will have a harder time controlling the ball when chopping but will have the option to fish or counterattack more easily. The majority of choppers will only use inverted rubber on the forehand side.
2. Understand what choppers’ typical strengths are and avoid them. Although there are exceptions, most choppers practice chopping against medium to hard loops and move well laterally. Therefore, continuously attacking with medium strength to the corners is a poor tactic, similar to playing against a very solid blocker. Instead, choppers usually have two very obvious weaknesses to exploit. The first is movement in and out of the table. This is why most professional players attempt drop shots in the middle of the rally to bring choppers into the table before continuing to attack. The second is the first attack right after a chopper has been brought into the table. This is connected to the first weakness, but is especially important to highlight because it is typically the shot that will win you the most points against most choppers. It is important to really focus on this ball because a penetrating or well placed attack after the chopper has stepped into the table will often result in a point directly won by the attacker. Attacking hard into the body is especially effective.
3. Know what your strengths are and what the opponent’s strengths are, and take the path of least resistance. For example, if you aren’t a strong looper, limit your looping to when you feel like you can put the opponent under pressure and don’t loop balls that look difficult to lift. If you have a great backhand loop, use it rather than always hunting the forehand. If you are a very good pusher, see if you can force some mistakes using your pushes. If the chopper has a very heavy chop, you won’t automatically win a point by looping or attacking it at all costs. In fact, you might be putting yourself in even worse position for the next ball by moving out of position or losing balance.
4. Avoid very medium-strength attacks. Instead, look to loop low spinny balls sometimes, while other times looking to hit very penetrating loops or smashes. For advanced players, try to hit multiple penetrating balls in a row rather than easing off after one or two. Although it can be more difficult on the attacker, it is necessary against an elite defender due to the defender’s ability to recover as soon as you give them an opportunity to regain their balance and settle back into the point.
5. Don’t play too simple. Some players have the tendency to oversimplify the game when playing against choppers to the point that it becomes almost like a practice drill. This is very favorable to a chopper as he/she has fewer things to adjust to and can easily anticipate point patterns. Mix up services as you normally would, really focus on ball placement, and have some variety in your play. Serve some balls deep. Drop some serve returns short to bring the chopper into the table, even if the chopper can’t really attack.
6. Maintain your focus and be ready for a battle. When you’re ahead against a chopper, the last thing you want to do is give away some free points due to a lack of focus. Getting nervous against a chopper because you blew a lead is a terrible feeling and can be difficult to recover from. On the other hand, don’t give up just because you’re down a few points and think it’s going to be hard work to come back.
7. Realize that choppers are human too. Just because it looks like they’re playing a much lower risk game doesn’t mean that they can’t and won’t make easy mistakes. Try to find some weaknesses that will earn you some easy points off your serves, serve returns, pushes, flips, etc. Anything that doesn’t involve you attacking multiple balls and still results in a point is the best case scenario when you’re playing a chopper. These short points build confidence and conserve energy.
8. Move your feet proactively. This last point sounds simple, but I find it to be one of the biggest mistakes that people make against choppers, especially choppers that have no attack. Players feel like they have a lot of time to adjust to each ball and get lazy about their movement, resulting in unforced errors and off balance shots. Instead, look to move proactively into good position after each shot. Watch the depth of the chopper’s returns carefully and move in or out of the table as necessary. Don’t just stand in one place and swing away.
There are many many more things that can help you gain the edge against a chopper, especially since each chopper has his/her own strengths and weaknesses. What I’ve listed here are some general tips that are consistently applicable against all choppers due to the characteristics of the playing style. Applying these tips to your play should give you a better chance, although nothing can replace consistent practice and competition against choppers to refine your strategy.
To see some of these tactics in action, we can look at how Ma Lin plays against Joo Se Hyuk. Pay special attention to how Ma Lin is really good at bringing choppers into the table with drop shots, then hitting the next attack with great timing and placement. Even if we all can’t have the same spin and power as Ma Lin on our forehands, we can learn from his match tactics.
2009 WTTC: Joo Se Hyuk – Ma Lin (full match|short form)