Playing Against Penholders - Butterfly Table Tennis
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Playing Against Penholders

Playing Against Penholders
by Han Xiao

Last week, we examined some basic strengths and weaknesses of players who play with unorthodox rubber and went over some of the common tactics used against these players. This week, we’re going to take a look at penhold players. Most people have some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of penhold players, but a great many players don’t have the knowledge of how to play against these players. In addition, modern penhold players have evolved just as much as shakehand players, causing some of the tactics against them to become less effective.

Let’s approach this from the point of view of the penhold player. A penhold player’s biggest strengths are the range of motion of their wrist and the fact that the grip naturally lends itself to reaching over the table quickly. This leads to several obvious strengths: spinny and deceptive serves, good spin or pace on forehand attacks depending on the rubber being used, and quick over the table play. On the other hand, there are some major weaknesses. It is more difficult to generate significant power without a full swing, and generally players will produce more power with a shakehand grip. Of course, the major weakness that everyone knows about with the traditional penhold grip is the backhand. However, many players misunderstand this weakness. A penhold grip player can block the ball quite easily close to the table, and it can be quite an awkward ball if it has little spin, sidespin, or light underspin. A good penhold player can also punch the backhand quite hard. Playing to the backhand does not result in a guaranteed easy ball. Rather, the weaknesses of the traditional penhold backhand are the difficulty in generating topspin, the difficulty in finishing a point with the backhand, and most importantly the lack of reach on the backhand side. In order to compensate for the reach problem on the backhand side, penhold players will assume a neutral position more biased towards the backhand, and look to step around quite often to attack.

So how do we play against a penhold player? Here are some tactics:

1. One primary goal is to back the opponent off the table. The first way to do this is straightforward. When you get the chance to attack but can’t put the ball away, attack wide to the backhand, as wide as you can comfortably achieve. This will put the penhold player on the defensive and may force them back. Of course, if you have a chance to make a strong attack, you can choose to attack anywhere. Just be aware that an attack directly into the backhand or middle of a penhold player can be blocked back quicker than you expect.

2. Another way to back the opponent off the table is to take advantage of their need to attack with their forehand. When pushing or flipping, go wide to the corners. Mix in some balls wide to the forehand to get the opponent scrambling since many will be looking to step around. This makes pushes wide to the backhand even more effective since the opponent will be wary and less likely to step around early. This tactic works especially well if you have a good defense and can continue the tactic throughout the point, pinning the opponent in the wide backhand and occasionally switching play to the wide forehand.

3. A penhold opponent’s middle can be more difficult to find than a shakehand player, especially a penhold blocker. Due to the way they hold their racket and the range of motion, the corners are often weaker than a shakehand player. Attacking the middle can still be effective, but you will need to be very precise and attack right at the elbow.

4. Try not to get into a short game battle against a penhold player. Try to open up the game by serving and receiving deep a bit more than you usually would. Additionally, longer points that go into a mid-distance rally are not favorable to a penhold player, so try to stay in points even when the penholder makes a very strong attack. Find out where the opponent likes to attack from on the table and avoid those areas in order to limit the opponent’s winners early in the point.

5. Sometimes attacking low is not as effective against a penholder as a high, spinny ball to the backhand. Because of the reach limitations of the penhold grip, it can be more difficult to reach high balls. This means that lobs can be effective as well, but this is not really a tactic that most players can consistently utilize. However, attacking high and spinny to the backhand can be a safe way to exploit the fact that this height is very difficult to reach for a penhold player.

6. A penhold player often needs to jump out to a quick start in each game since as players feel each other out and points get longer, a penhold player has a disadvantage. If you fall behind early in the game, don’t give up and don’t get frustrated. This is part of the normal flow of the game against most penhold players. Try to adapt to the penholder’s serves and receives and stay within striking distance.

Of course, these tactics need to be adjusted for each individual player. Some penhold players, for example, don’t step around at all due to an inability to do so or personal choice. Against these players, you can’t surprise them as much to their wide forehand, but the tactic can still be effective since they may have slower footwork in general. It’s important to adapt the tactics depending on what you notice during a match.

One match that I remember watching from my childhood is the men’s singles semifinal match in the 1992 Olympics between Jan-Ove Waldner and Kim Taek Soo. You can see some of the tactics described above in this video of the final game of the match:

Since that time, penhold players have definitely evolved, and more and more players have reverse penhold backhands. This makes some of the tactics against penhold players less effective, as reverse penhold backhands can generate more power and spin than traditional penhold backhands, and have a slight improvement in reach. This means that players who have a good reverse backhand will position more like a shakehand player and don’t need to step around as much in order to generate attacks. However, many of the tactics still apply, such as opening the game up and trying to force longer mid-distance rallies rather than close to the table play. Only the best reverse penhold backhands can really fundamentally alter the dynamic of playing against a penholder.

Some of these tactics are useful not only for shakehanders playing penholders, but really for a player of any grip. Knowing what the strengths and weaknesses are of the opponent’s playing style is a big advantage in any matchup, even if your style has the same strengths and weaknesses. If you are exploiting the weaknesses of the opponent but not vice versa, you will obviously have a leg up on them. Hopefully, knowing some of the strengths and weaknesses of penhold players will improve your understanding of the tactics you can use against them.

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