Playing as the Underdog - Butterfly Table Tennis
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Han Xiao

Playing as the Underdog

Playing as the Underdog
by Han Xiao

Every player I’ve met, including myself, has stories about matches they almost won against superior opponents. They all sound pretty similar. Some are closer matches than others, and you can see certain patterns emerge in people’s stories. Most of the time a number of different factors combined to create a really close match. Maybe the underdog played well, the favored player had a bit of an off day, and the style matchup was good for the underdog as well. Sometimes the player isn’t that big of an underdog and simply performed well on the day. In any case, today we’re going to go over some tips for playing as an underdog in order to hopefully turn some of these close matches into upsets. In order to illustrate some of our points, we’ll refer to the recent men’s singles final of the Japan Open, where Maharu Yoshimura (world ranking #30) goes up against Xu Xin (world ranking #2):

  1. Don’t rush when given the opportunity to take the initiative and attack. This is probably the biggest reason underdogs eventually lose matches to favored players. More solid players are more consistent in their attacks and make fewer errors, especially at critical junctures, so as an underdog you cannot afford to give away points where you have an advantage. Since Yoshimura is a very strong world class player, he makes relatively few of these errors. However, he makes one incredibly poor error of this variety. With the match tied 1 game apiece and having game point to go up 2-1, Yoshimura completely shanks a smash off a defensive lob. Xu Xin eventually wins the game, which takes a lot of pressure off and changes the match. Otherwise, Yoshimura does quite well at this, which you would expect from a player of his quality. Many times after Xu Xin gives him the opportunity to attack, Xu Xin backs off the table and Yoshimura cleverly plays a softer forehand loop, moving Xu Xin awkwardly back towards the table and sometimes winning the point outright. Better players often have better defensive capabilities, but it doesn’t mean you should rush to finish the point in one go.
  2. Take measured risks, even more so than usual. This seems contrary to tip number 1, but it has more to do with taking risks to put yourself in an advantageous position and then being patient once you’re in good position to win the point. This involves taking some risk in the serve and receive game, especially when ahead in the game, as well as having faith in your strengths. Yoshimura has great confidence in his backhand banana flip and his forehand loop and utilize both to put Xu Xin on the back foot quite a lot early in the match. His forehand especially is very flexible on the attack as well as the counterattack, and he can hit hook, straight, and inside out loops. He displays his full repertoire and takes a lot of measured risk early in the point, especially when counterattacking Xu Xin’s weaker openings. Yoshimura also does a good job of being aggressive on the serve return early in the match, including a clever return of serve at 10-9 in the first game to win the game. Of course, you don’t want to be giving away a lot of free points due to misreading serves or missing returns outright, but when you can be aggressive, taking those risks instead of playing overly safe can give you a better fighting chance.
  3. Believe that you can compete and keep the focus and pressure on at all times. Yoshimura comes out in the first game and you can see that he definitely is fighting hard. However, there are several things that make it seem like he doesn’t have full confidence that he can win the match. After winning the first game, Yoshimura immediately plays a much more timid and sloppy second game, losing quite badly and losing all pressure that may have built on Xu Xin. At one point, after losing a long rally where Xu Xin makes some amazing retrievals, Yoshimura almost chuckles to himself. Finally, as the match is slipping out of his grasp, Yoshimura folds quite easily in the last game. This is all very much expected of a very young, up and coming player going up against the #2 player in the world in a Pro Tour Finals, but it is also very common of underdog players who come into the match without full belief that they can win the match. Often, these underdogs will take a lot of risk, play a few very good games since they are very relaxed with nothing to lose, but this type of performance cannot last the duration of the match. Once the player starts thinking more about winning, they become more timid and sometimes nervous. When in position to win key points later in the match, it’s very difficult to take the right amount of risk. The important thing is to go into the match believing you can win, being aggressive but playing within your game, and maintaining 100% focus throughout the match.
  4. Have a game plan that focuses on your strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. This is important in all matches, but as the underdog it becomes even more important than usual. Sometimes you can get away with playing poor tactics when you are the stronger player or playing against a comparable opponent. However, when playing against a stronger player you need to accentuate the strengths of your game as much as possible. In this match, Yoshimura attempts to move Xu Xin to the wide forehand quite often, especially using his backhand flip, in an attempt to put Xu Xin on the back foot. He mixes that in with deep, hard cuts to Xu Xin’s backhand to exploit the relatively weaker backhand loop of Xu Xin. Finally, Yoshimura tries to use his strong forehand to attack quickly to Xu Xin’s middle as much as possible, which is a very effective tactic since Xu Xin is a taller player who has trouble dealing with quicker shots to the middle at times.

These are very broad tips that you can use as the underdog, but they are some of the most important aspects of playing well and competing when going against a stronger player. Of course, sometimes the match is simply not winnable. The other player may be too strong or you may be physically unfit. However, when the match is winnable, being able to do these things and having a good tactical game plan is very important to playing a good match and giving yourself the best chance to win. The next time you come up against a stronger player, believe in yourself, play within your game, and utilize some of these tips to gain a better chance at an upset.

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