Playing Less Predictably
Butterfly Table Tennis Coaching
by Han Xiao
One of the biggest issues that players have is that sometimes they don’t feel that their practice level translates into their competition level. They feel that they hit great quality shots in practice and are very consistent in all their drills, but really struggle when it comes to winning actual points in tournaments and leagues. A lot of the shots that they hit in practice just aren’t as effective as they seem to feel in practice. Although there are many factors that contribute to this, one of the most important is that too many players play too predictably in matches. In order to help illustrate this, we can watch the last couple of games from the recent men’s finals in the World Cup between Ma Long and Fan Zhendong:
For context, Ma Long has not beaten Fan Zhendong in the Chinese Super League this season. However, in this match, Fan Zhendong looked very subpar and was not able to play to the best of his ability, leading to Ma Long taking a quite comfortable victory without dropping a game. In contrast to Fan Zhendong, Ma Long looked like he was very active and in great form during this match.
One of the biggest differences that I would like to focus on is the difference in predictability between the two players in terms of the shots they play during this video. Fan Zhendong ends up playing very safe during the entirety of this clip, very rarely taking risks or playing outside of established patterns. In fact, he very rarely plays anything other than crosscourt topspins. There are a couple of exceptions, including a banana flip or two from the forehand side into Ma Long’s backhand, but these are equally predictable shots as opposed to a banana flip from the forehand side wide to the forehand, a shot that Fan Zhendong plays quite effectively when relaxed. The result of this is that Ma Long wins a large number of points due to his ability to predict what Fan Zhendong will do. There are a few patterns that Ma Long recognizes and takes advantage of:
- If Ma Long serves deep to Fan Zhendong’s backhand, most of Fan Zhendong’s first returns will come to the backhand corner. The commentator, Adam Bobrow, points this out as a pattern that has been occurring during the entire match. One time in the video Fan Zhendong plays the first opening to the middle and wins the point outright, and at 9-8 in the fourth game Fan Zhendong tries to open wider to the backhand corner but Ma Long is able to adjust. The predictability of this pattern is likely Fan Zhendong’s failure to realize that this was a staple of Ma Long’s strategy and make it priority number one to shut it down. We could see that at the end of the match, when Ma Long needed a point, he came back to this tactic. Fan Zhendong was ready for a short serve, couldn’t adjust his body position quickly enough, and defaulted to opening cross court.
- Fan Zhendong’s first backhand flip goes almost exclusively to the backhand corner. We can see that Ma Long is often ready for this opening and attacks it very aggressively a few times, instantly gaining the initiative in the backhand rally. Although Fan Zhendong’s backhand usually is his strength, Ma Long’s ability to jump on top of him quickly negates any advantage that he has and puts him on the back foot. Even when Ma Long is not able to quicky attack this ball, he can make an awkward block to the middle or spin up the next backhand. We will discuss this more later.
- Fan Zhendong’s forehand opening from the forehand side is more often than not a powerful cross court drive. Ma Long anticipates this over and over again when he pops up a drop shot. There are a couple times when Ma Long serves or pushes long when he doesn’t expect to and does not cover the angle, but whenever Ma Long realizes that Fan Zhendong has an opening, he almost exclusively covers the wide forehand. Although Ma Long misses a couple of these reaction counterloops off the bounce, he wins a few points from losing positions this way. At this level, one or two points is huge. Fan Zhendong would have been far better off holding his loop for a half second longer and maybe taking a little bit off of it, electing to go for the middle and once in a while spinning down the line. This would force Ma Long to guess each time he made a poor drop shot which way the opening was going to go rather than being able to predict the cross court loop so much.
In contrast to Fan Zhendong, Ma Long had much more variety in this match. From the forehand side, Ma Long was much better at varying his placement when he had the opportunity to attack, even when he missed. There were a number of down the line kills but also a lot of solid, spinny attacks to Fan Zhendong’s middle. These attacks to the middle are the hallmark of a great player. They aren’t flashy, but they are possibly the most effective attack with little counterplay and even when they don’t produce a point immediately open up the rest of the table for follow up attacks. From the backhand side, Ma Long showed a wide variety off of both underspin and topspin, showing the ability to drive the ball with pace, spin the ball with heavy topspin, and also block quite effectively.
I also want to note that Ma Long did a much better job in the match of using changes in shot pace and height to his advantage compared to Fan Zhendong. Fan Zhendong occasionally used some clever play in the short game to throw Ma Long off, such as sliding the ball with a little sidespin into Ma Long’s middle or wide backhand, but once in the topspin rally Fan Zhendong’s shots were again quite predictable, generally being played straight with heavy spin and moderate to high power. Ma Long, on the other hand, varied his shots not only in placement but also height and spin. Ma Long’s ability to elevate the ball in some topspin rallies and his ability to play slow, awkward blocks and spins to Fan Zhendong’s middle really negated Fan’s rhythm as well as his ability to play reaction forehand topspins off the bounce in the rally. This is usually a big weapon in Fan Zhendong’s arsenal, but in this match Ma Long was able to successfully take it out of the equation with his unpredictable placement, spin, and pace.
There are no absolutes in table tennis, and Fan Zhendong did play with some variation, but ultimately not enough to win, as Ma Long really had his number during this match. Some of this may be attributed to nervousness. We saw in some cases that when Fan Zhendong did try to change his shot placement or step around suddenly he was just a step slow or a little tight, causing his shots to miss. This may be a big reason why he decided to play so safe. Overall, however, I personally believe Fan Zhendong’s core game is quite predictable and he relies more on overpowering his opponents, while some of his unpredictable shots come from being able to react well to high quality shots from the opponent. If he can become more unpredictable in his play, he will possess even more weapons in his arsenal and it will accentuate the high quality of his shots even more. Try to make the timing, placement, spin, and pace of your own shots unpredictable whenever possible to improve your own match play in your next competition.