Playing With Purpose Early in the Point
Butterfly Table Tennis Coaching
by Han Xiao
One of the biggest differences in skill level between players is how they are able to play every shot with purpose early in the point to set up points in their favor. It’s quite easy to pick out players who have solid rallying skills and who can play spectacular points. However, it’s much more difficult to find players who consistently can force opponents to play every point on their terms. Being able to accomplish this will have a huge impact on your level of play in competition.
Serve and Serve Receive
Having a plan on serve and serve receive is the first step to playing with purpose. I’ve written several articles on both of these facets of the game in this column, but I can summarize briefly here for those of you who haven’t read them.
When crafting your service game, it’s very important to analyze what type of points you’d like to set up on your serve. If you are more of a counterpuncher who struggles in the short game, for example, it’s a great idea to mix in more deep serves than the usual player. If you’re a chopper who does not have much of an attack, serving to invite attacks and cause outright errors is a better bet than serving safely. If you’re a strong looper from both wings, you’d want to serve mostly short serves in order to set up the third ball attack. Try to approach your own serve from the point of view of an opponent and decide what their options are when receiving each of your serves. By doing this, you can anticipate the most common receiving patterns of your opponents and not only improve your serves, but also how you follow them up. A good example is that if you serve deep and fast crosscourt so that the ball cuts outside of the corner, it will be very difficult for the opponent to return down the line. If you served from the backhand corner, you should position in your backhand corner so that you can attack aggressively if the opponent plays the angle you expect, which is crosscourt or to the middle of the table.
Similar principles apply when deciding how you want to approach the service receive. If you struggle playing short pushes, try not to get into this pattern in matches. Develop a strong backhand banana flip that you can trust against most short serves. Learn how to push deep aggressively and how to consistently block or counterattack the next ball. If you have a very good short game, on the other hand, but don’t want to play a lot of topspin rallies, playing mostly drop shots on short serves is a great way to frustrate your opponents and set up easy attacks to shorten points.
Remember that you can change your approach against different opponents while still playing to your strengths. Always be flexible so that you stick with what’s working while changing what isn’t effective.
Attacking Half Long Pushes to Apply Pressure
Being able to see pushes that are coming just a bit off the end of the table and being able to capitalize off these opportunities is key to taking control of the point, even if you are not primarily an attacking player. Doing this puts a ton of pressure on your opponent, especially if you can do this consistently off the opponent’s serve. If the server has to worry constantly about serves going long and being attacked, they will naturally take some spin and pace off the serve in an effort to control it. This makes their serve less deceptive, more predictable, and easier to control. If they do not adjust, keep taking control of the point by attacking these half long pushes.
This skill of course takes a lot of practice, but there are a few keys to being able to attack half long pushes very consistently. The first is how to position yourself. Try not to back off too far from the table early in the point so that you can move into the table a little bit if necessary. In general, standing about a forearm’s length from the table early in the point is a good rule of thumb. Secondly, try to use your legs and body rotation in order to control the shot while avoid using too much arm. You have less distance to work with than usual, so avoiding wild swings with the arm is essential to good consistency on the stroke. Lastly, try to keep your racket high, ideally above table level unless there is heavy backspin on the ball. Keeping your racket up will first and foremost allow you avoid any concerns about hitting your racket against the edge of the racket, and will also force you to attack the ball early, giving the opponent less time. After becoming familiar with the loop off half long pushes, you will find that you can adjust quickly when stepping in for a forehand push and judging at the last second that the opponent’s shot is half long. This can be accomplished by simply rotating your upper body and transitioning straight into a forehand loop.
The benefit of being able to consistently attack half long pushes is very clear. It will allow you to quickly take the initiative when executed well and assume control of the point.
Push and Block With Purpose
Pushing and blocking are generally seen as defensive skills by most players. However, one of the signs of a great player who can set up points masterfully is the ability to turn pushing and blocking into purposeful, aggressive shots.
When pushing, be decisive about what you’re trying to do. Don’t hesitate and simply float the ball onto the opponent’s table. Instead, think about whether you’re going to try to push short or push deep. If you want to push short, make sure you’re taking the ball relatively early. If you’re a little bit late for some reason but still need to push, just make a deep push. If you hesitate and think about trying to drop short but you are late, you will more than likely present the opponent with an easy attacking opportunity. When pushing, pick your ball placement and go for it, especially on deep pushes. Try to always either go for a wide angle or into the opponent’s body when pushing deep, rather than right to the opponent’s backhand or forehand pockets. Learning to push to extreme angles is an underappreciated skill even among advanced players.
If the opponent has an opportunity to attack, be prepared to make a solid block. Like pushing, blocking can be done aggressively as well. Make sure you move into good position rather than reaching for the ball whenever possible. If the opponent’s attack is strong, try to make a safer block to a good location to limit the opponent’s opportunity to finish the point. However, if you have forced a weaker attack from the opponent, you can be a little bit more aggressive with the block, especially with your placement. Aggressive blocking does not necessarily mean punching the ball hard, but rather moving your body weight into the block and pressing through it, as well as being more aggressive with ball placement. As with pushing, blocking aggressively often involves wide angles or blocking quick into the opponent’s body or elbow.
Sudden Initial Attacks
I’ve written a couple different times about how placement on your initial attacks is so important to setting up the point, especially how attacking the opponent’s elbow is an excellent and underutilized tactic. However, being able to make a very sudden initial attack with good timing is equally important in today’s game. This type of shot is difficult to describe, but is best thought of as an aggressive attack where the opponent might more commonly expect you to play a safer transition shot. Most of the time this type of shot is performed off topspin where the opponent has played a low shot with decent but not exceptional quality.
The scenario that this applies to most is when one player backhand flips the other player’s serve and the subsequent shots thereafter, a scenario that has become more and more commonplace in today’s game. How do you normally react to this situation and how aggressively are you looking to play? I have mostly seen two opposite ends of the spectrum when I watch intermediate players. There are players that play very safe and block the ball back, and players that try to play extremely aggressive, with most of them rushing the shot in the search for an attack. The ideal response involves playing an aggressive shot with purpose, with the key being the timing and suddenness of the shot in order to reduce risk while still playing aggressively enough to put the opponent on the back foot. Being able to place the shot well is an additional bonus.
In order to improve on your timing and explosiveness on this type of shot, it’s important to learn what your preferred timing is on both sides and practice moving your feet to enable this timing. Have a practice partner flip to your backhand, your forehand, and into your body. Experiment with slightly different contact timings close to the top of the bounce to see what timings you’re comfortable with. Most players are most comfortable attacking at the top of the bounce or slightly after the top of the bounce. Try to generate your own power with a short stroke rather than utilizing the pace already on the ball if you are taking the ball after the top of the bounce. On the other hand, if you are taking the ball on the rise, use the pace on the ball and use more quickness and placement rather than power. Also, try not to swing wildly, instead focusing on your footwork, keeping your core low, and improving the suddenness of your stroke. The key is not how much raw power you can put on the ball, but having very clean contact, making your shot as sudden as possible, and being able to change the placement of your attack on demand, so that you put the opponent on the defensive while assuming little risk. When done right, it is impossible for the opponent to judge how aggressive your shot will be or where it will be placed until you execute the shot. This means that when you play aggressively, the opponent will be forced to defend immediately, but you can also play an actual safe transition as a change up when necessary and your opponent may not play as aggressively as usual since he or she might expect a more aggressive play. This allows you to pick the right ball to attack instead of always forcing the attack immediately.
All of the things mentioned here are rather complex and require lots of practice to master. However, simply starting to think about the early stages of each point in this way and attempting to execute some of these principles will give you a big advantage against many players. To give you an example of all of these concepts in action, we can watch Ma Long from China, who is probably the best in the world at setting up points with purpose. In this match, Ma Long is playing Marcos Freitas of Portugal, who is himself a top class player. Freitas can hold his own as a rallyer, but it’s early in the point that Ma Long really shines, many times putting himself firmly in the driver’s seat before Freitas can do anything aggressive. Watch how decisive Ma Long is early in every point, regardless of whether he’s trying to set up a set play off his own serve, playing quick aggressive backhands wide crosscourt, attacking long and half long pushes, deciding whether to push short or deep, blocking, or counterattacking. Also note that he’s not playing hyper-aggressively; everything is aggressive but measured at the same time and every shot has a clear intent. Freitas does some similar things in the first game and controls a number of points, but as the match goes on Ma Long demonstrates these concepts far more consistently. Having this type of anticipation, timing, and game sense to play with purpose at the start of points is a huge part of what makes Ma Long the world’s most in form player at the moment. I hope you can learn something from watching him and continue to improve your own game.