Strategic Risk Taking in Matches
Butterfly Table Tennis Coaching
by Han Xiao
We all know that some players take risks more than others in matches in order to play more aggressively, while other players play more conservatively and take relatively little risk. In addition, players will take risks at certain points in the match based on score and situation. This can be considered tactical risk taking. However, we can also go into the match with a strategy based on certain types of risky or risk averse behavior. This type of strategic risk is built into the game plan based on certain strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, and can be extremely important in gaining the upper hand on the opponent.
One of the most classic examples of strategic risk taking I have seen is when certain players have an extremely strong serve and a relatively weak all around game. These types of players can win an overwhelming majority of points on their serve, more often than not taking both points when serving. However, their receive game is often a bit weaker. As a strategy, some of these players will receive serve extremely aggressively in the hopes of stealing points here and there on the opponent’s serve. Although they will make more service return errors, the idea is that if they go even on the opponent’s two serves they can consolidate any advantage they gain on their own serve. This type of player will try to flip a lot of serves whenever possible, go for very extreme return placement, and try to counterattack quite often. As a whole this is an extremely sound strategy as long as the player can maintain a sizeable advantage on his or her own serve.
One counter to this strategy is being risk averse on the service return throughout the match. If the opponent has a very strong serve, you can be more conservative on the service receive, waiting for the ball a little longer than usually to read the bounce and spin of the ball clearly before making a safe return and playing the point out. If the opponent has a very strong serve but a weaker all around game, you can win a lot of longer points if you can handle the serve and defend the first attack or two. By doing this, you can minimize the advantage the opponent has on the serve and force them to adjust their aggressiveness on your own serve.
Another great example of building a strategy around amount of risk in certain situations is playing against choppers. Against a chopper, you need to have a strategy going into the match of when you will take risks and when you will avoid risk. You want to take more risks against a chopper when the risk is likely to result directly in a point if it pays off rather than when even if you make an aggressive shot the chopper is likely to retrieve quite routinely. Usually, this means having a strategy of taking more risk when the chopper is still close to the table, such as early in the point or when you’ve brought them back in with a drop shot. When the chopper is away from the table and waiting for your attacks, it’s time to avoid risks if necessary since you’re likely to make many mistakes without much payoff. Although things like placement when you are taking risks are still tactical, the overall plan regarding when to take risks and when to avoid risks is very much strategic.
One more specific example I will mention is in the case when you and your opponent know each other’s games extremely well, such as if you are routine practice partners, and one player has an advantage playing standard points or patterns against the other. In this situation, the weaker player wants to avoid standard points and patterns at all costs, especially the patterns that are practiced the most between the two players. This weaker player wants to create as much chaos as possible, which starts from the serve and serve return. This means taking some risk with the serve and serving deep sometimes, serving with extreme spin at times even if the follow up is difficult, etc. On the serve return, the weaker player will want to employ non-standard returns such as extremely deep pushes, sidespin returns, very aggressive attacking returns, and in general any returns other than basic pushes and drop shots that lead to standard points. Once the point begins, chaos can be achieved by changing the timing and pace of the point very abruptly, by playing very quick off the bounce, etc. This type of chaos gives the weaker practice player a better chance to win and therefore the weaker player should employ it as a strategy. On the other hand, the stronger player in practice should be looking to play very risk averse in order to negate some of the opponent’s ability to create chaos. This means making very simple serves and serve returns in order to limit the options of the opponent to make out of the ordinary plays. As an example, short dead serves and simple drop shots are very effective at forcing simple, standard points. A good illustration of this can be found in the following clip from 1998 between Wang Liqin and Liu Guoliang. At this point in their careers, although there is not a huge difference in playing levels, Wang Liqin is a far better player in any standard point. It is interesting to note all the variety that Liu Guoliang attempts to incorporate, especially on the serve, service receive, and from the backhand side. Although this has to do with playing style as well, in this match Liu Guoliang tries to take far more risks than usual in the types of shots he attempts to play from the backhand especially in an attempt to avoid standard rallies and also attempts to counterattack aggressively whenever possible rather than blocking. On the other hand, Wang Liqin takes relatively few risks on serve and serve return and is content to play standard rallies where he is clearly the superior player. Here is the video:
This type of analysis is not always applicable in every situation, nor is it as applicable if there is too big a skill gap between you and your opponent in a match. However, in cases where the match is likely to be competitive, asking yourself how much risks you should be taking in common situations throughout the match can help you construct the appropriate strategy and take advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses. Sometimes certain tactics by themselves aren’t as effective unless you know how much risk you should be taking when employing those tactics. Learning to take or avoid risks appropriately as part of your overall strategy is an important part of performing better in competition.