The Flat Smash That Isn’t
(By Larry Hodges)
Many players with good looping strokes, and others that don’t, have trouble doing “flat” smashes because they don’t understand what the shot is – or more exactly, what it isn’t. The main thing to understand about a flat smash is that it is NOT flat. There is no such thing, in fact, as a good flat smash, except off a high ball that lands short enough so that you can hit straight on with consistency.
The contact for a “flat” smash – which from here on I’ll just call a smash – is a glancing upward blow that puts topspin on the ball. (This is against a ball that’s not too high. If you are smashing a lob, then the stroke isn’t really upward, but contact is still a glancing topspin stroke.) It’s not as much topspin as a loop, but quite a bit more than it would seem from watching. The ball sinks into the sponge and into the wood, and then rebounds out with topspin. Without that topspin it would be difficult to control for three reasons.
First, of course, the topspin is needed to pull the ball down. It is this topspin that gives a good hitter a powerful yet consistent smash.
Second, hitting with an upward topspin stroke allows the player to make last-second adjustments. If you hit the ball flat, then the only way to adjust just before contact is by changing the racket angle, and it’s almost impossible to control that at the last second – as a basic rule, never change your racket angle on a drive once you start your forward swing. But if you are swinging with an upward topspin stroke, you can easily increase or decrease the topspin part of the stroke as you adjust to the incoming ball.
Third, if you do hit the ball flat, the ball will likely sail. If you hit it truly flat, it goes out like a knuckleball and shoots off somewhat randomly. If you are off by just a touch and put a tiny amount of backspin, that will make the sail out of proportion to the amount of spin on the ball, due to the ball’s speed, and the ball will shoot off the end.
If you want to see just how much a smash is an upward stroke, watch how the old hardbat players hit the ball, where their “flat” shots are actually very upward shots, essentially upward slaps of the ball. Similarly, a sponge smash (unless the ball is very high) has to be an upward glancing blow, though not as much as with a less bouncy surface.
Here’s a great way to develop your smash with proper contact. Stand at one side of the table with a box of balls, and one by one, toss them in the air and smash them, using this upward glancing blow. When you can control this shot with a satisfying “smack,” you are ready to do it at the table.