In this article I’m going to discuss the issue of using your strengths when you are playing a table tennis match, and how to get the best results from what firepower you have. I’ll use a hypothetical example along the way to help illustrate what I am talking about.
The first thing you need to do is work out exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are. This is something you should really do prior to playing the match – by the time you are out on the court it is probably a little late! The subject of how exactly to identify your strengths and weaknesses is something I have dealt with elsewhere, so for now we’ll assume that you have spent some time working out what the best (and worst!) parts of your table tennis game are.
Jason is a two-winged looper who uses speed glue. He decides that his main strengths are his forehand loop from his backhand corner off a backspin ball, and his backhand block to the opponent’s crossover point. His worst weaknesses are his footwork to a wide forehand ball, and his flip return of serve.
Know Your Opponent
The next thing you should do is to discover the strengths and weakness of your opponent. If at all possible, you should find these out by scouting your opponent before your match. Sometimes you won’t be able to do this, in which case you will have to determine your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses as you actually play the match!
Jason’s opponent is his next match is Alex, a player who loops with his forehand and blocks and hits with his backhand. Jason watches Alex playing a few matches, and decides that Alex’s strengths are his backhand punch block down the line, and his forehand pendulum serve that he uses to set up his forehand loop. Jason believes Alex’s main weaknesses are his forehand push and his backhand hit off a backspin ball.
Do the Math
Once you have identified both you and your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time to think about how you and your opponent match up. This is most important when you are both of a similar level of play – if one of you is much better than the other the better player’s weaknesses are likely to still be better than the other player’s strengths, and the use of tactics will not be likely to affect the overall result. But when you are both of around the same standard, the player who uses the better tactics can give himself a crucial edge that can swing the match in his favor.
What you should be looking for is how your strengths match up with each other, and how your strengths match up with each other’s weaknesses. Can you formulate a game plan that will allow you to make the most of your strengths and avoid your weaknesses, while at the same time taking advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses and minimizing his strengths? If so, you should have the start of a winning strategy.
Jason starts to look at his and Alex’s strengths and weaknesses, searching for ways to gain an edge. He decides that the following strategies could be beneficial for him:
- Jason will use a forehand pendulum double bounce serve with sidespin, that he will place to Alex’s middle and backhand side. The sidespin will help push the ball towards Jason’s backhand corner. He will use mostly sidespin and backspin, since this will hopefully cause Alex to push the ball back to his backhand corner, allowing Jason to use his strong forehand loop from that location. Since Alex has a weak forehand push, Jason will also put the occasional sidespin/backspin double bounce serve to the forehand to test Alex’s push return.
- Provided Jason can use this serve to get a chance to do his strong forehand loop from the backhand corner, he will avoid playing the ball to Alex’s backhand in order to prevent Alex using his strong backhand punch-block. Instead Jason will concentrate on looping the ball to Alex’s crossover point and down the line to Alex’s wide forehand.
- If Alex does return the serve tightly, Jason will push more often to his Alex’s backhand, daring Alex to try to attack the ball with his weak backhand hit. Jason is also hoping that Alex will not try to attack, and simply push the ball back crosscourt to give Jason another chance to use his strong forehand loop from the backhand side. Pushing to Alex’s backhand should also reduce the amount of angle Alex can get out wide to Jason’s forehand, hopefully reducing Alex’s ability to take advantage of Jason’s weakness out wide to the forehand.
- Jason would also be willing to try a long backspin serve to Alex’s backhand every so often, to see whether Alex is willing and able to attack it. If Alex is successful, Jason would use this serve less. If Alex is poor at attacking the serve, Jason can then use both short and long serves to Alex’s backhand in order to set up his own attacks.
- When returning serve, Jason will focus on Alex’s variation of spin, and take a chance or two early in the match by trying to flip Alex’s serve. This will let Alex know that Jason is willing to attack any loose serves, and force Alex to concentrate hard on serving tight. It might also fool Alex into thinking Jason’s flip is not a weakness if Jason can land a flip or two. Jason will keep attacking the occasional tight serve just to keep Alex on his toes, and stop Alex from being able to anticipate Jason’s returns. The rest of the time Jason will focus on good placement of the return, avoiding Alex’s power zones wherever possible.
- If Alex does generate a strong forehand attack from his serve, Jason will move back from the table and attempt to re-loop the ball to Alex’s forehand side, hoping to push Alex back from the table as well, and avoiding Alex’s strong backhand punch-block.. If Jason can succeed at getting Alex to move back, Jason should then be in a stronger position, as he can loop from both wings. Jason would then be looking to place a strong attack to Alex’s backhand to take advantage of Alex’s weaker side – Alex will find it very hard to use his strong punch-block if he has been pushed back from the table.
Use a Loop – A Feedback Loop!
Once the match actually gets underway, it is important to keep thinking and be aware of whether your match strategy is working or not. Take notice of which plans are working better than you expected, and use them more often or in important parts of the game. Also note which strategies aren’t working, and try to understand why – have you misread your opponent’s weakness? Or are you unable to do what is required to take advantage of it? Change your plans accordingly based on what you are able to accomplish during the match, and how your opponent is playing.
The match between Jason and Alex is in the third game. Jason won the first fairly easily using his original strategies. Alex improved his service in the second game and refused to allow Jason to push him back from the table, and so was able to attack with his forehand loop and backhand punch-block, and so Alex won the second game.
Now, at the start of the third game, Jason re-evaluates his strategy. He decides to stand further towards his backhand corner, to allow him to take more of Alex’s serves with his forehand, which should be better suited to the type of sidespin Alex is using. He will also place more of his service returns out wide to Alex’s forehand, forcing Alex to have to move in order to hit them. Jason will then stay in close to the table and mix up blocks with counterloops to try to affect Alex’s timing and hopefully catch Alex still out wide to the forehand side.
The match continues …
Can the use of good tactics in table tennis guarantee you a win? No, because if your opponent is too strong then he will win regardless of the tactics you use – you simply do not have the game required to take advantage of his weaknesses. Even in matches between opponents of similar strength, there are many other factors at work, such as differences in style and even the fact that one opponent may have slightly better touch than another on that particular day. But in these sort of table tennis matches, the correct use of tactics can provide the smart player with an edge in his favor – and we could all use that sort of edge, couldn’t we?