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The table tennis tournament published the draws the night before the event. You found out that you are going to play against Hou Yingchao in your opening table tennis match of men’s singles at 9:00 a.m. You immediately take out your pen and paper and write down some notes of how to play against him. You arrive to the gym at 7:45 am and train accordingly.
You hear a tournament announcement for you to play your opening round against John Doe. What? You had mentally and physically prepared to play against Hou Yingchao. Who is John Doe anyway? What style does he play? What should your tactics be?
There are basically two main elements to winning against an unknown table tennis opponent – knowing your game and learning your opponent’s game.
The main things that I always remind myself are that my serve is good ¾ I am very confident in serve return. Also, I have very spinny loops, I can move very fast, I can block with excellent placement and I can rally longer than anyone. With a bit of a pep talk to yourself, you can learn to play with confidence and force your table tennis opponent to adjust to YOU. Hesitation (especially on serve return) will make you inconsistent and not very threatening to a new opponent. If you can play without hesitation and strike hard from the beginning, the fear of your shots will bring out more errors from your new opponent.
Your Opponent’s Game
The second element is knowing your opponent’s game. From the time that you greet him to the middle of the first table tennis game, you should know the following:
#1 Table Tennis Equipment
Regardless if he has pips or inverted, inspect the top sheet of his racket to see if it is grippy or not. Also inspect the sponge to see the thickness, hardness, and speed. All of these elements will help you begin forming a general impression. If you opponent has a recreational ping pong paddle with absolutely no spin, then from the very first point, you realize that you don’t need to lift much on the opening loop. Every aspect of the table tennis equipment is a slight indication of what the player can and cannot do.
#2 Handedness (right or left handed)
This should be so obvious.
#3 Shakehands Grip (forehand or backhand oriented)
If the table tennis racket is shifted more towards the index finger, this is called a backhand grip. If the racket is shifted more towards in the thumb, this is called a forehand grip. Typically, backhand grip table tennis players tend to play more towards your forehand side of the table. Typically, forehand grip table tennis players tend to play more towards your backhand side of the table.
#4 Penhold Grip (traditional or reverse)
Traditional penhold table tennis players use only one side of the racket mainly blocking and pushing with the backhand while attacking with the forehand. Modern reverse penhold table tennis players use both sides of the racket attacking from the wings – these players are usually a bit weaker from the middle. Even in warmup, you should be able to tell if they are traditional or reverse penhold.
#5 Overall Style – offensive or defensive
Within the first few points, you should be able to tell if this table tennis opponent is looking for the power shot or looking to be consistent and keep the ball in play. This is one of the main things that you need to know – this will put you in a tactical direction. If he is a power player, you need to stop his weapons. If he is a defensive player, you need to work the point, be selective, and your play game at the right time.
#6 Forehand or backhand dominant
The grip doesn’t fully tell you if he is backhand or forehand dominant. As the table tennis match progresses, evaluate if your opponent likes his backhand or forehand better. It may be that he likes forehand better for some shots (like looping and smashing) while favoring backhand better for other shots (like pushing, blocking, and serve return.)
#7 Near the table or far from the table
If your opponent likes to play near the table, then look to play some sharp angles to take him away from the table. If he feels comfortable away from the table, then consider using some variations to move him in closer then back deeper. You don’t want to allow your opponent to get in the groove or in a comfortable position.
As the table tennis match progresses, you should be forming a clear picture in your mind of your opponent’s serves, returns, preferences, tendencies, and game patterns. However, don’t get too caught up in changing your game. Play your dominant game with your best serve, strongest shots and play with full confidence. As the match progresses, you can adjust if necessary.
By Samson Dubina, Professional Table Tennis Athlete and Coach