21 Mar 2017

The 2016 Olympic Table Tennis competition has featured many different competitors, who play with differing styles: there are those who prefer to use the penhold grip, but the majority of the players at Rio 2016 rely on the shakehand grip.

Is the penhold dynasty, once popular, now coming to an end?

by Simon Daish

Get a Grip

For those who may not know the difference between the penhold and shakehand grips, here’s a brief summary:

The penhold grip is very distinctive, as the player grips the Table Tennis bat in a downward-pointing direction, as seen in the above photo. Shakehand is the far more common grip of choice at Rio 2016, with the player holding the bat in a similar style to a tennis racket.

Rather astonishingly, Rio 2016 could be the first Olympic Games to see a medal elude a penhold grip player in the singles events.

A Dying Breed?

Penhold has proved a popular choice for many Asian players in the past with the likes of former Olympic champions Ma Lin (China) and Ryu Seungmin (Korea Republic) opting for the grip. However, over the past decade the number of penholders near the top of the world rankings ladder has dropped to a handful of players.

August’s rankings list shows that not a single female player in the world’s top 20 uses the penhold grip, while there are only two penholders in the men’s top 20: Xu Xin and Wong Chun Ting.

Wong decided to take up the penhold grip in a bid to emulate his idol Wang Hao (China), and the player from Hong Kong hopes that the rarely used grip doesn’t become extinct anytime soon, “I hope it will not (die out), I sincerely hope that my success can motivate more players to choose penholder grip.”

China’s Xu Xin also shared Wong’s fears regarding the grip’s future back in 2012, “Liu Guoliang (China’s Head Coach) has said to me that if I have no development in my technique then it will lead the penholder’s style into extinction.”

Chuang Chih-Yuan (Chinese Taipei), who is a shakehand grip competitor, believes he knows the answer to why the number of penhold grip players has diminished, “The current generation and how table tennis is going means it is quite difficult to play penholder style. Now every moment everybody is thinking to attack first.”

Penhold Resurgence at Rio 2016

While many of the world’s top ranked Table Tennis players are opting against the penhold grip, two contestants in particular at Rio 2016 have caught their opponents out with it: Jian Fang Lay (seeded 53rd) beat Russia’s Maria Dolgikh and Sofia Polcanova (Austria) before becoming the final Australian to exit the Women’s Singles draw against Yu Mengyu.

The other player who travelled far with the penhold grip was Ni Xialian of Luxembourg, who performed better than she had expected by reaching round three. Feng Tianwei seeded 36 places higher (2nd) was the player who eventually ended Ni’s journey, but the Singaporean admitted to struggling against Ni’s style, “Her playing style is very unique. I think she’s probably the only one in the world playing that style, so I’m not used to it; I found it hard to find my rhythm in the first two games; she was playing very well, so it was really tough for me.”

So is the penhold grip doomed to vanish from future Olympic Table Tennis events? Or will the positive campaigns of those players who have succeeded at Rio 2016, like Ni Xialian, inspire more people to take it up?

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