30 Jan 2017

The defensively minded player continues to survive; at the forthcoming 2017 ITTF-Europe Top 16 tournament, which starts in the French Riviera resort of Antibes on Friday 3rd February, in the Women’s event, the backspin player is alive and well.

Five of the 16 names which appear on the entry list extol the defensive art.

by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor

Poland’s Li Qian is the one name amongst the quintet who is a previous winner; she emerged successful in Düsseldorf in 2009.

However, of the group, she is not the highest rated; listed at no.25 on the current Women’s World Rankings, that privilege belongs to Li Jie of the Netherlands. Presently Li Qian is named at no.33.

Next in the order of merit is Russia’s Polina Mihailova, followed by Viktoria Pavlovich of Belarus and Ukraine’s Tetyana Bilenko; on the current Women’s World Rankings, Polina Mikhailova is named at no.42, Viktoria Pavlovich at no.47, Tetyana Bilenko at no.49.

We were told in the 1950s, that with the emergence of sponge rubber, there was no future for the defender.

Later in 1985, when the regulation restricting racket coverings to red and black on alternate sides was announced at the ITTF Biennial General Meeting in Gothenburg, many believed that life for the defender was approaching a rapid end.

Equally, as racket covering became faster, there were arguments from certain quarters that all developments were against the backspin artiste.

Yet, the defender, especially in the women’s game continues to be prevalent; none of the “Antibes Five” played in the era when rackets were the same colour on both sides.

The fact that they can compete at such a high level when technology in recent decades has favoured the attacking player; does it not suggest that these ladies are of a higher level than their predecessors? Is the word “athlete” most appropriate? Are fitness levels ever higher?

In athletics, World records are continually broken, the measurement of time and distance gives an objective answer; if we could quantify female defensive players in the same manner, would we find the current generation has surpassed the level of the previous?

Support facilities, medical science has moved forward; equally technical skills evolve. Is it amongst defensive players that we see more differences that when considering the attacking variety?

Li Jie, Li Qian, Tetyana Bilenko, Polina Mikhailova and Viktoria Pavlovich are all subtly different but there comment factors.

Notably all are 30 years of age or over; does that fact reflect a certain gritty determination in the character of a defender?

Does it not show a will to continue and prove doubters wrong? Does it not underline the fact that if you look after yourself, you don’t need to be a teeny-bopper or hundred miles an hour attacker to gain success?

Also, all come from a countries that was either a part of the former Soviet Union or they learned their skills in China before moving to pastures new.

It is very much the same if we look back at the history of the defensive players who have won the Women’s Top 12 title, the predecessor of the current event.

Germany’s Jie Schöpp won in Arezzo in 1994 and in Saarbrücken in 2003; colleague Qianghong Gotsch emerged successful in 1999 in Split and then retained her title one year later in Alassio. Like Li Qian, all learned their basic skills in China.

Also, in 1986, at the time representing the Soviet Union; Filura Bulatova won in Södertölje, Sweden.

Of course, there is also someone who is the exception to the rule; a player from a country that delights in that principle. If the rest of Europe drives on the right, Great Britain will drive on the left; if Europe uses the Euro, the British will use the pound.

The most successful defender of all is England’s Jill Parker, who under her former name, Jill Hammersely won in 1978 in Prague, in 1980 in Munich and the following year in Miskolc.

Simply the exception proves the rule; the Brexit feeling.

Europe Top 16 Li Jie Polina Mikhailova Li Qian Viktoria Pavlovich Tetyana Bilenko

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