by Massimo Costantini, ITTF High Performance Manager
It all started about ten years ago, when players in East Asia, and more precisely in China at the National Championships, began to make systematic use of the backhand opening on the table, moving in advance to the centre of the table or even to the forehand area: it was the so-called backhand side flick, then also known as the “banana flick” because of the technical figure that the racket/wrist/forearm produce in performing this shot.
Of course, this kind of action is not a new occurrence on the table tennis scene; we can think of players like Petr Korbel or Tibor Klampar. Since then, the so-called “pivot” or “step around” – the footwork movement on the body axis to permit and perform the more powerful forehand topspin – has been pushed into the background.
In my opinion, and I would like to start a debate here, there is a possibility that the steady decline of China’s dominance has already begun. China’s mixed results are very evident across various tournaments. I already reported this trend in 2013 in one of my technical essays. Then I predicted the decline to happen within the next 8 to 10 years. The full extent of my argument can be found in one of my articles, recently posted on LinkedIn.
The Chinese style
In earlier days, we used to expect the usual phenomenon of a Chinese player, only barely out of their teens, playing internationally for the first time and leaving the Europeans and rest of the world defeated in their wake, then rising towards becoming one of the world’s top players in a very short time.
Today, however, we have Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto born in 2003, and Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju born in 2001, who started playing table tennis with a mentality of opening the rally and actually frustrating any attempt by the opponent to attack after their own serve. The Chinese, masters of the third ball of attack, saw themselves threatened by this show of strength on their own turf, one where they had prevailed for the past ten years.
Why then, are champions like China’s Ma Long or Fan Zhendong still the most credible candidates for the World Championships and the Olympic Games? The reason is that they have not been influenced by this trend, which I do not consider to be a good evolution of our sport. They have maintained their nature while capitalizing on the most effective of Chinese skills: making the best use of the forehand from the backhand side, which relies on the primordial use of footwork movement. This is the reason why they remain the best players.
What of Europe?
And Europe? Europe has failed to take the train of the aggressive game of the second ball – or maybe they missed it. There are too many players who, after serving, even find themselves pushing long and then hoping for the fifth ball of counter attack, or worse: playing fishing or lobbing.
If Asia expresses itself in a school in terms of theory and efficiency of the game, Europe still relies on individual talents. Hence extraordinary examples such as German legend Timo Boll, his compatriot Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Belarusian Vladimir Samsonov can still have their say.
But let us examine then what kind of “pasta” those like Harimoto and Lin Yun-Ju are made of. Later I will also discuss the Chinese players Wang Chuqin and Xue Fei, and Sweden’s Truls Möregård.
Evolution of styles
One does not need to have analyzed the most recent matches of the World Tour in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic to say that the short or long push on the serve-return is now part of the past, reminiscent of the playing style just more than a decade ago. Both have the sense of a backhand attack on the table, forcing the opponent to “defend” and pressing him with other shots at close range from the table, all for a rally of just 1.5 seconds or even less. And hence the serve is not so elaborate, but more simple, maybe 50% short and 50% long, just to allow them to be ready for the acceleration of the third ball.
It is a one-way game, an imposition of one’s own dictate in any situation, an extraordinary show of willpower. But it may be perhaps precisely because of a player’s young age that this can happen and therefore their freedom to express themselves reaches levels that remain out of reach for others. They think fast, act suddenly, move quickly: an explosive mix.
In my opinion, Wang Chuqin is a “threat” for everyone simply because he, like the other two mentioned above, grew up with a backhand flick and with the ability to impose his own game, and on top of that, he is a left-hander which, for that style, is a plus. Chuqin was lucky enough to grow gradually in terms of results, starting with the 2018 Youth Olympics Games in Buenos Aires, where he defeated Harimoto in a challenge at the highest level.
In fact, he was extremely comfortable to think like Harimoto and to play like Harimoto; the pen holder Xue Fei, born in 1999, was not as lucky. He was another promising star of the future with as formidable a potential as Chuqin, but his greatest opportunity was shattered just two years ago, in Olomouc, when he led 3-1 8-4 against the great Boll, but eventually losing. Winning that match would have projected him to the Olympus of the Chinese superstars, but with that defeat things went into a different direction.
Sometimes you got to have luck on your side. Here I have to make a technical clarification: the pen grip has the indisputable double advantage of loading the “sidespin backhand flick” with high rotation and providing the forehand with a powerful topspin. In fact, with the pen grip, the excursion of the racket reaches almost 360 degrees and the transition to the forehand is a natural motion, if only for the tradition of the Chinese masters.
Last in my list is Truls Möregård. The young Swede, also son of great traditions of medals and world titles, has opted for the game of control with a tireless effort to put the point in the pocket. Unlike that of his Asian colleagues, his effort is prolonged. Comparing the two different approaches is to compare runners competing in the 100 metre event with middle distance runners, whereby Truls would play the part of the middle-distance runner.
Another example of this approach would be Romanian Cristian Pletea. The protagonist of the unexpected victory against Harimoto, he has the same great ability as Möregård: to bring a “100 metre sprinter” player competes as if he were a middle distance runner. What are the chances they will make it?
To conclude, we are less than 11 months away from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. I think the Chinese are once again favoured for three reasons: the habit of winning, maturity (age factor) and the presence of Liu Guoliang. It would not surprise me to see the President of the Chinese Association in the training hall to make many-balls drills and not even to see him on the bench, maybe just for Ma Long or Fan Zhendong’s men’s final, with – who knows?- Harimoto or Lin Yun-Jun or… perhaps someone else?