11 Dec 2019

A total of 59 players, 27 men and 32 women will compete in the forthcoming Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, play commencing in Zhengzhou on Thursday 12th December.

Only four of those players, all men, are pen-holders; yet the only players who compete in the maximum three events adopt that grip - China's Xu Xin and Hong Kong's Wong Chun Ting.

by Kabir Nagpal

Both appear in the men’s singles, in the men’s doubles Xu Xin partners Fan Zhendong, Wong Chun Ting joins forces with Ho Kwan Kit; in the mixed doubles it is Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen, Wong Chun Ting and Doo Hoi Kem.

The two further pen-holders are China’s Zhao Zihao who appears in the men’s singles line-up and Germany’s Qiu Dang who complements colleague, Benedikt Duda, in the men’s doubles.

Pen-hold versus shake-hand

The pen-hold grip is commonly perceived as the more effective grip when playing close to the net, situations when control and feeling are required. A supple wrist, an early contact before the peak of the bounce and a return that makes it difficult for the opponent to seize the initiative is possible.

Of course, it is marginal and depends on the skill of the player; is there a better player over the table in the current era than Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju, an exponent of the shake-hands grip? Let’s say the exception proves the rule!

Only men; the argument propounded is that to play a backhand topspin using the pen-hold grip, a strong wrist is needed. The male wrist is stronger than that of the female.

Xu Xin, the stylish penholder (Photo: Rémy Gros)


Over the last two decades, the game has changed; a strong backhand has become more important; in this respect the shake-hands grip is accepted as more effective to the pen-hold style.

Naturally, the debate as to the more effective grip in not something new but time and again in doubles the pen-hold grip has proved effective. Notably of the five occasions between Seoul in 1988 and Athens in 2004, when men’s doubles appeared in the Olympic Games, there was always a pen-holder in the successful gold medal winning Chinese combination.

In 1988 Chen Longcan and Wei Qingguang, both pen-holders won, before the combination of pen-holder and shake-hands became the option. Lu Lin and Wang Tao succeeded in 1992 in Barcelona, followed by Liu Guoliang and Kong Linghui, Yan Sen and Wang Liqin, Ma Lin and Chen Qi.

Now add Xu Xin to the equation, he has won the men’s doubles title at the World Championships with Fan Zhendong, Ma Long and Zhang Jike, the mixed doubles with Yang Haeun and Liu Shiwen.

Major reason

Returning the service short, creating angles on the return, the perceived advantage of the pen-hold grip; it is a major reason why Xu Xin and Wong Chun Ting appear in both doubles events.

However, they are different, Xu Xin may open the point with the backhand but it is his forehand and incredible sideways movement that makes him so effective. Left handed, stopping him playing a forehand when he partners a right hander is next to impossible!

Somewhat different, the extremely athletic Wong Chun Ting will play more from the backhand, to some extent in the same manner as the now retired Wang Hao. The amount of top spin he generates makes him an ideal foil for Doo Hoi Kem; especially when playing towards the woman he can force passive blocked reply; towards the more powerful man a counter top spin but away from the table, giving his partner time to react.

Notably Wong Chun Ting and Doo Hoi Kem are the only pair to beat Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen on the international scene; they prevailed in the final at the ITTF World Tour, Shinan Korea Open.

Clear favourites

The winners in Qatar, Hungary and Sweden, Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen are clear favourites in Zhengzhou; equally, the “Cloudwaker” partnered Fan Zhendong to men’s doubles success in Korea Republic, Japan and Sweden; the one hiccup was when losing to Lin Gaoyuan and Ma Long in the penultimate round in Australia.

Meanwhile, the other pen-holder on show in the men’s doubles in Zhengzhou is Qiu Dang;  partnering the left handed shake-hands attacker, Benedikt Duda, they have very much underlined that the two grips in tandem prove an ideal combination. They have been very much the surprise pairing of the year and are growing in stature; they have proved themselves more than a match.

Will the pen-hold grip prove an invaluable asset in Zhengzhou? The evidence is quite overwhelming.

Features Grand Finals 2019 Grand Finals xu xin Wong Chun Ting Qiu Dang

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Day 4 - Agricultural Bank of China 2019 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals