Thursday 16 April 2015

Devising Tactics for Playing Left Handers

Left handers have always been a little more rare in competition and training centres than your usual right hander. I'm a little biased and can say we are a bit special, being a left hander myself. Because of a lesser exposure to training and competing against left handers, some players can struggle with them and for good reason. As with any style we are not used to, it is difficult to try and win a match against that style. Today I was asked to give some advice on playing left handers by Kris Sabas, so here we go! See more from my Coaching Blog.

Here hopefully I can shed some light on some useful tactics for playing left handers, it should be easy as I know what I'm bad at in matches, hopefully none of you will come after me once you have read this :)

Left Hander Zhou Yu in the Chinese National Team
In the current world rankings there are 4 left handed players in the top 10 ranked men, Xu Xin, Jun Mizutani, Timo Boll and Marcos Freitas, this shows that the lefties are up with the best of them and as only 10% of the population are left handed, there appears to be a greater proportion of high level left handed players in table tennis, showing a potential advantage. So what do left handers do well and what do they struggle with?

Strengths of Left Handed Players

Service: Left handers are known for developing strong and creative service, not only this but the conventional spin that players are used to from right handed players is reversed. This is an area that can often trip players up as they struggle to read service from left handed players. Having a strong serve means that left handed players are able to set points up from the word go and if you are unable to read the serve of make a quality return then you can end up playing into their hands.

How can you improve to deal with left handed serves? You can have practice partners mimic the service type and 'feed' serves to you. A common serve is the left handed pendulum serve which goes short to the forehand, the side spin carries towards the edge of the table. You can mimic this by doing a right handed sidespin variation serve from the forehand corner or the middle of the table, short to your forehand.

You can also have practice partners serve reverse pendulum serves, they are slightly different but can still help you develop a feel for your service receive.

Wide Angle Forehand to Backhand: A left hander's forehand can produce devastating results cross-court into a right hander's backhand. Because of the opposite angles and common practice with right handers, we sometimes see left handers imparting more sidespin into their shots, players like Xu Xin and Michael Maze and also at national and club level. The angles played by a left hander can be different and hard to get used to.

Strength in Backhand: As most left handers are used to training with and playing right handers, we are used to dealing with the brunt of cross-court play from the forehand and a lot of other play into the backhand corner. This means many left handers have developed either strong backhands or notable pivot forehand strokes. Players like Michael Maze and Timo Boll have great backhand strokes, while Xu Xin and Mizutani favour the pivot forehand more often. Personally my backhand is probably just as effective as my forehand for opening loops and countering, if not stronger on occasion.

Familiarity with Right Handers: As left handers we spend a lot of our time training with right handed players, we have played many of you in competition and as such we have learnt your tricks. Left handers see playing right handers as a normal thing, perhaps we don't play left handers often either, but we know our own weaknesses. This gives us an advantage, we gain more experience playing with right handers than you gain with left handers. This helps us develop good touch and feel for receiving serves and angles and of where the best places to place the ball are, we are more tactically aware of how to play right handers than potentially vice versa.

Despite the above points, I'm not saying that left handers are vastly superior to right handers, I'm just pointing out some potential advantages that some left handed players may have developed or taken advantage of.

Tips from Pingskills on returning left handed wide serve

Weaknesses of Left Handed Players

Pinning the Backhand Corner: Some left handers can be weaker in the backhand corner in their developing stages. Also players who favour the forehand pivot can have vulnerable backhands. It is sometimes possible to pin a forehand player into the corner by forcing a pivot forehand and pushing the player wider into the corner and off the table in the hopes of squeezing them in the corner and forcing a weak shot or a loss of balance.

The Wide Forehand: We like to try and cut this angle off and our lefty pendulum serves help with that. A confident backhand corner oriented left hander is often looking to stay in their comfort zone and play to their strengths and this can lead to a weak wide forehand. Sometimes a left hander can become more focused on guarding the commonly attacked backhand corner and can leave a small opening in the wide forehand. Also you can combine tactics by forcing the opening forehand pivot on the corner and then playing wide to the forehand. This is a textbook tactic used against left handers.

Pendulum to the Forehand: Just like right handers hate our short pendulum serves to the forehand, we are also less comfortable with this serve. Let's face it, not many players are very fond of receiving pendulum serves on their forehand side. For left handers playing left handers, the reverse pendulum to the forehand provides a great setup sometimes also. As I mentioned we like to guard our backhand corner and anything which pulls us away from there can be less than convenient for us.

Fast Serve Down the Line: Some left handers are susceptible to a long fast serve down the line to their backhand side as it is hard to have confidence when opening against that serve with the backhand. This is a good way to try and score a couple of easy points or in a pressure situation.

So What are the Key Ideas for Playing Left Handers?

  • Practice with a left hander as much as possible if you can, get a feel for the service and the angles that we play.
  • Take the initiative, a right hander also has the angle to play forehand into a left handers backhand side. You want to set the point up to attack first, this means focusing on receiving well and effective service.
  • Serve short to the forehand frequently and throw in the occasional deep push to the forehand corner. 
  • Try and pin the player in the corner, a strong push receive can force the player to pivot forehand and you can try and play them into the corner and force an error or opportunity to focus the next weakness.
  • Target the wide forehand, particularly as a follow-up if you have pinned them on their forehand in the backhand corner.
  • Try and close off angles. Your placement is imperative to protect yourself. A left hander can play with sidespin on the forehand and carry the ball wide to your backhand, this is less than ideal. The ball wide to the forehand should be as a surprise, in the pivot zone a lefty is much less likely to hook the ball as they are out on the forehand side.
  • Serve long and fast down the line to the backhand, this can be effective against some left handed players and is worth trying out earlier in the match as a test.
Every player is different and tactics need to be monitored and developed and constantly improved during a match. These are some base tactics to try against left handers, some may work, others may not, it depends on the opponent. It is important to remember that just because something did not work against one lefty doesn't mean it won't work on another.

Thanks for your question Kris! If you have more questions do not hesitate to use the contact form on my blog or contact me via the MHTableTennis Facebook Page :)


  1. i have a pe controlled assesment thanks for the tips i am a big fan

  2. i have a pe controlled assesment thanks for the tips i am a big fan

  3. Very interesting.... I am a lefty player and I understand better my strongs and weaknesses against righties.
    Know, I would want to understand better to play against lefties (I am sure that the general tactics are note the same when two lefties are playing together : a simple idea could be to observe two righties and find solution with "symetrie" but I am sure that it is not the perfect way because the lefties have their own features...


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