Thursday, 21 September 2017

Is Conformity of Styles Hurting the Sport of Table Tennis?

This is a topic that you may have considered subconsciously but never really discussed. Maybe when I talk about it you will notice. I spoke to a couple of players during the World Table Tennis Championships, legends of the sport, one in particular was Jorgen Persson - 1991 World Table Tennis Champion. A big topic for me with the players from past generations is what they think about the progression and changes in the sport. Here is some food for thought about 'conformity of styles'.

Is table tennis losing diversity of style and character?


As the game of table tennis continues to change and the game slows down and becomes slower and less spinny we are seeing a mass phasing out of different styles. This along with the charge led by the athletic and technically superlative Chinese National Team has led to a disturbing trend in the sport.

Traditional penhold style was phased out, short pips penhold - phased out, even modern age penhold is becoming less common in the modern era. Pimple rubber defenders are abandoning long pimples and changing to short to try and keep up with the ever changing game but defenders (outside of Japan) are becoming less common as well.

So what model are people following? Two winged offensive players - trying to focus heavily on technique and building athletic power and speed. This is not a completely bad thing but it opens up some serious problems.

When speaking with Jorgen he told me that the great Jan-Ove Waldner, the Mozart of Table Tennis, says that in this generation nobody could beat the Chinese because they were missing one key element from their game - variation. Everybody is trying to play like the Chinese players, everyone thinks to beat China they need to play like them. The trouble is - if everybody plays a similar style to China, they will likely never best them in competition.

International players are looking for the first chance to get into a power rally and once in it, they play at a constant fast pace - let's face it how is anyone ever going to beat someone like Ma Long playing like that? If you train to play in a similar fashion to Ma Long - unless you train harder and longer than him (which is bordering on insanity), then how are you going to have any advantage in a match?

Admittedly I don't watch anywhere near as much international table tennis as I used to, I used to love watching greats like Saive, Kreanga, Primorac, Korbel, Persson and Waldner out on the table - why? because they were unpredictable, they had class and scrapiness - each their own unique style different from the rest. Saive with his amazing lobbing, Kreanga with that outstanding backhand, Korbel his breathtaking inside out forehand and banana flip and of course lets not forget Persson's backhand swat and Waldner's godly dropshots and fade shots.

Ironically the backhand banana may have led to the game's unwinding. In a recent conversation with Zoran Primorac we spoke more about this and how the game has 'opened up'. We have moved away from the deftness and touch in the early stages of the rally and now players avoid short or long pushing and some event short serves. Play is focused almost entirely upon making strong third ball attacks and trying to end rallies quickly. By slowing the sport down we have inadvertently made players change their style to be even more aggressive - because playing soft or slow with a ball which reduces the effectiveness of that style - is simply no longer viable in the professional sport.

Every player had character in their game, they had signature styles. I feel like that part of the game is being distinguished as we move to larger balls, plastic material and we constantly look for perfect techniques and more athletic games. I think that, yes, perhaps we are seeing long rallies in tournaments, maybe for some people it is more entertaining, but something that was special about the sport before is fading rapidly.


There are very much two sides to this fence, some people like that the sport is becoming more athletic and that table tennis players will now and in the future hopefully be treated more like athletes and less like garage players. Yes perhaps changes in the game were necessary, perhaps they weren't avoidable, this we can never be sure about, but looking back I think a great era of the game is being lost as the sport progresses.

Very interested to hear other opinions and thoughts about this topic, please comment below or on facebook and as always feel free to email me at mhtabletennis@gmail.com

38 comments:

  1. Ban long pips and anti-spin rubbers and maybe more people will be interested in playing. After all the hours of training, you get defeated badly in the tournaments by junk players. The purpose of junk rubbers is to make you miss, not necessary win by skill. Many quit table tennis, How is that good for the sport.

    All ITTF think about is changing the ball size, net height. Most of us players think it's about money anyway. Do you really think that the players think that they care about the sport after all the changes they choose in the past. The players are still hitting the ball strong. Slowing down the game is not going to attract more spectators, but only decrease the quality of the sport. We need more players in the world interested in competing, then spectators will increase. In most sports, if you play in it you will watch it because you can understand and appreciate the skill involved.

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    1. If you can't beat "junk players" after hours of training, you're doing something wrong. Probably overthinking.

      It's the top pros who make the game exciting to watch, no matter what changes are implemented. I was around when hard bats started giving way to inverted. The game will always be evolving.

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    2. Individuality is...by definition...required to make a World Champion. There can only be one.

      To bring up Long Pips and Anti here is ridiculous...those rubbers are obviously "weaker" You must have a level of understanding of the game and the ball to deal with them, once you do, obviously it is relatively easy or we would have a long pips/anti world champ...but we don't in recent times...I believe Deng Yapeng was the last with long pips on the back hand...arguably the best female player to have ever played the game? The rest are all sticky players. If someone arises with the skill to defeat the rest of the world with those rubbers...more power to them. Keeping the game as diverse as possible is our best chance of keeping the sport attractive and possibly promoting the rise of an alternative player that could knock the Chinese off of their well deserved pedestal.

      Innovate within yourself and your own game to excel...it is good to have a "signature shot" that no one teaches that is outside the box thinking. It's a great idea and can be quite productive...in fact, I would say it's a necessity to be a true champion...

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    3. I highly agree. Banning long and short pips does not mean table tennis will get anymore interesting. If you cannot even play against pips, how can you say you know how to play table tennis or understand it. I believe table tennis is a variation of all techniques and styles including short and long pips. He zhi wen was a very example of amazing technique and control using short pips. All around player who understood how to play the game.

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    4. Only people under 1700 who can't deal with LPs say this. Above 1800, players are fine with Pips and see it more as a disadvantage for the pips players. And if they lose to a chopper, they never cite the rubber as the reason why they lost. They know the chopper was better.

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  2. Hi Matt! I TOTALLY agree with your article's hypothesis. Having lived in China for nearly 10 years now, and with a personal grip and playing style that is totally different and "weird" as compared to anything that the local Chinese have ever seen, I can attest to the fact that it is not only possible, but also quite fun, to be able to consistently beat many Chinese players who possess "superior strength and technical skill levels" by being completely unpredictable and as I like to say--"playing with their minds" as much as just playing good table tennis =:).

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  3. It's a pity. I miss the old playing style with diversity so much.

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  6. Good article.
    I started playing table tennis when I was 11 years old but, even then, when I was competing in national junior events and my interest in the sport should have been at its peak, watching the sport on a pro level was a snooze fest. Let's face it, it's generally a terrible spectator sport. Couple that with awful prize money at the top level and you won't get enough serious talent sticking with the sport.

    If you're good at tennis and table tennis and you reach the point where you have to choose (if you want to go pro), which sport are you going to choose? You make more money losing in the first round of Wimbledon than you do winning most single tournaments in table tennis. Tennis players and non tennis players enjoy watching tennis as well, meaning bigger, more enthusiastic audiences and yes, more money!

    I think table tennis has the potential to be more interesting to watch. The missing ingredient is the build up of rallies and how points play out. It desperately needs more variety, especially at the top, top level. It's very much attack of the clones as it is.

    Table tennis is like watching John Isner and Ivo Karlović play tennis against each other. Expect many points to either end on the serve or few swipes later. Sure, such a match has a certain appeal, but not if nearly every match plays out like that. Where table tennis gets interesting for me is when a defender meets an attacker of roughly equal skill. The tennis equivalent would be something like Nadal vs Federer, Djokovic vs Wawrinka etc. Awe inspiring stuff! You get rallies then that play out a little differently. The matches are dynamic and alive. You're never really sure what will happen next. You have variety.

    Long pimples are a deformation that needed to come into place to somewhat bring a balance between defense and offense in a sport where technology drastically favours offense. The sport does need to slow down, but it doesn't need less spin. With the way the sport is going, defenders may become extinct at the top level. That won't be good for the sport.

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  7. Not gonna lie I can't stand playing pips players. It's just not fun even when I beat them. That said joo se hyuk is my favorite table tennis player. He is very entertaining to watch. Problem is I never encounter spectacular choppers like him. It seems many people use pips as a crutch to win and pair them with awkward homespun styles as ugly as their form in general. At the top levels sure all out offense wins but for the average amateur tournament player they can easily change the course of a tournament not to mention throwing off your rhythm and timing. When I play a dynamic two winged Looper and we are both 15 off the table throwing 9rpm at each other it never matters if I win or lose. It is an exhilarating experience in itself. Losing to a crippled 70 year old with 1/10th my athletic ability or at least mobility is harder to swallow. I mean it's cool there is a sport where folks like that can stand in there but a bit hard on the ego. Not saying they should be banned but I can certainly relate to some of the frustration people feel when dealing with them.

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  11. I tend to agree that it seems variety in styles ia diminishing and that is unfortunate. (Though I do wonder if regimentation in the Chinese TT coaching system might be a factor.) As for pips/anti, if these were really a problem at the elite level you would see a lot more of it. At the club level it's successful because there are many players who are frustrated that they're not getting the ball they want to hit. And a lot of it is mental. I once played a match using medium pips on my backhand. I won and my opponent declared he just couldn't handle my pips. But I play Seemiller style and had just started using the pips. I don't think I hit a single shot with the pips. It was all in his head. But the real secret is: You have to play the ball you get, not the ball you want.

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