December 21, 2002

Lu Lin On Playing Shakehanders

(Chung’s notes:This article was published in the September 2002 issue of Table Tennis World. The sentences in bold appeared that way in the original article. Lu Lin is now in charge of the coaching team in the 2nd women's national team.)

Reporter: You played a style similar to Kim Taek Soo’s. Using Kim as an example, can you talk about some of the common tactics against shakehanders?

Lu Lin: When we prepare our tactics, we should firmly pursue this goal: aggressively seize the initiative to attack first. In general the penholder’s specialties are a greater ability to initiate attack, and a greater ability to control the first 3 balls. Once in the rallying phase, the penholder’s backhand is at a relative disadvantage. Of course, this is a generalization, and does not apply to every case. For example, Chiang Peng-Lung has a very strong backhand block. But overall, players like Kim, Ma Lin or Yan Sen have a relatively weaker backhand in the rallying stage. A penholder must use his forehand power to control the point and then seize the initiative. How to establish control in the first 3 shots is key, and this should be the goal of our tactics. Traditionally, the penholder competes with the shakehander for first-3-ball control mostly over the table. His serves and serve returns are primarily short, and he gains initiative through repeated short placements. Shakehanders from the previous generations, like those from the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, i.e., from the Guo Yuehua era, had relatively poor over-the-table control, were not very good in attacking short balls, and were slow playing the short balls. That created opportunities for the penholders to start the attack. Since the ‘80’s, the new generation of European players, represented by players like Waldner, improved their over-the-table skills very rapidly. That led to the decline of the penholders in the late ‘80’s: their survival space was getting smaller, and the opportunities for initiating attacks were becoming limited. That improvement also increased the amount of rallying in the games, and accentuated the weakness of the penholder style. We could not exclusively use our forehands like before. Why is it possible now for players like Ma and Kim to compete evenly against the shakehanders? I feel that the most important reason is that we have expanded our ability and our space to initiate attacks. What I mean by expanding our space is this: in the past the penholder are limited in attacking back-spin – if the opponent could not place the ball short, we would loop it when it is pushed a little outside of the table. But now, we can let our opponents start a forced and therefore a weak loop, and then we attack that loop. We can attack not only back-spin, but top-spin as well. This is a major change. Correspondingly, we can now serve long, because if the opponent does not loop with sufficient quality, we could then reloop the return.

Reporter: A player like Ma Lin mainly serves spin/no-spin. He primarily serves short, and he supplements it with deep serves. Is the purpose of the deep serves to interfere with the opponent’s serve reception tactics?

There are two purposes. One is interference, like you said. The other is more proactive in nature. We are not saying that we don’t have any good serve and therefore we try to mess up the opponent. Some Europeans are weaker in attacking backspins, so we would serve deep backspins, and attack the weak loop returns. Or we would vary the speed, spin or the tempo such that the opponent could only soft-loop the ball back, which we would then reloop. Tactically, in the past we tended to serve short more: we depended upon placement and spin. Ma Lin, for example, could put great spin on the ball, and his range of spin on serves is very large. That sets up opportunities to attack. This is one tactic. Another tactic is to use deep serves to the opponent’s backhand or middle to force a weak loop. we would then reloop the return and initiate the attack. The mix of short and long serves makes it harder for the opponent to have high quality serve returns. What are the differences between short and long serves? One is the length on the table, the other is in the contrast. The difference is based on where the opponent is standing. When he is close to the table you would make him feel that the serve is long. When he is a little bit away, he would feel that it is a short serve.

R: The same spin/no-spin serve placed to the forehand small triangle, to the backhand small triangle, or to the middle near the net will have different effects. What are the differences?

Not all shakehanders play alike. For example, those from Eastern Europe tend to have stronger backhands than those from Western Europe. Grubba, the Mazunovs’ are good examples of the former, while the Swedes with their better forehands represent the latter. Why is that? There are training differences, but most importantly the grips are different. Those with a backhand grip in general have stronger backhands than forehands. The penholder should take note of this, as well as the position of the receiver, before he serves. When a shakehander stands in the middle to receive serves, he is vulnerable to both short and deep serves to his middle. When he realizes that the serve is coming awkwardly to his middle, he would try to step around to receive. Now his vulnerability is in the forehand close to the net corner, the forehand deep corner and the backhand small triangle. Why the backhand small triangle? Because when he steps around, he is in position to receive the deep serve, but cannot comfortably get to that backhand small traingle area. When he steps around and realizes that serve comes at a wide angle, he would have difficulty quickly step further around.

R: Are Kim’s serve-and-attack strategies different from Ma Lin’s?

There are differences. The Koreans do not have as tight a 3rd-ball game as ours, and they are not as quick. Here is what I mean by quick: When we place short, we emphasize on a quick placement. If you do this with speed, it becomes a proactive shot, instead of a passive shot as if you have no other choice. If you place short without speed or spin, the shakehander can comfortably flip or return short. Ma Lin has excellent short placements: they are spinny, so that they are hard for the opponents to flip. If they tried to return short, it is easy to have the bounce go off table. Here’s more on "tightness". When we want to serve short, we will serve short. For the Koreans, out of every 5 serves that they want to serve short, 2 of them will bounce off the table. So the Koreans are weaker than us in this respect. But they have their relative strengths over us. Their backhand defense is better, and perhaps that is because of the shape of the blade. Also, Kim’s defense away from the table, his court coverage, and his forehand power are better than ours.

R: How is Chiang Peng-Lung different from us?

The biggest difference is that he blocks better than us. Of course he also has very strong 3rd-ball attacks. When he cannot score with his 3rd-ball attacks, he still has the ability to stay in the game with his rallying ability. From the perspective of 3rd-ball attacks, his is not that much different than ours. Mainly Ma and Kim have a stronger initiative and ability to step around than Chiang. Also once the forehand is employed in a point, Ma and Kim can keep attacking with forehand more effectively than Chiang. Chiang’s specialty is that he makes high-quality shots, in his pushes, his serves and his smashes. He is powerful, but because of that, his ability to link his shots is less. This is a natural form of compensation.

R: Shakehanders like to move the ball side-to-side (from forehand to backhand) against penholders. Do penholders use the same strategy?

Yes, but the results are not as successful. When you move the ball to their forehand, it is harder to do it with speed. Chiang is quite good in this respect. His blocks are very fast and powerful.

R: It seems that penholders nowadays step around to hit the ball down-the-line a lot more than crosscourt.

Not necessarily true. In general, the shakehanders are most vulnerable in the middle, so when we power-loop, we aim for the middle, as well as the two corners. We have to be able to attack all three lines comfortably.

R: From a tactical point of view, how can we focus on attacking the middle?

First, we need to have the awareness to loop to the middle. During training, because of the need to be repetitive, we sometimes focus on cross-court and down-the-line loops, and not as much to the middle. So we need to stress that in matches. Secondly, your loop to the middle has to be high-quality. A weak loop to the middle is one of the worst shots, because the opponent has time to set up to attack it. Your loop has to have speed and power: it has to put the opponent on defense to be successful. Thirdly, as I said earlier, the middle is not in relationship to the table, but in relationship to where the opponent stands. If a player is not clear about this, and use the table as a reference, the results are not as good.

R: So the tactics are to a large degree relative to the position of the opponent.

Of course. The requirements on footwork are becoming greater and greater. Those with good footwork with have a smaller vulnerability. If a players stand still, then the middle is very obvious. But if he keeps moving, it will be difficult to aim at his middle. Or we can say that his footwork has reduced his vulnerability.

R: If the opponent is moving the penholder side-to-side, how can the penholder in rallies minimize the effect of being controlled?

Ideally the penholder tries to engage in forehand-to-forehand rallies. In general these are cross-court rallies, but if one feels confident then one can attack down-the-line to the opponent’s backhand. But you have to be sure, otherwise going down-the-line may easily put yourself in the passive position.

(Interview written up by Li Kefei, reporter for Table Tennis World magazine.)

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