July 18, 2014

Skills Versus Ratings

Yao Siu-Long emailed me an interesting question recently. He wrote:

As we discussed I am interested in kind of a chart that relates skills to ratings. For example, what does a 2300 player do that a 2200 player does not?  Of course there can be great variability within a category, especially at a lower level. I could imagine someone having an awesome forehand and progressing because of that while others at the same level might be more rounded. I would imagine that at higher levels, however, you would have to be a more rounded player.

I wrote back:

This is tricky to answer because it has to take into account the differences between players with good technique but without good control, and those without good technique but with good control. Everyone fits on this spectrum somewhere, with the top players having both technique and control, while beginners have neither. By the intermediate player you have players with good control but awkward technique, and others with the reverse.

After thinking it over, I realized there really are four types of players at any given level. Roughly speaking, they are:

  • Properly Trained Players (PTP). These are adults who have been trained with "proper" technique. (I'm assuming inverted both sides players with standard attacking games.)
  • Properly Trained Juniors (PTJ). They are somewhat different than PTPs in that they are generally faster and quicker, but have less consistency and ball control, except (relatively speaking) at the high speeds that they are used to playing.
  • Consistent Control Players (CCP). These are players who don't always have the best strokes, and often have major holes in their games, but they are extremely consistent and have great ball control.
  • Weird Players (WP). There's a wide variety of these types of players, from those with strange strokes that are hard to adjust to (lots of inside-out stuff, sidespin, weird lefty stuff, crazy serves, and for many, non-inverted surfaces). They too often have holes in their games, but make up for it by forcing mistakes from opponents by doing "weird" shots.

Trying to write a comprehensive listing of what players can do at each level without taking the four types of players into account would be difficult. Instead, I'm going to write what PTPs should be able to do at each level. For the others, they might not be able to do all these things, but they'll have something else to make up for it, either in faster play (PTJs), consistency/ball control (CCPs), or "weird" shots (WPs) that bring down the opponent's level.

So here is a rough listing of what a "Properly Trained Player" (PTP) should be able to do at each level. I may fine-tune this later - it took a long time to put together, and I'd be on this all day if I spent more time on it - and I have coaching activities to do. I did it for every 200 ratings points from 800-2800, plus an extra one at 2700. (This is a LONG posting, so just a reminder that there is a bunch of short segments afterwards!)

800: Many basement playing adults can play at this level because of ball control.

  • Rallies dominated by just trying to keep the ball in play.
  • The level is dominated by beginning PTJs (good techniques, but no ball control or consistency), CCPs (good consistency at the basement level of keeping the ball in play, but no technique yet), and WPs (weird shots, but no consistency or control).
  • There are no PTPs yet, as a properly trained adult will skip this stage.
  • 1000: At this level a PTP has the beginnings of good technique.
  • They are beginning to learn to put spin on serves, mostly backspin.
  • They have no consistency in returning any type of spinny serves, though they can push against backspin and counter-drive against an obvious topspin serve.
  • Most rallies are dominated by pushing, but the pushes aren't very consistent.
  • They can probably hit forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand with some consistency, perhaps hitting 100 in a row with a coach, but they have difficulty executing these techniques yet in a match.
  • They can smash, but have little consistency, especially if the ball has spin or is deep on the table.
  • Some can loop, but it's pretty rare and extremely erratic. Few can block a loop yet with any consistency.

1200: They now have more basics down.

  • They have some variation on serves, usually a backspin serve and perhaps a sidespin serve or a fast serve.
  • They can return basic spin serves, if the spin isn't disguised.
  • They can push relatively consistently. Rallies are still dominated by pushing, but there are more countering rallies now. The pushing is mostly just to keep the ball in play.
  • They now can rally some with basic forehand and backhand shots, though not too consistently.
  • Many points are now ended by smashing, though they still lack consistency if the ball has spin or is deep.
  • Many players are learning to forehand loop at this level, but they are not yet consistent. Some have started to backhand loop.
  • They are learning to block loops, though not very consistent yet.

1400: They now have mostly proper technique, though there's going to be a lot of fine-tuning, especially with advanced shots such as looping.

  • They now have at least one serve that's pretty good and gives opponent's trouble. It might be a spinny serve or it might be a fast serve. They win a lot of points by serving deep, since opponents at their level can't yet loop.
  • They can return spin serves with some control, if the serve isn't too well disguised, often returning the ball to the wide corners (usually backhand) to stop opponents from attacking.
  • There is still a lot of pushing, but now the pushes are a little more effective, not just for keeping the ball in play.
  • They can rally with forehands and backhands with some consistency. For the first time they can rally with strong players if the strong player just keeps the ball in play.
  • They are getting better and better at smashing, and now make most smashes, though they still have trouble with balls with spin and deep balls.
  • At this point they should be looping against backspin regularly, at least with the forehand, and probably the backhand. They can block loops in practice somewhat consistently, but are still erratic in game situations.

1600: They now can execute proper technique in game situations.

  • They now have multiple types of serves. Some can serve short, though most serves are long.
  • They can return even spinny serves, though not with great consistency or control yet.
  • They can push, but rarely push more than one ball in a row. They rarely push on the forehand except against a short ball.
  • They have relatively solid strokes in rallies, and can counter-drive pretty consistently if not pressed too hard.
  • They can smash and loop kill to end points.
  • Looping is now common. They should be looping forehands whenever possible, as well as backhands. At this point players are forehand looping in rallies, though few do this on the backhand.
  • They are becoming more tactically aware, especially on basic tactics on serve, receive, and placement.

1800: At this point they have pretty good technique, consistency, and ball control.

  • They now have at least the beginning of advanced serves, serving with varied spins. They can control the direction of the serve well, but not yet the depth. Most serves still go long, though most can serve short backspin if needed.
  • They are somewhat consistent in receives, even against pretty good serves, but most receives are somewhat passive and predictable to top players.
  • They look to loop any deep ball, so most pushing is done just to return serves or when they are caught off guard.
  • They have solid rallying strokes, and mostly loop on the forehand side. Many are now topspinning their backhands as well. Unless caught off guard, their loops are pretty consistent. Some players are starting to counterloop in games on the forehand side.
  • They are looking to end the point any chance they can, with both smashes and loop kills. At this level there are now more loop kills than smashes for the first.
  • While weaker players can think tactically, it's about this level that players can reflexively execute good tactics in game situations.

2000: They now have mostly mastered all basic techniques, and make few unforced errors.

  • Many have relatively advanced serves, able to serve varied serves. While most can serve short, most serves still go long as opponents still have trouble with long, spinny serves. But they can serve short when necessary.
  • They are consistent in receive except against very good serves, but don't yet do a lot with most receives other than get it back, unless they can loop it. They are getting better at looping deep serves on the forehand side, but backhand loops against deep serves are still erratic, and so there are a lot of deep serves to the backhand.
  • They are constantly aggressive, always looking to attack and to end the point. They loop most balls on the forehand, and are developing pretty good backhand loops, especially against pushes. In rallies some players are now topspinning on both sides, though most still tend to counter-hit the backhand.
  • Players now have consistent blocks, as most rallies now revolve around looping and returning loops. Many players are now counterlooping regularly.
  • This is where some players become good game tacticians, as they have the shots to execute the tactics and the experience to reflexively do so.

2200: They have strong technique, and make few unforced errors.

  • Serves are now getting advanced. Many have developed tricky spin serves, usually long. However, many are now using more basic short serves that set up their attacks, as long serves are getting attack more. There's sort of a branching at this level between these two types.
  • Long serves are often attack now, with good consistency except against tricky serves. Most can now return serves with consistency, with most short serves pushed long or flipped, especially with backhand banana flips. Many players are now getting more and more aggressive against short serves, especially with backhand flips. Players are beginning to push short.
  • Players are now fighting for the attack as whoever attacks first tends to win. Many rallies are turning into short counterlooping rallies, though there is still plenty of blocking.
  • Most players are topspinning their backhands, though some still hit flatter.
  • At this level opponents have to do something to score the point rather than wait for the opponent to miss.
  • There is now a lot of fishing and lobbing.  
  • Players are now very good at tactics, and have strong techniques to execute them.
  • The game is pretty physical at this level, though there are still a few players who are not real physical athletes at this level, relying on consistency and other aspects to make up for lack of athleticism. 

2400: At this level players are basically mini-world class players, as they do the same shots as world-class players, but at an obviously lower level.

  • Serves are similar to world-class serves, except they have less depth control, less spin, and less deception. Most serves are now short as opponents will loop deep serves, but long serves are still used quite a bit for surprise.
  • Nearly any long serve is now looped. Short serves are flipped much more often now, especially with the backhand banana flip. Short pushes are common, but some of them still go slightly long or slightly high by mistake. However, there's still plenty of long pushes, but few use this as their central receive technique.
  • Rallies are pretty much all looping now, both forehand and backhand. Lots of counterlooping. One big change is that weaker opening loops are now being punished with powerful counterloops.
  • Most points end with someone going for a winner. When mistakes are otherwise made it's usually when a player is trying too hard to return the ball so the opponent can't attack.
  • There's a lot of fishing, with players returning balls from off the table rather than staying at the table and blocking.
  • Tactics are usually advanced.
  • The game is very physical at this level - everyone's a physical athlete. 

2600: At this point players are approaching world-class.

  • Serves are very high level. There's pretty good depth control, with players serving so as to accurately place the second bounce on serves (if given the chance) right on the end-line, but under pressure they sometimes lose control.
  • Receives are almost indistinguishable from world-class. Flips are not yet as consistent or well-placed as world-class players. But many players are now attacking most short serves, especially with the backhand. When they don't attack the short serve, they often push them short with good control.
  • It's pretty much all-out looping now, with most rallies ending quickly. Some players are beginning to pin down opponents with backhand topspins, forcing backhand exchanges that take the opponent's forehand out of play. Very few unforced errors at this level, except when going for winners.
  • Players defend equally well with blocking and fishing, though they look to counter-attack whenever possible.
  • Players not only have strong tactics, but have strong knowledge of their opponents, both from experience and from scouting them. Players rarely go into a match without knowing what they need to do against the opponent.

2700: This is borderline world-class. It's often difficult to tell the difference between these players are world-class players.

  • Serve and receive are world-class, but with just a touch less consistency and control.
  • Rallies are all looping, with only occasional blocking. What often appears as blocks are really off-the-bounce counterloops.
  • Players are pretty much errorless machines at this level, never making unforced errors. When they make "mistakes," it's almost always because the opponent did something, often subtle.
  • Players can defend and counter-attack from all parts of the table. When they fish, they usually do so only as a way to keep the ball in play so they can counterloop the next ball.
  • Tactics is now world-class, and everyone knows everyone else and what they need to do.

2800+: This is true world-class play, roughly top 50 or so in the world. They are almost flawless athletic machines. 

  • Players have essentially perfect control of their serves, including the depth. There's often a steady deluge of serves where, given the chance, the second bounce would be right on the end-line.
  • Receive is so good that by the end of matches, receivers are winning more points than servers. Receivers can attack any serve almost at will, especially as they get used to opponent's serve. Short push is still common, but flipping is the norm, especially backhand banana flips, which are even done from the short forehand. Any long serve is looped hard.
  • It's pretty much all-out attack in rallies, where even the most powerful loops are looped right back. Anything less than powerful loops are looped back with great power. However, because they are so good at counterlooping even the best loops, many players can get away with some control shots when in trouble.
  • Defense, when done, is split between blocking and fishing, as well as lobbing. The consistency is extreme, as only a pure rip can win a point through defense at this level.
  • Tactics is a group effort, as coaches and players regularly study their opponents on video.

Yesterday's Blog on Serve and Attack Patterns

For much of yesterday there was a bad typo in my blog. In the main segment on Serve and Attack Patterns, in the part on serving "Short backspin or no-spin to backhand," I wrote, "After the serve I'd stand as far to my left as I could, ready to loop any push to my wide backhand with my backhand." That should have read "forehand"! Of course, I was blogging about my own serve and attack patterns (back in my "heyday"), and only players with good footwork will regularly follow attack such a push to the very wide backhand with their forehands. (These days in practice matches I still try to do this, but with far less success, both in getting in position for the shot, and in following it up, especially if they block the ball to my wide forehand, which used to be no more than five feet away, but has moved an further every year for the past couple of decades - and is now about ten feet away.)

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