February 16, 2015 - Playing Off-Table Two-Winged Topspinners

Some players like to step off the table and just topspin away, turning many opponents into blockers who are jammed at the table, unable to do anything other than struggle to keep the ball in play. These topspinners can seemingly go on forever, and eventually either outlast or wear out the blocker, or find an easy ball to loop away. At higher levels, such players are often overpowered, as it's the very nature of their game that the opponent can take the attack - but it takes a certain level of strokes and footwork to do this consistently. And often this is exactly what the off-table topspinner wants his opponent to do, to try to overpower him, and thereby make mistakes.

So how does one beat such a player? Here are some standard tactics.

  1. Bring him in and then attack. Do this with short serves and short receives, and then catch him too close to the table with your first attack, before he can get into his comfortable off-table pocket. Since these players hang off the table, attacking their serve often plays right into their game. You don't have to win the point on the first attack after bringing them in; it's sufficient to force a weak return that you can follow up with a winner.
  2. Get your forehand into play. Because he plays off the table, you have more time to get your forehand into position, rather than just block. You might have to take a half step off the table to give yourself time. (Many players get stuck blocking because they are too jammed at the table, and so don't have time to do more than block.) It's important that you punish the opponent for his soft play by attacking, and especially being ready to attack when you get a weak return, in particular balls that land short. When the ball does land short, blast a winner to a wide angle or right at the opponent's playing elbow (midway between forehand and backhand). (If your forehand is so weak that you cannot attack these soft topspins when you are in position, then you need to work on your forehand attack.)
  3. Mostly attack the middle and wide backhand. Generally avoid the forehand, where most off-table topspinnners have more range, get more spin, and have better counter-attacks. (So generally, when going after the middle, perhaps aim it slightly toward the backhand side.) But it depends on the player. Some off-table topspinners are more vulnerable on the forehand side. Unless he's simply a much better player, he's unlikely to beat you in a duel between his off-table backhand, where he has to cover both his wide backhand and middle, against your forehand looping or smashing, assuming you don't try to overpower him on one shot. Players like this often seem open to the wide the corners, but in reality they usually cover that area pretty well. So make sure to go to both the wide backhand and middle, and perhaps the wide forehand, depending on the player. (This was one of the reasons Ilija Lupulesku was so successful for years despite backing off the table so much - players relentlessly went after his wide backhand and didn't go after his middle nearly enough.)
  4. Change the pace. Do this with either soft loops or soft blocks. Find out early which side he's more vulnerable to a change of pace, but it's usually on the forehand side. This is where a chop or sidespin block can be valuable. He'll likely make a weak return that you can attack, often catching him too close to the table or throwing off his time. If an opponent gets into a rhythm where he's getting everything back, it's imperative that you change the pace to throw off that rhythm.
  5. Be patient. Your goal isn't to blast a winner every shot; your goal is to play for an easy ball to blast for a winner, usually a ball that lands short that you can blast to a wide corner or right at his middle.