The fisherman (or fisherwoman?) . . . the scourge of many. The player who backs up and softly and defensively topspins everything back a few feet over the net. His shots are not quite lobbing, not quite looping, and not quite counter-hitting. It can take a lot of work to race around the table attacking his shots with your forehand - not easy when the fisher puts the ball side to side, deep on the table, with both topspin and sidespin so the balls jumps as it hits your side of the table. How does one play this style?
First off, you have to decide how physical you can play. If you have the foot speed, stamina, and a strong enough forehand (looping or smashing) to attack each of these shots with your forehand, then by all means do so, though (as explained below) the occasional change-of-pace may be important, depending on how steady the fisher is. The key is how you attack them.
If you don't have the foot speed, stamina, or a strong enough forehand to keep attacking, then you will have to mix in blocks, especially with your backhand. (Of course, if you have a far more powerful backhand than forehand - rare, but sometimes the case - then attack with the backhand.) Don't feel as if this is a major weakness - more players lose to fishers by over-attacking than by ones who change the pace by mixing in blocks along with their attacks.
The arc of a ball from a fisher is longer, and the topspin makes the ball bounce out, so the top of the bounce is about a half step farther off the table than you might expect. Unless you have great reflexes and timing and can take the ball off the bounce, you'll need to take a half step back to smash or loop at the top of the bounce. Otherwise you'll get jammed.
Here are the keys to playing a fisher.
Placement: Never attack the middle forehand or middle backhand - those are the easiest shots for the fisher to return. Instead, focus on the wide backhand and middle (elbow area), and the wide forehand when you think you have a clean winner (or if the fisher happens to be weak on that side, though usually that's the strong side). Since a fisher needs to anticipate where your attacks are going in order to react to them, if you can aim one way and go another, he'll struggle.
- On the forehand side, the fisher has a bigger hitting zone, more range, can more easily create both topspin and sidespin, and can more easily counter-attack, usually with a counterloop. Usually avoid this side until you see a clean winner.
- On the backhand side, the fisher is more cramped, and normally has less range, less spin, and less potential for a counter-attack. Go after this side with a vengeance, along with attacks to the middle. Most attacks to the wide backhand side will come back to your backhand side, allowing you to continue your attack into the wide backhand, where you have more table than if you go down the line or to the middle. The catch is to do so, you have to step all the way around your backhand side if you want to use your forehand.
- In the middle, the fisher has to make a split-second decision on whether to go forehand or backhand, plus it's usually easier to run a ball down in the corners then to get out of the way of a ball in the middle. Focus on attacking the middle slightly on the backhand side to force an awkward backhand return. This is often a good spot to end the point on. However, there's more table when you go after the corners, so if you attack the middle over and over you are more liable to make a mistake. Some fishers seem to get every ball back on the backhand side, but that's because all the attacks are going right to the backhand side; mix in attack to the middle, and the fisher will begin to crumble.
Change of Pace: Once a good fisher gets his timing down, he can often seemingly return shot after shot even as you smash or power-loop over and over. How do you break out of this pattern? Try changing the pace. Attack one ball softer than normal, or perhaps block one. The fisher is consistent off your strong attacks only because he is anticipating them, and so his timing and positioning are set for strong attacks. Change the pace, and you may mess up his timing and positioning. You might even try looping soft and spinny as a changeup, and watch the fisher struggle to adjust without missing or giving you an easy ball to put away.
Loop or Smash? You can do either against a fisher, or (often even more effectively) do both. Do whichever you are more comfortable with. If you have a powerful loop, the extra topspin of your loop will make it easier to keep your attacks on the table; at the higher levels, top players pretty much kill-loop over and over against a fisher. But if you have a good smash, use that, especially if you can be deceptive with it.
The Short Ball: As long as he keeps the ball deep on the table, a good fisher can run down almost anything you attack. The goal shouldn't be to end the point with each shot; the goal should be to put pressure on the fisher until he returns a ball that lands short. (Of course, in trying to force this, you'll force plenty of outright misses as well.) When you get that short ball, that's when you end the point. You can now attack the ball much closer to the table, at wide angles, and your opponent has less time to react. As long as you don't telegraph your shot, you should be able to rip this ball at a wide angle so that the opponent simply can't run it down, or to the middle where the opponent simply can't react.
Special thanks to Deriderj, who raised this question on the forum.