Cesc Fabregas

August 31, 2012

Neck Injury Update

I'm still wearing the neck brace most of the time, but the neck is getting better. Tomorrow I've got a few hours of coaching, mostly multiball, but I also plan to do some "live" play during one of the sessions. I may wear the neck brace for that as an injury preventive. We'll see how it goes.

Hardbatters of the Past, Present, and Future

How good were hardbatters from the past? There's no way of really knowing, but we can make some educated guesses. However, there are some subtleties that have to be addressed.

First off, it's not fair to compare the skill level of players from the hardbat era against the skill level of current players by judging how past players would fair against certain modern techniques that they never faced, such as looping and deceptive spinny serves, not to mention modern sponges. For example, the first sponge player, Hiroje Satoh of Japan, couldn't compete with the best players in Japan because they had gotten used to his "strange" surface, but when he went to the 1952 World Championships (and managed to avoid playing his Japanese teammates), he won - not so much because of his skill level, but because his opponents weren't used to his sponge. His innovation won him the world title, but he quickly fell back in the rankings, unable to compete with his more skilled adversaries once they adjusted to his sponge racket.

And Satoh wasn't using modern sponge techniques. If I could go back to 1952, I'd likely also win the Worlds as players back then had never seen the types of serves and loops that an average 2200 player can throw at them. But it wouldn't be a fair comparison, and things could change quickly after they adjusted to me, just as they did to Satoh.

Once point comes up is that for a time, the hardbat players had to face the finger-spin serves of Sol Schiff and others before those were made illegal. It's true that once they figured them out, they were able to handle them. But the key points here are 1) that it was only after they adjusted to them - probably not the first time out - that they were able to handle them; 2) they could take the serve late and chop it back, allowing them more time to read and react to the spin. In the modern game, few players can afford to do that, since chopping a deep, spinny serve back gives the opponent the chance to loop, and since they had never seen such a shot before, it is unlikely they could have won against a competent looper. And 3), a modern player with a good spinny serve could serve it short (which the finger-spinners didn't do), so the receiver couldn't take it late. (Note that it's not just the spin of the serve they have to react to - it's also the deception, since nobody had developed the tricky deceptive serves that are now common even at the intermediate level where the racket goes through a very rapid semi-circular motion, making it difficult to pick up the direction of the racket at contact. According to Dick Miles, who questioned me about these serves, nobody did that back then, and he found it hard to believe that modern players could do it.)

However, a better question is how would such hardbat players of the past do against a modern player once they had time to adjust? That's where things get foggy. After spending a career playing hardbat-to-hardbat, many or most wouldn't adjust well. The very best ones would, since half of table tennis is adjusting to your opponent. For example, as confident as I am that I could beat, say, Dick Miles or Marty Reisman in 1952 the first time out (where I'm using sponge and they are using their hardbats), I am equally non-confident about what would happen after they had gotten used to playing me.

The next question is how good would a modern sponge player be using a hardbat in the hardbat era against the hardbat greats? First time out, of course, they'd get clobbered; not only do they have to adjust to playing with a hardbat, they have to adjust to playing against hardbat.  It's a different game! I remember the one time I played hardbat with Cheng Yinghua back in the late 1990s. He'd never really tried hardbat, and the first half hour as we just hit around I was pretty confident against him. Then a little light seemed to go off in his head, and after that he was like a buzz saw, attacking everything with ease and seemingly never missing. I still consider him the best hardbat player I've ever played or seen live, and I've seen and played pretty much all of the best current hardbat players. Cheng played an aggressive yet consistent backhand that rarely missed, while all-out hitting with his forehand - and also seemingly never missed. He never backed off the table, and he attacked every serve. I was nearly 2200 with a hardbat in those days playing against sponge, and my chances against him after the first half hour were zilch, and he won every game we played after that with ease. (I doubt if most sponge players could adapt to hardbat as fast and as well as Cheng did.) 

If Cheng practiced hardbat regularly for, say, a year (and we'll assume he's back in his peak, not in his mid-50s as he is now), how would he do against the best from the past? Very tough to say. He has two big advantages. First, he has modern serving techniques with a hardbat, which by itself would win him many matches at the start, and would later probably still give him the initiative as opponents would often return them defensively. Second, he's been training for table tennis nearly full-time since the age of five. While the training was with sponge, it has ingrained in him reflexes and attacking strokes that few in the hardbat era could match. In a counter-hitting battle, he'd beat anyone from the hardbat era. So to beat him, they'd have to do a lot of chopping and pick-hitting, something most of them are quite comfortable doing. How would Cheng do against the best choppers of the hardbat era? Tough to say.  

The best hardbat chopper I've faced was Richard Gonzalez of the Philippines, who I lost to in the Over 40 Hardbat Final at the 2011 U.S. Open. How good was he? The best chopper in the U.S. for many years was Derek May, a 2500 chopper, but when I played him hardbat to hardbat, I won rather easily as he was more used to chopping against sponge players. I've also played Steve Berger, who is also very good, but Gonzalez was a level better. How would Cheng do against Gonzalez, who also has a great attacking game? It's a match I'd love to see. The first time out, I'm guessing it would be close. However, my guess is that if Cheng were to play hardbat for a year during his peak years, he'd easily win against Gonzalez.

Another question comes up. How good could a player be in the modern game using a hardbat? Currently, the best hardbatters have ratings that max out around 2300. But it's a small sample size, and the best of them are mostly players already in their 40s who switched to hardbat after decades of sponge play. So it's obvious to me that players can get well past the 2300 level with a hardbat if they started out as hardbatters as beginning juniors at a young age, and trained that way just as sponge players do. Again, I'll turn to Cheng to see how good a player can be with a hardbat. After hitting with his hardbat with me, Cheng later played some practice matches against one of his 2250 juniors, who used sponge - and he won easily. Yes, after at most an hour of hardbat play, Cheng easily beat a 2250 junior player using sponge, and what I have to emphasize here is he did it easily, no contest, just hitting and blocking everything with ease. His level against sponge was already at least 2400. (He was rated about 2700 with sponge at the time, had previously been much better.)

How good would Cheng have been if he'd been training full-time with a hardbat against sponge players since a young age? Much better. However, at the same time there is the law of diminishing returns, since there are limits to what you can do with a hardbat against a world-class sponge player. My educated guess is that the very best would reach about 2600, but that's probably the upper limit. (The best players in the world are 2900+.)

Lastly, remember that in nearly every sport with measurable results that can be compared against future athletes, each new generation is almost always better than the previous ones. In table tennis, this is true as well, as modern players train for more hours with systematic training methods than players in the past. It's likely that if sponge had never been introduced or had been outlawed, and the game had stayed with hardbat, the same thing would have happened, and we'd have thousands of hardbatters training under top coaches from the age of five on (as they do in China), and hardbat would have been taken to a new level. (Even the best choppers of the past, as good as they were, wouldn't be as good as the best choppers coming out of a massive number of modern players training full-time as a hardbat chopper/attackers from age five.)

But hardbat was never developed to the highest levels because of the introduction of sponge, and so the hardbat game never reached the levels that it might have reached. And so it's likely that we'll never know just how good a player could be with a hardbat. But I'll stick with my 2600 guesstimate.

Paralympics

Here's the home page for the Table Tennis Paralympics, which are in London, Aug. 29 - Sept. 9. 

Pong Planet

The newest full-time professional table tennis center is Pong Planet in San Carlos, CA. They open tomorrow, on Sept. 1, 2012, with coaches James Guo Xi, Dennis Davis, Tibor Bednar, and Donn Olsen.

When Serving Short Becomes Important

Here's an article from PingSkills about serving short.

Zhang Jike's Tips On Winning the Olympic Title

Here's an article where the Men's Singles World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalists gives tips for success.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy's 40th Anniversary

Here's an article at Table Tennis Nation about the 40th Anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy (this past Tuesday), with a link to a video of Henry Kissinger talking about it. Chairman Mao is quoted as saying, "The small ping-pong ball could be used to move the large ball of Earth." And here's a Chairman Mao/President Nixon Paddle.

Spanish Football Stars Play Table Tennis

Here's an article about and 13-second video of Spanish football stars (that's soccer to Americans) Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique playing table tennis. They're pretty good!

Waldner and Federer

Here's a 43-second video that shows Waldner and Federer both making almost identical moving, no-look cross-court miracle winning shots in their respective sports.

Wang Hao and Zhang Jike Exhibition

Here's a 33-second clip of Wang Hao and Zhang Jike doing an exhibition and playing with mini-rackets. At the end there's some sort of tug-of-war going on, but I have no idea who the participants are - it's all in Chinese. Anyone know? (I guess if I went over it carefully I might recognize if some of them are players, but I'll let others do that. Yes, you.)

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