Fifth-Ball Attack

Fifth-Ball Attack

On the forum today, someone posted questions about the fifth-ball attack, and why players tend to miss the fifth ball when the third ball is against backspin. Specifically, he wrote, "I've noticed that the 5th ball is missed quite often when the 3rd ball attack is against under spin."

Some quick definitions:

  • Third-ball attack means the server serves, the opponent receives, and the server attacks.
  • Fifth-ball attack means the server serves, the opponent receives, the server attacks with the intent of setting up a ball to put away, the receiver returns the attack, usually with a block, and the server attacks again, often trying to end the point.

The most basic third-ball attack is when the server serves backspin (usually short, at least at the higher levels so opponent can't loop it), the opponent pushes it back long, and the server loops, often looking to end the point on that shot. The most basic fifth-ball attack is when the server serves backspin (again, mostly short), the opponent pushes it back long, the server loops, the opponent blocks, and the server either smashes or loop kills.

The main difference between the third- and fifth-ball attack here is the back shoulder. (I wrote about this in a previous article.) When looping the backspin, the back shoulder drops; when smashing or looping the fifth ball block, the shoulder stays up. (It may drop slightly if looping against a block, but the key phrase is slightly.)

After lowering their back shoulder to lift the backspin, it's common for players to inadvertently lower their shoulder again for the next shot, leading to shots that go long. Plus the fifth ball (often a quick block) comes out faster than the third ball (usually a much slower push), and so the player is rushed, and a rushed shot against a quick incoming ball often goes long. (It rarely goes into the net since a player's first instinct is to hit over the net. When rushed, even dead blocks are often lifted too much and sent sailing off the end.)

The poster also wrote, "One coach I read said that you never attack hard against the 5th ball under these conditions (3rd ball was against under spin), that you must hit a controlled offensive shot and that the 5th ball is all about placement." While I understand the thinking behind this - placement is a priority, and consistency is almost always more important than creaming the ball (with creaming the ball consistently being high in the list of things top players learn to do), I would argue that in a fifth-ball attack, it is the third ball that should be the "controlled offensive shot" to set up the fifth ball. That's the whole purpose of the third-ball loop in a fifth-ball attack. While the server often does get weak pushes on the third ball that he can loop away for a winner (i.e. third-ball attack), more often he should focus on placement, depth, and spin to set up a weak return that he can put away on the fifth ball. (But note that placement is key to put-away shots - many players can return power shots if they go right where they are ready, usually the middle forehand or backhand areas, or too-obvious crosscourt shots. Put-away shots should go to wide angles or to the opponent's elbow, and down-the-line put-aways are often nearly unreturnable.)

This doesn't mean the server should always try to rip the ball on the fifth ball; only that the purpose of the third ball loop is to set up a shot that he can rip, and that if he does get a ball he can rip, he should (you guessed it) rip it, i.e. smash or loop kill. If he doesn't get a ball he can put away, then he should do another "controlled offensive shot" to set up the next ball, i.e. the seventh ball.

On the other hand, if a player goes for a putaway on the third ball - as many do, especially Chinese-trained loopers - then, if it comes back, it comes back so quickly that you should take a step back and loop the next ball for control. It really comes down to playing style and situation.

Closing Out a Match

By Larry Hodges

What type of serves should a player use to close out a close match?

Before we get to the serve itself, let's look at the mental aspect. A good serve probably won't help you if you are a nervous wreck. (Not unless you can get an outright miss or a ball so easy even a nervous wreck can't miss.) So first thing to do is learn to play relaxed at the end of a close match. That's sports psychology, which is outside the scope of this article.

As to the serves themselves, you have two basic choices. Should you go for a serve where you're pretty sure you'll get a ball you can attack, or get into the type of rally you want to get into? Or do you want to go for a "surprise" serve, and perhaps get an easy point? Let's look at surprise serves first.

The advantage of a surprise serve is it's basically a free point. It's supposed to force an outright miss or an easy pop-up. The down side is that surprise serves are generally all or nothing - either you get the easy point, or the opponent takes the initiative off it, usually attacking it. For example, a fast, deep serve can often force a miss, but it can also be looped. A short side-topspin serve can be popped up, but it can also be flipped aggressively.

There is a place for surprise serves, and you are handicapping yourself if you don't use them. But use them sparingly; overuse allows an opponent to get used to them. At the higher levels, surprise serves become less and less effective as stronger opponents are less often "surprised."

So what about your other serves? A major task for you during a match is to find out what serves you can use effectively against the opponent. If you like to loop pushes, and your opponent pushes your backspin serves long, then at the end, when it's close, guess what? Serve backspin and loop! If you like to serve and hit, perhaps serve topspin or sidespin. Others like to serve short, low no-spin serves, which are surprisingly difficult to flip or push effectively. Everyone's different; find out what serves work for you in general, and what serves work in the match you are playing. Develop confidence in following up these serves, and soon you'll not only be closing out those close matches, but you'll be winning easily where before you had close matches.

So closing out a match is a combination of sports psychology (playing relaxed and loose at the end) and knowing what tactics to use and having confidence in those tactics.

How To Play The Bomber: The Player Who Tries to Blast Every Shot

By Larry Hodges

Have you ever had one of those matches where your opponent clobbered every ball past you? Where you spent more time chasing balls than actually hitting? Where you got a bad back just from bending over to pick them up? If you won the match, you probably didn't mind; there's nothing you can do about an opponent who clobbers (and misses) every shot.

Unfortunately, every now and then you meet a player who clobbers ball after ball, and they keep hitting! This type of player also goes by the name 'National Champion' or 'U.S. Team Member' or even 'World Champion'. There's not much you can do when you play them.

Playing Choppers

By Larry Hodges

There is nothing more infuriating than losing to a patient chopper who lets you beat yourself with your own errors. Losing to a chopper is like four-putting in golf; you may have made some good drives to get to the green, but all you remember are the misses at the end. Rather than four-putting forever, let’s learn how to beat the chopper.

A chopper is weakest in the middle, and that is where you should focus most of your attack. However, you have more table (and so more margin for error) by going diagonally to a corner. Going for a winner down the line often catches the chopper by surprise. A chopper who is not particularly fast is vulnerable at the corners, especially if you aim one way and then go the other; a chopper with inverted on both sides is more vulnerable in the middle. Keep these “basics” in mind when playing any of the following styles.

There are four general ways of playing a chopper. Informally they are called European style, Asian style, Pick-hitting, and Chiseling. While you should favor one of these styles, feel free to combine them in developing your own style against choppers.

In all four cases, focus on attacking the middle, the weakest spot for nearly all choppers. This is imperative when playing choppers. 

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