Wang Hao

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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July 19, 2012

MDTTC Camp, Week Five, Day Three

Yesterday's focus was on the forehand loop. I gave my usual lecture and demo on the subject, with Nathan Hsu as my demo partner. To demonstrate the loop against backspin I alternately forehand looped and forehand chopped while Nathan blocked and pushed.

There were two new players in my multiball group who had just started out on Monday, so this was only their third day of playing. When the first one's turn came for multiball, a 9-year-old boy, right up until the last second I was thinking we should just focus on the basic forehand and backhand drives. Then, for some reason, I changed my mind and asked if he'd like to try looping. He said "Yes!" About two minutes later he'd picked it up and was doing it pretty consistently, still more of a roll, but with pretty good topspin! I was rather surprised.

So I did the same with the next beginner, a 12-year-old girl. Same result! (Many other beginners are not able to pick looping up this quickly.) As I told the two of them, either they are very talented or I'm a really good coach! (We jokingly argued over which it was all morning, with me taking the "very good coach" side.)

Looping and I have a long-term love-hate relationship. I was a late starter to table tennis, starting when I was 16, and right from the start I was a natural hitter. I found looping much more difficult, probably due to tight muscles (even then). However, I was determined to be a looper (just as many natural loopers were determined to be hitters before that style sort of died out at the higher levels), and practiced constantly. Eventually I developed a pretty efficient, if somewhat stiff forehand loop. When I play matches I loop and smash equally, but my hitting is definitely more natural - but I still focus on looping, because, gosh darn it, I wanna be a looper!!!

In the afternoon I introduced the Adjustable Height Device. I blogged about this back on July 20, 2011, when I first used it in camps last summer. It was created by a player I coach, John Olsen, and the kids love it. Here it is in its high and low settings. The challenge is to serve under the bar. The key is to ignore the bar and simply serve low. We also use it sometimes in regular rallies to see if the players can rally under the bar, which in rallies would be set a bit higher than for serves.

I also introduced Froggy (no pictures available, sorry), a large rubber frog, about the size of a soccer ball (but wider, not as tall). I put it on the table, divide players into two teams, and they take turns trying to hit it, two shots each. First team to hit it 20 times wins. I'll try to get a picture today.

Slurpee fever has stuck the camp. During lunch break each day I'm now taking two car trips to the local 7-11 where the kids load up on slurpees. (The kids were shocked to learn that both 7-11 and slurpees were around when I was their age 40 years ago, when I too used to get 7-11 slurpees, back when 7-11 opened at 7AM and closed at 11PM - hence the name. I just looked it up - 7-11 slurpees came out in 1967, when I was seven.) It's not like I'm not compensated for the taxi service; Allen Wang treats me to a Planters Peanut Bar each time. They are my favorite candy bar; if you want to be my friend, you will bring them to me.

Washington Post to MDTTC

The Washington Post will be at the Maryland Table Tennis Center on Friday at 11AM for a story on Derek Nie (U.S. Open 11 & Under Boys' Champion) and other MDTTC players. Locals, feel free to come in! Ironically, the player Derek defeated in the final, Gal Alguetti of New Jersey, is here this week for our training camp.

Wang Hao and a Short History of the Penhold Grip

Here's an interesting story on the ITTF web page about the modernization of the penhold grip, which at one point was dying out at the higher levels until the development of the reverse penhold backhand brought it back.

Kalinikos Kreanga vs. Michael Maze

Here are some great points from a video (2:53) of a match between these two from five years ago. Still great play - and notice how tactically they keep attacking the other's middle both to score points and to open up the wide angles?

The Way Table Tennis Should Be Played

Olympian Trick Shots

Lily Zhang and Erica Wu demonstrate their trick shots (1:19) - hilarious!

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January 11, 2012

Reverse penhold backhand

I'm coaching two penholders who have reverse penhold backhands - one an elderly player who normally uses a conventional penhold backhand but is learning the new version, the other a 12-year-old learning this way from the start. For penholders, this is the biggest revolution in penhold play since, well, the invention of penhold play. For shakehanders, it is the shot that stopped shakehanders from dominating at the world-class level. For a while, it looked like the penhold grip would vanish from the world's elite, but this stroke brought it back to par with shakehands. It is also a shot that shakehanders must learn to play against.

What is a reverse penhold backhand? It is a backhand by a penhold player where he hits with the opposite side of the racket rather than using the same side for forehand and backhand (i.e. a conventional penhold backhand). Just as with shakehands, you can block, hit, or loop with it. More and more top penholders play their backhands this way as it gives a stronger backhand attack, though it leaves the player weaker in the middle and often isn't as good for blocking. Historically coaches would say this is simply wrong, and would guide penholders into hitting conventional penhold backhands. Then along came Liu Guoliang in the 1990s, who hit his backhand both ways while winning men's singles at the World and Olympics. Then came Wang Hao, who became the best in the world and the 2009 Men's Singles World Champion playing almost exclusively reverse penhold backhands. Other top Chinese penholders who used the shot include Ma Lin and Xu Xin. Now it is considered the "norm," while conventional penhold backhands are somewhat passé.

Here is a slow motion video (2:17) showing Wang Hao's reverse penhold backhand.

The first time I played someone with a reverse penhold backhand in a serious match was about ten years ago, which was also in my first tournament after the change to 11-point games in 2001. I was probably rated about 2250 at the time, while my opponent was only about 1800; I should have been able to beat him about 11-4 every game. However, all my instincts were wrong because of this "weird" backhand, and I found myself fishing and lobbing point after point - and the player hit very hard and rarely missed. Feeling like a complete beginner, I lost the first two games. I finally went to playing every ball to his forehand - his strength - and eked out a five-game win. It could very easily have been my worst loss in something like twenty years.

It just goes to show that you have to practice against different techniques if you want to play well against them. In this case, an opponent hit his backhand in a way I'd never seen, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to react properly to it. Your subconscious is what controls shots, and when it sees something it's never seen before, it sometimes goes, "What the heck?" Mine was simply lost. I've since learned to play against the grip by simply playing against players who use it, though I'm still not completely comfortable against it - too many years of playing against "normal" backhands, both shakehands and regular penhold. Tactically, you play the grip like a shakehander, attacking the middle (the playing elbow) every chance.

The first time I actually saw anyone do this stroke was back in the 1980s, when future four-time U.S. Men's Champion Jim Butler (a shakehander) did it while fooling around in penhold matches. We all laughed at him, even though he had a better penhold backhand this way than any of his rival shakehanders trying to play conventional penhold style. He got the last laugh.

Day Eleven

For those keeping track, today is Day Eleven of the Great Cold of 2012. It simply will not go away.

2012 U.S. Olympic Trials

I'll be coaching at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Cary, NC, Feb. 9-12. Come join us!

Ten serves

Here's a video (1:58) that shows ten different serves, both in regular and slow motion. I think I may have posted this (or a version of it) once before, but I think it's an excellent video to watch if you are developing any of these serves.

Racket testing procedures

Here's a tutorial video (11:58) that covers racket testing procedures, as set up by ITTF. My players have been through this numerous times, though it's usually much quicker than this, as they aren't explaining everything.

Playing alone

Who needs a playing partner when you have the Wally Rebounder???

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November 15, 2011

Tip of the Week

Forehands from the Backhand Corner

Wang Hao's Illegal Serve

Here's Wang Hao against Zhang Jike in the final of the Men's World Cup this past weekend. Over and over Wang's serves are blatantly illegal. And yet, in one of the biggest matches of the year, with huge numbers of spectators (live or online), with coaches, players, and up-and-coming juniors watching, the umpires very publicly do not call it.

First, when Wang serves, notice how he always leaves his arm out until the last second, when the rules say, "As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net." I'm using his second serve in the video as an example (the first one was partly cut off), which starts eight seconds in. Here's a picture just before the ball drops behind his arm. He clearly did not remove his arm "as soon as the ball has been projected." Essentially all his serves are like this.

Second, notice how he hides contact with the arm? Here's another picture, a split second after the one above, where the ball has now disappeared from view - and note that he still has not removed his arm. Zhang is to our left and has a slightly better view, but contact is easily hidden from him by the arm in this picture. And yet, the rules state, "From the start of service until it is struck, the ball ... shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry."

Here's his first serve in game two.  Look at the racket, ball, and arm. His arm is directly between the ball and the opponent. Can anyone possibly say this is even remotely legal? Or this one, his second serve in game two, right at contact with his arm hiding it? Essentially every one of his serves are like these. (Earlier I had put up this randomly-chosen picture from later in the match, but I decided that made it looked like I was picking and choosing, so I changed to the ones he did right at the start of games one and two.)

Any umpire should be able to see that Wang is obviously not removing his arm from between the ball and the net, and that he is hiding contact with his arm. Even if they aren't 100% sure whether he is hiding contact, the rules state, "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect." And yet, it doesn't get called.

This is frustrating to watch because if umpires will not call illegal serves, then the players who practice illegal hidden serves have a tremendous advantage. It's almost impossible to return hidden serves effectively unless you practice regularly against them, and you can't do that unless the other players you train with are also hiding their serves. If you are coaching a junior program, you can either 1) teach the juniors to serve illegally, or 2) don't teach them to serve illegally, and watch them lose to those who do because umpires won't follow the rules, and so are cheating the honest players.

Training with Timo Boll

Here are four great training segments with Timo Boll, world #2 and European #1.

Each segment is about 2.5 minutes, totaling just over ten minutes. For segments 2-4, his partner is Vladimir Samsonov. (You'll need to spend a lot of time in the Jim, I mean gym, to get the long and short of this shot. This is my way of mentioning that Jim Short first posted this video.)

  • 0:30: Forehand pendulum serve, including reverse pendulum. See how fast he whips the racket into the shot at the last second.
  • 2:27: Receive - flips, short push, long push, and loops.
  • 5:28: Forehand Loop - the Europeans just call it "topspin." One interesting note - Timo is known for changing his grip to a forehand grip when he forehand loops, but in the demonstration here he is using a neutral grip. You should always learn to loop that way or you risk developing bad habits. Some advanced players adjust their grip after their shots are ingrained.
  • 8:02: Backhand Loop. Watch the slow motion of the backhand loop, and see the shoulder motion? (Here it is again from a different angle.) I had a big argument with a U.S. National coach over this, who said the shoulder should be still during a backhand loop, with the entire shot rotating around the stationary elbow only. Actually, the shoulder moves early in the stroke, essentially dragging the arm up and setting the elbow rotation into motion like a whip. I know this not just from watching and learning from top players and coaches, but also because I have a very tight shoulder that makes the motion somewhat difficult for me. I actually have a decent backhand loop in drills, but in a match situation, because of the stiffness, my hitting zone seems about the size of a ping-pong ball. Recently it's improved, and I'm using it more against deep pushes instead of doing more usual step around forehand loop from the backhand corner.

Pongcast TV Episode 03 - 2011 World Team Cup

Here's Pongcast's video on the 2011 World Team Cup, their third video, just over 30 minutes long.

Video of the Day

Here's Table Tennis Spectacular, Part 2 (7:47).

Table Tennis on the Simpsons

Yes, here's Bart Simpson playing table tennis! This segment is only 14 seconds, and he's only playing part of it, but in the actual episode (which I saw), the table tennis playing goes on a bit longer.

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September 27, 2011

Steady or aggressive blocking?

There are generally two types of blockers, steady blockers ("walls") and aggressive blockers ("jab-blockers"). Which are you? You should do both, of course, but it's usually best to specialize in one or the other. For example, David Zhuang (six-time U.S. Men's Singles Champion) is primarily a steady blocker. He can block forever, side to side, often changing the pace and even sidespin blocking. But when he sees the chance, he snaps out an often point-winning jab-block, which is made even more effective by the contrast with his usual steady but not-too-hard blocking.

A key to blocking is placement. Steady blockers mostly block side to side at wide angles, since a softer block to the middle can be hammered. Jab-blockers play the extreme corners and to the opponent's middle (playing elbow), rushing the opponent who has to decide between forehand and backhand, which often opens up a corner to jab-block a winner to. (This is because the opponent has to move to the middle of the table to hit a forehand or backhand, leaving one side open.) The nice thing about having a good block is you can get away with a lot of tactical things that others might not be comfortable doing, such as long serves or aggressive pushes. The opponent may have trouble with these, but if he does attack them, a blocker isn't worried since he's comfortable blocking.

Berkeley Open Results

Isn't it great how at the North American Table Tennis events, such as the Berkeley Open this past weekend (choose "Berkeley Open" from the dropdown menu), you can see not just the results (which most tournaments are slow to put up), but every single match played in each event?

The Amazing Michael Maze

Here's a profile of Denmark's Michael Maze, with the understanding that after this, we'll have a moratorium on the clichéd nickname "Amazing." He's probably the best lobber in the world. He was the 2005 World Championships Men's Singles Semifinalist, 2009 European Men's Singles Champion, 2004 European Top 12 Champion, 2004 Olympic Men's Doubles Bronze Medalist, and is currently world #21, was World #8 one year ago. Here's a tribute video to Maze (6:37).

If you want to relive Maze's greatest victory ever and see some of the greatest lobbing ever, his comeback against China's Hao Shuai in the all-lefty quarterfinals of the 2005 World Championships (he was down 3-0, won 4-3, lobbing over and over), here's the full match (52:11).

Maze defeated China's Wang Hao the round before, 4-1, perhaps an even bigger win. I can't find the video in one segment, but here are the five games. That's Liu Guoliang coaching Wang.

Men's Singles Finals, 2011 World Championships

In case you want something more recent than Maze's Amazing (there's that cliché again...) matches in 2005, here's Zhang Jike versus Wang Hao in the 2011 Men's Singles Final, with the entire match in just 12:11 (by cutting out the time between points). Yes, you can relive the entire thing (and study their techniques) in just twelve minutes!

World Cup Participants

The participants list for the 2011 LIEBHERR Men's World Cup (Paris, Nov. 11-13) are announced. Wang Hao of China will be defending his title.

Sports Coaching Brain

Here's an interesting sports webpage, the Sports Coaching Brain, that (to use their "About" text) calls itself the "ultimate source of ideas, innovations and inspiration for all sports, coaching, sports science and performance issues." Someone who read my blog yesterday about USA Table Tennis gave me the link to this article, Coach-Driven, Athlete-Focused, Administratively-Supported? Isn't it time we did something different? It does seem to fit our sport's situation.

Obama playing table tennis

We already have lots of pictures of Barrack Obama playing table tennis. Now we have the other Obama, Michelle Obama playing table tennis! (And for those who missed it before, here is Barrack Obama playing table tennis: photo1 photo2 photo3 (Photos 2 and 3 are from a picture on the wall at the White House); Obama and David Cameron, Prime Minister of England: photo1 photo2 photo3 photo4 photo5 photo6 photo7 photo8 photo9

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