Paddle Palace

Reverse penhold backhand

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.

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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!

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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.

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

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