Saturday, August 30, 2008

biggest lesson from the olympics: CHANGE UP THE PACE

After watching so many Olympic table tennis, the most noticable thing I picked up from different matches was this: no matter how hard or how fast someone may rip the ball, as long as his/her opponent switches up the pace, the opponent can always pull it out. The three matches in which a player completely tripped up his/her opponent by changing the tempo and rhythm of the game are Zhang Yining vs Feng Tianwei (women's quarterfinal), Guo Yue vs Wang Nan (women's semifinal), and Ma Lin vs Wang Hao (men's final).

When interviewed after her match, Zhang Yining, who had to use her back-up racket because her main one didn't pass inspection before the match, acknowledged Feng's spectacular effort, and admitted that the only way she pulled out of the match was by messing with Feng's rhythm. Feng plays a pretty straightforward game, serve-attack and rallying with a strong forehand. Feng has beaten Zhang before and has shown time and again that she can keep up with Zhang (see videos). Given that Zhang may have already been off mentally because of her racket, and the way Feng played that night, it is quite possible that if Zhang just got into rallying contests with Feng, Feng would have come out on top; Zhang herself even admitted that unless she did something to make Feng feel uncomfortable and off-balance, she would have lost the match. Once they got into rallies that were about 50-50, Zhang would suddenly throw in a slower shot, letting the ball come a little closer to her body, giving the feeling almost that she "caught" the ball before looping it back. That extra fraction of a second that you keep the ball on your side of the net, especially when your opponent likes and is very comfortable with a fast game, is enough to throw him/her off and get him/her to hit the ball off the table off the edge of his/her racket. Zhang's signature move is her backhand, which appears to be late (timing-wise); in fact, her timing is late, but she has the touch and ability to control her shots. She seems to absorb all of the oncoming ball's momentum, and she seems like a wall when nobody can get shots by her.

Like I mentioned before, Guo Yue came out of the gates strong against Wang Nan in the women's semifinal (winning the first game at 3 and the third game at 4), and it appeared that it would be relatively smooth sailing for Guo, until Wang slowed down the game considerably. Wang threw off Guo's rhythm by literally slowing down the game: Wang took her time picking up the ball, took her time before serving, and took her time getting ready to receive Guo Yue's serves. While it was sort of annoying and tedious to watch, Guo Yue was noticably affected by the change of pace. Guo began to rush shots, making countless unforced errors and was never really able to turn the game around. In addition to literally slowing down the tempo of the game, Wang also started to mix in higher, slower, spinnier shots with low, fast rips, and the over-anxious Guo (who loves and excels at a fast, even-paced game) couldn't handle the variety; either Guo would be at mid-court expecting a hard and fast shot, but getting a slow, arching shot, or she would just be on her toes to the point of falling forward, waiting for a shot to get to her. This was also a classic example of experience and ability to make effective shots trumping youth, power, and over-zealousness. The first video is an example of Guo Yue's typical favorite rally (fast-paced, even paced); the second video is an example of Wang Nan changing up the pace, throwing in fast shots and slow, arching ones, and even though Guo acually won this point, it is clear she wasn't comfortable with the shots she got and that she was completely leaning forward; finally, the third video shows a point that Wang Nan won by varying tempo, arc, and spin, and it demonstrates that you don't necessarily need to rip the ball hard to win a point.

The match between Ma Lin, the Men's Singles gold medalist, and Wang Hao is the most telling. Typically in men's matches, men really go at it and try to rip everything as hard as they can. However, in this match, it was clear that Ma Lin was feeling the pressure, excitement and nervousness of fighting for the gold medal, and that he coped with it by making almost vertical shots; as the match progressed, he wasn't so quick or eager to try for insane rips, so instead, he started to swing virtually upward, sending the ball high and spinny over the net. Wang Hao, who probably expected a fast game from his compatriot, couldn't handle the constant change of pace. Ma's shots were so spinny and so slow, and Wang was so anxious and nervous, and something had to give. Wang ended up making a LOT of unforced errors, missing random blocks, and never really getting a chance to get on offense. It was sort of ironic that a man with a game so slanted toward strong attacks resorted to slow, weak shots to be effective, but it is not the first time we have seen that a constantly changing pace in a match can upset and opponent.