When the plastic ball came out in 2014, many wondered what effects it would have on table tennis, particularly how defensive players would be impacted. Many individuals drew the conclusion that defenders would be better off, as the ball had less rotation, so defending against spin variations would be easier.
Indeed, consistency improved for defensive players, but their ability to vary spin also suffered. It would be fair to say that we see defenders even less nowadays.
However, in Los Angeles, as some top table tennis players from across the USA and abroad fought for a $10,000 winner’s check, it became apparent that defense is still alive and well.
The Open Men’s and Women’s singles events were both won by defensive players – Hou Yingchao in the Open and Liu Ying in the Women’s.
Hou is a short pips defender, a style which became very hyped up with the end of the celluloid ball for its ability to make very subtle stroke changes in order to disguise larger variances in spin. This was absolutely evident in the Open singles final as the experienced veteran Hou dismantled his younger opponent Ma Jinbao.
Throughout his quarterfinal against the international star Tiago Apolonia, and his semifinal against the in-form Tao Wenzhang, one thing was evident – Hou’s defense still presented an unbelievable difficulty. Reading the ball was proving very difficult, even for the strongest players. One chop came back heavy backspin, the next no spin at all, with a seemingly identical looking stroke.
The variance was extreme. Couple this with Hou’s awkward forehand hookshots, high arc forehand counterloops and his surprise third ball attacks and backhand punches, and you have the gold standard of unpredictability. Hou is the perfect example of a defender who has continued to evolve with the game.
In the Women’s singles, it was Liu Ying who defended her way to the title. Her biggest weapon? Impeccable consistency and composure. Liu, with her long pips backhand, exhibited a different defensive style.
The long pips didn’t present anywhere near as much spin variance as the short pips, but proved very effective and rhythmic in bringing back almost every attacking shot of Li Ruini, the defending champion.
Liu also mixed in counterattacks, though nothing too overpowering. She was quite content to just keep on defending. Her style really mirrored some of the more traditional defensive players from even older generations who opt to focus mainly on chopping and defending rather than making decisive attacking strokes.
The Women’s game in modern times has many more choppers than the Men’s, which has become significantly faster and more powerful. The women are still able to maintain more traditional and less aggressive styles of defending, whereas the men – such as Joo Se Hyuk, Chen Weixing and Gionis Panagiotis, needed to develop world-class forehand attacking games to complement their defense.
Liu’s final resulted in some exceptional rallies. Even in the face of nets and edges, she held her nerve and was unshakeable in so many thrilling rallies.
It was great to see two different styles of defense taking out the big titles in LA. In a generation of table tennis where styles seem to be conforming more towards the aggressive two-winged attacker type, it’s always great to see match-ups of attack and defense.
On this occasion it was the defenders who prevailed, showing that defense is still very much alive and well. Congratulations to Hou and Liu!