Reading the Game

I am standing where the ball comes. That’s why I don’t have to move. I can read the game. – Jan Ove Waldner 

This is the most interesting and insightful quote I’ve ever read regarding table tennis. No novice player could ever imagine or understand how reading the game works. We’re not all table tennis illiterates, but we’re not as well read as Waldner either. I’ve been playing for decades and am only beginning to get some understanding into what Waldner might have meant.

Most intermediate and advanced players anticipate their opponents shots. They learn to watch for racket angles, body position, and predictable tendencies. This is extremely important, but is really only remedial reading. Advanced readers do more than try to guess what their opponent might do. Good readers are also good writers.

Waldner could anticipate his opponent’s shots because his placement and spin dictated their reactions. All of his great blocks were set up by his previous shots. To be able to read the game, you have to be able to compose the game. Most players have a few pre-planned patterns that they have discovered. It could be a certain serve that results in a third ball attack. This is still not the same as advanced reading or composing. There must be a secret to how the greats can read the game.

While researching Waldner quotes I came upon some other quotes by famous athletes. One in particular seemed to be particularly relevant to table tennis.  

I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started to make them hit it. – Sandy Koufax

Perhaps Waldner was reading his opponents the same way Koufax read batters. By going right at your opponent and gauging their reactions, it’s possible to gain new insights, and improve your reading. This is not the same as just knowing to attack your opponent’s elbow. It’s also necessary to observe and react accordingly. All of this happens pretty quickly. You’ll have to learn to be a speed reader. But there’s a lot of information that can be processed and can be used to your advantage, if you look for it. This is a different approach to table tennis that demands continually inviting your foes to hit the ball, but on your terms. By changing your approach to be more like Koufax, you can start reading the game more like Waldner. Reading the game doesn’t have to be a mystery. Reading the game is an adventure, with a lot of happy endings. 

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