Underestimating Underspin

The fifth Table Tennis in Diaspora tournament has come and gone. It looks like it was a great tournament. I recall playing in it about five years ago. I actually had a very good day, upsetting a couple of higher rated players, and making a couple more work harder than they anticipated before dispatching me. Unfortunately, the earliest tournaments weren’t sanctioned, and I’m still grieving over the one hundred points I might have had. The tournament has come a long way, and I suspect I would have had a much tougher time against this year’s competition. I’m still very interested in tournament results, especially if I coach or just simply know any participants. Any wins by players I coach is a win for me. Any trophies won by players I typically beat are oddly satisfying to me as well. But the truth is that if you win anything in a tournament, you earned it. Tournaments can bring out the best, and sometimes the worst in players. Even advanced players sometimes wilt under the pressure of tournament play.

To survive a tournament takes mental strength, but it also takes a good foundation of table tennis skills. If your footwork, strokes, and serves, are all weak, you might still come home with a trophy. It might be in class E, but you still earned it. There are plenty of skills that separate the class E players from the class A champion. One of the most important ones is how they handle underspin. Many players don’t practice enough against underspin, and some overuse it. No matter where you fall on the table tennis skills spectrum, you could be underestimating the importance of underspin. 

Beginners – I’ve had new students come to a first lesson who have never played with, or against significant backspin. Occasionally, someone will only use backspin, and be completely helpless against a topspin opening. Either way, there’s a lot of work to do in order to prepare them for the types of players that have a more balanced game. Pushes, serve returns, and recognizing changes in spin are top priority practice items.

Intermediates – Most club players underestimate underspin. The evidence is how much time is spent on topspin shots compared to underspin, and the lack of precision on basic pushes. A typical 1500 level player can handle a generic push with either their own push or a topspin opening. A slightly lower push with heavier spin can cause these players all kinds of problems. Sometimes the heavier spin isn’t recognized, and sometimes it just isn’t handled very well. Players frequently don’t lower their body enough, resulting in poor opening loops, and pushes that don’t make it over the net. Indecision about whether to open with topspin or use a underspin push also plagues players at this level. It’s important to know what shots you are capable of, and get in position for them. Intermediate level players frequently serve with underspin, expect that their opponents will serve with underspin, but don’t practice the skills that will allow them to handle underspin. The exception to all of this is the 1400 level pusher. These players have discovered that they can beat anybody in the world that’s rated under 1400, and some better players as well, as long as they push every shot with as much underspin as possible. These types haven’t underestimated underspin, they’ve overestimated the effectiveness of a pure pushing game.

Advanced players – Better players understand the significance of underspin, just as they respect any spin. It is possible that they might forget to use underspin shots, in an effort to play an aggressive topspin game. The best players will use the right spin for every situation. Advanced choppers certainly don’t underestimate underspin. They realize that a ball can rotate one way just as fast as the opposite way. Defensive players also realize there’s plenty of potential nuance with underspin shots, and mixing in some sidespin and no spin floating balls can make your underspin shots far more dangerous.

Table tennis is the ultimate game of spin. Spin is the language of table tennis. Beginners; Don’t underestimate the significance of spin. Intermediate players; Start practicing underspin. Advanced players; Don’t forget to mix in a little unexpected underspin. Underspin is a important part of table tennis. It’s just underappreciated.     

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