On Johnny Huang & Varying Attack Patterns With Short Pimples.
I hope this little essay will be to the taste as well as to the benefit of any player attacking with pips, be it on the forehand, the backhand, or on both wings, but it is especially for Arlene, whom I owe.
In the past two years I have with my sons, coaching them, attended a lot of tournaments and of late I have indeed competed in one, but I don’t think I’ll ever get accustomed to the way the assembled players, when we come into the hall, look at the short pips on the C-pen of my eldest or on the shake-hand frame I use myself these days. It is a crowd staring and even now, remembering, I can feel the weight of that collective gaze which, upon our entering, without words is telling us that we must have opened the door mistakenly, so please would we close it quietly on our way out. My boy feels it too and, though he is only thirteen years old and short for his age, he’ll grin to himself like a tall-standing grown-up before he’ll cheerfully look around for a table that’s still free, walk towards it and start his warming-up at it with his younger brother. Standing out in the crowd doesn’t bother him, but fortunately he doesn’t much care for it either. I confess I love to see that little knowing grin of his, and the little gleeful glint of irony in his eyes when he’s looking around for that free table, and the spring in his little step when he’s deliberately picking his way through the throng. He’s aware of his worth, but doesn’t feel the need to advertise it. Makes his dad proud, that does. Or maybe “proud” is not the word for it; I actually feel comforted when I see it, probably because it reassures me of the fact that, regardless of the respect it may or may not get, the value of a thing solely lies in itself.
Professionally, I warm to the same. I relate to the inconspicuously deviating individual, the person that sees, feels, talks or thinks differently, not driven by the need to compete or the fear to go through life unnoticed, but because this is his or her way to find out and treasure a singular truth that has been overlooked by the multitude. To come to understand someone like this is rewarding because of the literally uncommon insight it brings; it also is exciting like viewing an unknown landscape; but to me above all else it still is just comforting.
I get the same comfort from watching Johnny Huang play. It is a rare sight in more than one way. For a long time I searched the Internet in vain, but finally, having almost given up the hope of finding at least one of his matches recorded and available for downloading, I came across a French forum in which somebody had posted links to them. From a loner, to a loner. A number of the links didn’t even work anymore, but still I got good video-recordings of one match of Huang against Boll (2003 world cup), one against Samsonov (2004 world cup), two of his matches against Karakasevic (2004 Spinvitational, 2004 Olympics), one against Smirnov (2004 Olympics), and one against Blaszczyk (2001 world cup, when 21-point games were still played). I must have viewed all of them a dozen times by now. Speaking of inconspicuously deviating, Huang is the quiet type, somewhat withdrawn yet as a rule very accessible, and with heart and soul plays his game that is absolutely unique in professional table tennis and has been so for thirty odd years. The first match I watched was Huang playing Boll. In those days, Boll, being just twenty-two years old, was considered to be the only non-Asian player who when in peak form could beat the Chinese; and actually he did do that on a number of occasions. But Huang, twice the age of this fast young German, nevertheless won the first game in amazing style. Boll, in that game, seemed to be often at a loss, unable to get a grip on what was happening – and so was I! How did Huang manage to play like that? Of course he lost the other games, but he still put up a good fight. At his age, with equipment all other pro’s scorned, and in a style that was deemed out of date completely, he should have been devastated by his much younger and much higher ranked opponent. But Huang never wavered, only shook his head a couple of times when he missed, and, quietly regaining his balance, went on doing what he did. Reviewing points in slow-motion, I saw the concentration on his tan, still face, his moist brows going slightly up, his dark eyes almost glassy so completely focused, and the way he worked his mouth when going for difficult shots, left-hand corner of the mouth opening wider and going down when he went for a very precise and flat backhand hit, right-hand corner opening wider and going down when he went for the same on the forehand. It was total dedication without anything ugly, without fanaticism. Obviously using every vein and fiber of his body, Huang was in complete control of himself, knew exactly what it was he wanted to do and did it with everything he had. In such an exceedingly fast play, how did he command his reflexes? How did he find time to plan? When did he decide what corner to aim at next? Which thoughts, if any, filled his consciousness? And what did he feel when he worked his mouth like that?
To try and understand Huang from watching him play was a challenge, and still is, but to me very much worth the effort. And though it is an ongoing process, I’d like to relate the experience, offering as it were the unfinished outline and sparse parts of a singular model that in my opinion, far from being copied, should inspire and incite to finding one that would be truly one’s very own in pips-out play.
I find his matches against Boll and Samsonov the most invigorating. The one against Boll starts out and ends as a contest in speed, both players staying close to the table, Boll seemingly convinced that even in fast play against pips he can manage to find the time to swing and perform his devastating backhand or forehand loops. Eagerly, legs firmly placed wide astride, head forward so much that his upper body is nearly over the table, big-eyed, and jaw set, he awaits Huangs serve. Huang, standing light, loose, and almost reclusive, serves quick and fairly short to the center of the table drawing out a forehand push, then attacks the return, flat hitting to Boll’s body. The German youngster tries to take it on and bending sideways he is able to return the attack, only to see Huang hit the ball with his backhand now exactly to the other corner of the table, completely out of Boll’s reach. Second serve, same story. Then, when he serves himself, Boll is able to take the initiative, but Huang attacks from the start, again first ball to the body, the next one out of reach – or tries to. The score goes, 2-0, 2-2, 4-2, 4-4, and a pattern is established. It is speed against speed, with Boll unable to really get his power-spin game going because he is not allowed the time nor the space for a good swing and Huang getting slowly the upper hand. Sometimes the German will involuntarily step back to gain the time he needs, but as the next ball is already flying towards him he has to step back further still and the third ball will be a flat hit so fast he’s unable to do anything with it. Huang seizes the first game 11-8. In the second, Huang takes up his habitual position at nearly three feet, but Boll isn’t standing all that close to the table anymore – instead of only three, he’s five feet away now, coming in to return the half-short serve, then immediately stepping back to try and return effectively the ball that will follow, almost always aimed at his body and so fast it’s a blur. Initially it seems to be at no avail, and Huang again takes the lead, 6-3 this time, but then Boll’s change of tactics starts to pay off. The young German is beginning to get a feel for the rhythm Huang is creating and his returns get better, 7-5, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, and now he’s moving away even more from the table and swinging ferociously, a well-timed hook at every ball Huang is punching back to him, and he’s taking the game 10-12. The third game, Boll is away from the table all the time; not five, but a full six feet. Johnny is hitting flat whenever he is able to take the initiative, or, with topspin blocks, is trying to land the very heavy topspin balls Boll is now able to produce, but he is losing and he knows it. He is spreading the balls immaculately, first one into the body, maybe a second one after that, but the next flies into Boll’s forehand corner; still, now, Boll gets them all. Yet Huang holds on to the pattern that won him the first game or tries to. It takes time to acknowledge the fact that he is making mistakes now because he isn’t fast enough. The margin is so small! He is sweating heavily, drops splattering over his half of the table, but still is so light on his feet that he makes it to every ball – too late, however, to gain complete control over it. He cannot return the balls short enough, now, and several go over the baseline, if only by an inch or so. He loses 4 -11. Boll’s confidence has been rising through the second and third game, and when the fourth game starts he is standing keen and cocky, albeit a safe six feet away, daring Huang to serve short and hit flat the return. What has gone through Huang’s mind during the break? Has he finally acknowledged the fact that this German boy can outrun him, at two meters behind the table? Maybe so, for quietly but ferociously he changes his tactics. No safe returns anymore! Now his first ball after the serve will be aggressive whatever the risk may be! It is an impossible flat hit to the body, followed by an even faster and flatter hit to the wide forehand and, if that is returned, again a hit to the wide backhand. Boll is surely under pressure, but profits from the risks Huang takes; 8-11. The final game goes the same way; 7-11.
Sometimes I can’t stand it and I quit watching after the second game. Honestly. Yet I can’t stay away from this match either, for overall Huang’s tactics work beautifully; with that first fast ball to the body he is really pinning Boll down in the first game and in part of the second; and when he starts taking risks, opening still faster and flatter, Boll has a very hard time dealing with it even when he is backing off. Had Johnny been younger – say, ten years – the match could have gone either way, in my opinion. Watching Boll backing off until he ends up a full three feet further from the table than where he began play brings mixed feelings. On the one hand it is a tribute to Huang’s style; on the other it shows the essential disadvantage it has: as a pips-out player you simply never can be late in taking the ball. It is not the heavy topspin on Boll’s hooked super-loops that make Huang difficulty, but it is the speed that this topspin allows – for Johnny, being late, even if only a split second, means being out of control. And in contrast to the German, he has no escape, he cannot back off; it wouldn’t help him, it would only add to his troubles, because away from the table he would be even more late; so he has to stay close and battle it out, and he does, and he loses.
The match against Samsonov is a different story altogether. If the match against Boll was a boxing contest, eventually won by backing off and swinging hard, this is a true fencing duel. Vladi, just a few years older than Boll, is the best blocker and fast top-spinning counter-attacker the world has ever seen. The speed of incoming balls doesn’t mean much to him as he needs virtually no time at all for blocking; but he needs to be accurate, and accuracy can only be achieved when the player is completely balanced, both physically and mentally. With Johnny, it’s the same. And both players are right-handed this time. So here they are, on principle evenly matched, although youth, again, is on the side of Huang’s opponent. Johnny is in a fix, though. He knows he’s got to keep Samsonov from producing his loop-kills, which means keeping the play short and fast, but short and fast play is what suits a blocker just fine! How to solve this? The first game, he plays the Russian as he played the German, fast, spreading well, but this time it simply isn’t enough; he loses 6-11. In the second game he tries to upgrade his play, attacking with more speed and more risk, varying speed and varying spin to try and force errors from his blocking opponent. It seems to work; he takes a 4-2 lead, then it is 5-3, 6-4, 7-5, but at that stage Samsonov realizes what is happening and adapts, varying his blocks according to the diversity of balls Huang produces; it is 7-7, then 7-11. The third game, Johnny goes all-out on his attacks, risking everything by hitting Samsonovs return with his forehand down the line, or, when he’s forced to his backhand corner, straight down the center. The speed is unbelievable now. On 3-3, Samsonov decides to move away from the table, adds tricky lobs and very fast topspin-sidespin loops to the exchange, and the balls fly everywhere. It is 5-9. Johnny fights back, making even more speed on his first returns so that Samsonov is pinned down temporarily, and when the Russian backs off, smacks down his lobs; he comes back to 8-10, but loses 8-11. The series has been 6-11, 7-11,8-11, now. If he goes on as he did, he’ll lose for sure. So Huang comes up with something unexpected. In the fourth game his first return isn’t directed at Samsonovs body anymore – he goes for the wide forehand immediately! This is the most risky decision he can make; he can’t hit the ball with his forehand for this, but has to go down the line with his backhand, short and fast, so he can’t use topspin to land the ball. His timing must be spot-on and even then this is incredibly difficult. Vladi is taken completely by surprise. The balls come so fast, he is bewildered. Shaking his head, he tries to adapt, but can’t. Huang, really enjoying himself, hits every ball home and takes the game, astonishingly, by 11-3! Then, the Russian is saved by his coach, who tells him to shape up and move to the middle line a bit, so he can reach those damn balls in the forehand corner. Johnny, eager to repeat what he’s done in the previous game, goes for it again, but this time Vladi, with his long arm, is able to counter the attacks and takes the game, though not at all comfortably, at 8-11.
It is fascinating to watch how Huang changes tactics from game to game, increasing the risks he is taking every time. The first game he is probing with his rapier from a short but still safe distance for the chink in the Russian’s armor; finding none, he adds feints in the second game, trying to make the Russian parry too early or too late, but Vladi doesn’t fall for that either. So in the third game Johnny comes in closer, stabbing right to the heart, and his opponent has to step out of reach. Having failed again, Huang now suddenly and deftly picks up his blade with his left hand and the changed angle of attack throws the Russian off balance – alas, only temporarily.
I am not sure that Huang could have won this match had he been younger; I think a gifted blocker and counter-attacker like Samsonov poses on principle a very real threat to a pips-out attacker. Maybe a more defensive concept could have worked, or, even more difficult, a combination of the tactics Huang used in the third and fourth game; but it would have been close anyhow.
Two matches lost, there can be no doubt about that. Why is this comforting, then? Why inspiring?
To me, it is comforting because Huang proves that, although he is alone (I think he doesn’t even has a coach), aging, and using singular equipment in a singular style, he is still able to put up a real fight against these two players out of the five best in the world. To me, he defines how being different is being valuable.
And as for being inspiring, Johnny Huang is displaying two-winged pips-out play at its very best in these matches; he shows it all, every stroke imaginable, in every series imaginable, and in every tactic. Watching him, I’m able to pick out many of the elements that make pips’ play work. He does it so naturally and it all makes such sense. For instance, he rarely steps around his backhand; he made me see that, although this is held by many to be a vital characteristic of the style, its use is actually limited. The style isn’t called two-winged for nothing! It cannot exist if the attack with the backhand is really much less dangerous than the attack with the forehand; in this sense, the style must be symmetrical, balanced. Also, this is why it is essentially different from single-sided pips-out penhold play. The backhand must be able to attack down the line to the forehand, to the middle (the body) and across court to the backhand of the opponent, as the forehand must be able to attack down the line to the opponent’s backhand, to the middle and across court to the forehand. Only when your attack is truly two-winged, you are able to pin down your opponent to his backhand corner and, when he is stuck there, hit the next ball out of his reach; and only this way you can make rectilinearity and diversity of angle, or high speed and exact placement, the two best qualities short pips offer, really the strongholds of your style. But Huang’s matches also show that this can be achieved in various ways, for the series of stroke combinations he applies – his attack patterns – shift from game to game. That fact in itself invites thinking about different possibilities, about various sets of strokes, combinations which will organically fit together in your play. And logically, this invitation to real creativity, is also an invitation to real individuality. You can’t copy Johnny, exactly because he is an ideal example – he is showing it all, including the necessity to do it your own way.
Watching Huang varying his attack patterns is one thing; doing that yourself in your own way is quite another. To begin with, you’ll need to know what these attack patterns are. Then, even if you’ve succeeded in combining them making up your individual style, you will have to vary them intelligently in matches, and this will be hard – for one thing because you’ll hardly have the time to reflect. Even a gifted and smart player like Samsonov finds it difficult to adapt and needs the breaks between the games to think over his tactics. Also, there is more to playing with pips than singling out and combining attack patterns. Still, it is an essential part and a good thing to start with. So far, I’ve been able to determine seven attack patterns in Huang’s play, linked to three different stages of the game.
Just to be clear about the terms to be used here, “first position” is being close to the table, not further away than a meter, “second position” is one good step more, say up to two meters off the table, and “third position” is anything beyond that, so well away from the table. As I have already indicated, Huang is always in first position. He has three basic attack patterns for close to the table exchanges, when both he and his opponent are in first position; two attack patterns for when his opponent has been forced (or just gone) off the table to second position; and two for when the opponent is away, in third position. These patterns as such do not include service and service return, nor do they include the kill.
Against first position the first of Huang’s attack patterns is what could be called the “backhand-forehand-cross”: a backhand drive or hit fast and deep to the body of the opponent, meant to pin him down (that is, giving him no time and space to swing for a loop), followed by a forehand hit to the forehand of the opponent which must be wide open; the backhand hit will be repeated (with minor variations in placement to avoid becoming predictable) until the opponent really has been pinned down, that is, he must be unable to counter-attack and unable to reach the ball on his forehand as well. This is the safest way of attacking fast and hard, because both the backhand and the forehand balls are played diagonally, which makes them easy to land while it is possible to hit them with force. The goal seems to be to pin the opponent down and force him to his backhand corner and, maybe, off the table.
Just a note, here. Against a left-hander (like Boll), the pattern is of course reversed into “forehand-backhand-cross”. This also applies to the other patterns.
Huang’s second attack pattern is the “backhand-forehand-triangle”: a backhand attack diagonally to the body, followed by a parallel forehand hit, again to the body. This is less safe, because the forehand hit is more difficult to land now; the attack pattern is, however, faster than the first one because the ball has to travel a shorter way. The goal seems to be to pin the opponent down and force him off the table into second position. Huang is often using this tactic when the first pattern of attack appears to be not effective enough. In this pattern, both the forehand and the backhand hit may be repeated until its goal has been reached.
The third attack pattern is the “backhand line”: a single parallel backhand attack to the forehand, meant to surprise the opponent and move him towards his forehand corner and, probably, off the table too. This pattern, the most risky one, is used when the previous ones fail.
These three first-stage attack patterns can either be followed by a kill (forehand diagonally after the first and second, backhand diagonally or forehand parallel after the third), or by the next stage of the attack which becomes necessary when the opponent has successfully retreated to second position.
In second position, the opponent is unable to block effectively, for he is too far from the table; of necessity he becomes a looper, here. The second-stage attack patterns must fit this fact.
The first and safest attack pattern against an opponent who is in second position is the “cross” again: making him move from side to side by hitting with backhand and forehand flat along the diagonals of the table, trying to place the ball out of reach.
Huang’s second, less safe, attack pattern against an opponent who is in second position is hitting flat into the body, to pin him down and make him produce a weak loop. Because the opponent is further away, the ball has to be hit harder, which will make it more difficult to land it on the table. The hit, therefore, must be diagonal and preferably performed by the forehand (which is typically stronger than the backhand). So, if necessary, the attacker must step around his backhand in this stage. To avoid parallel topspin returns to the wide forehand, in general this can only be done safely when the opponent has been moved to a position behind the sideline or even further out to the backhand side. Also, the opponent must be denied the time and space to adjust. So, once this pattern has been engaged, it must be kept up until the point is won.
I have not seen Huang use parallel attacks against an opponent in second position, probably because are not very effective since the angle of the attack is not wide enough and the opponent has time to reach the ball. Stop-blocks, slow blocks, or smother-blocks, that is, techniques used to take the pace off the ball, would be ineffective also, since the opponent will probably be able to get to the ball in time and return well. Therefore, the two attack patterns I described will either be followed by a kill (the kill can be parallel or diagonal, provided the opponent cannot reach the ball) or by a final pattern if the opponent has successfully retreated to third position.
From this position the opponent will lob or loop with top/sidespin. Pinning him down is impossible now, for he is too far away to make the ball fast enough, so Huang’s first attack pattern is again the “cross”: hitting (smashing) diagonally to move him from side to side.
The second attack pattern is more difficult, but perhaps also more effective: blocking the incoming ball in such a way that it bounces twice on the table. This smother-block or stop-block will make the opponent come in, to take first position again. He may be late and Huang may kill his return, or, if his opponent does resume first position successfully, apply one of the first-stage attack patterns.
In this way, these seven patterns of attack fit together organically and logically. The two patterns for the second stage (against second position) or third stage (against third position) may follow those for the first stage (against first position) and be followed by them if necessary. This makes for a very large amount of tactically sound combinations (in theory there are 5040), even though there are only seven different basic patterns.
There may be more. I may have missed some; I probably have. I will keep watching Huang play. But seven patterns seems like a good number to me anyway. So, if you want to create your own attack style from this, take your pick. Of course, you will bring the total of patterns and their combinations down by picking those that suit your abilities and preferences best. Equipment is a factor too. For instance, when you are playing with inverted on your backhand and pips on your forehand, it makes sense to choose the “backhand line” as your favorite means of first-stage attack, since the inverted rubber allows you to produce enough topspin to land the ball on the table comfortably even in parallel attack. Still, a vast amount of possibilities remains, and with that a great potential for creating your own individual style.
As I said in the beginning, I relate to the inconspicuously deviating individual; and that is why watching Johnny Huang play is comforting to me. He has demonstrated the art of playing with pips so well, so clearly, that he has made it accessible for everybody, providing every player with the chance to be his or her unique self in this great sport table tennis is. As a result, perhaps one day there will be so much diversity amongst players that it has become commonplace to be different. Then, on tournaments, there would be no crowd anymore, gazing and intimating my son should quietly leave. I’d like that even better than seeing his little grin...
Without opponent, no match.