If you're taking requests, a similar analysis of Gao Jun's tactics would be a great read also.
Here's an attempt...
To understand the style Gao Jun is playing, you have to know a bit about her history, I think. She was born on January 25, 1969 in Boading, China. At age 5 she started playing table-tennis; her first lesson was bouncing a ball against the wall of the gym as many times as she could without letting the ball drop, teaching her the necessity to be constant and precise. Since she developed her skills very convincingly – although not exceptionally rapidly – she was sent to a special school for training future professional athletes. Here, students like Gao majored in different fields, including table tennis, gymnastics, and martial arts. In the program of a school like this, the emphasis would be on stamina and agility, together with perfect technique; and as it was a boarding school and times in China were lean, Gao had little opportunity to do anything else but practice. At age 16, which is comparatively late, she joined the Chinese National Team. She never really stood out amongst her team-mates, but never was really inferior either. Her top result was in 1991 when, with Chen Zihe, she won the Women’s doubles title in World Championships. She participated in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, winning a silver medal in the Women’s Doubles, again with Chen Zihe. In the 1993 World Championships, in the singles event, she ended up third. In 1994, at age 25, she left China for the US. It had become obvious to her that as a singles-player she would have no great future in China; in the national team she would always be second best at the most, yet constantly under pressure to perform better. Also, she had married an American.
The marriage didn’t last. Abroad, being relatively lonesome and having to manage without the training facilities she had been accustomed to at home, she had a hard time. But she recovered and found her own way. Judging from interviews she gave, by 1999 she had – apparently – changed her views on the significance of winning and – perhaps – on the purpose of playing as such; at any rate, being second best didn’t bother her anymore. It was a farewell to Chinese Match Morals, but I guess seeing herself as she really was, accepting the person she was, gave her peace of mind. More confident now, she even succeeded in improving her relations with former members of the national team and with China in general. Her career went well. In the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, she reached the round of 32 in women’s singles events; this year, in Beijing, China, at age 39, she managed, incredibly, to get to the round of 16. All those years she has succeeded in staying within the top-20 of the world; her best ranking being # 7 in February 2006.
Gao Jun plays a controlling, defence & counter-attack oriented, single-sided pips-out penholder style. She will mostly block, often with her “backhand” (I will refer to this henceforth as “left-hand side”; forehand as “right-hand side”), aiming to vary speed and spin in such a way that her opponent will make a mistake. Weak returns will be killed instantly, typically with a right-hand side flat hit that starts just inches away from the incoming ball. Gao’s play looks very simple; deceptively so. The essence of her game is constancy paired with both quick variation as well as unbelievable technical prowess. This delicate and intelligent style is rarely seen in Chinese top-players, even though every Chinese table-tennis player is trained to be constant and flawless. Chinese top-players excel in attacking mercilessly, displaying the absolute inner need to win which is installed in them, and their constancy is far less striking. Gao, on the other hand, resembles much more those Russian and other Eastern-European women defenders who are able to withstand any kind of offensive pressure and handle their pips-out rubbers with amazing but inconspicuous skill. To many, her play may even seem dull; her uncommon composure during matches will add to this. But this very composure, her self-restraint, allows her to control the game both tactically and technically.
Gao will nearly always serve deep and fast, mostly to the backhand or into the body, provoking a deep top-spin return, which she can manipulate with her pips. Most of the returns will go to her left-hand side, because deep balls aimed at her right-hand side will be hit flat. So, her left-hand side return has to be very special – and it is. She will block producing no-spin (making solid contact with the back of the ball, bringing the bat flat forward and a little upward), or side-spin (doing the same, grazing it from right to left) combined with topspin (going upward too) or push fast producing backspin (going downward). Side-spin can be light (brushing the ball without using the wrist much) or heavy, especially with her fast push (brushing the ball, now using the wrist in a very fast and crisp rotation, flicking the tip of the bat downwards from right to left, almost like when serving). She will vary speed by taking the ball very early on the rise, making the return a fast one, or later, catching the ball with a relaxed wrist and producing a drop-shot. Speed and spin variations are hard to read for the opponent, since Gao’s strokes are extremely short; as if clairvoyant, she moves her bat to the exact place where the ball will be, waits for it, and begins the stroke when the ball almost touches her rubber. Almost without exception she will aim for the change-over point or the backhand when blocking or pushing, subtly moving her opponent towards the far backhand, and she will place deep, unless her opponent is backing off the table. Against backspin she will invariably push fast and aggressively, producing heavy back & side-spin. Her forehand attack is very fast (again, this stroke is kept extremely short) but without much power and is effective because of its precise placement; she will cut the sidelines with it.
Although her left-hand blocking and pushing may seem unpredictable because of the variation she applies, there are logical limitations. A fast push of hers, loaded with side/backspin, will be attacked (since a push as a return is too weak against her short pips and will be killed) with a slow & high loop, most likely to her left-hand side (in order to avoid her aggressive right-hand side). Now she cannot push again, so she has to block. Gao’s block then can be no-spin, but that is risky against heavy top-spin, since she will likely produce weak back-spin instead (top-spin will be reversed to some extent because of her pips); therefore she will be more or less forced to choose between producing top-spin or backspin/sidespin; as top-spin will not be heavy coming off a block, she is likely to choose backspin/sidespin, and again she will aim for the body. So most of the time her left-hand defence will consist of blocks and pushes with varied side-spin & back-spin combinations, but every now and again she may put in a no-spin or top-spin block. Her opponent can hardly do anything else but attack these with heavy top-spin loops. Sooner or later one of those loops will be too high or too slow or inaccurate in another way, and be attacked – put away with a right-hand side flat hit. This hit, depending on the position of the opponent behind the table, may be aimed for the far backhand or the far forehand, and if it doesn’t win the point outright, it will be followed by a flat hit in the opposite direction.
Variation in speed, especially when the opponent has backed off the table a bit, allows more variation in spin too; in this case, a drop-shot can be no-spin or light top-spin without risk, taking the opponent who has got used to side/backspin combinations by surprise; since she has to move in fast, most likely the opponent’s return will pop up and be killed.
Right-hand side blocks can produce back-spin (stroking quickly downwards/backwards, but keeping the movement very short) or top-spin alike and be slow or fast; also, where Gao can block, she can almost always hit, so the opponent will not know what to expect. In this way, Gao’s right-hand side can be as unpredictable as her left-hand side.
For all this, Gao has to have impeccable technique. For a Chinese, her footwork is remarkably limited – she will often reach with a stretched arm for the ball in order to block it. Chinese players are taught not to do this, but to come up behind the ball instead so they can hit it. Gao is not very fast on her feet, so she declines to even try. Instead, she moves her hand very fast and has developed the block into a form of art. With minimal movement she produces spin and speed in variations which are hard to read. This is not to say that she won’t move her feet. She will step around her backhand/left-hand side quite often, if she sees the chance of a flat hit. But she will not be forced out of position behind the table, unless she herself chooses to. Because of this, her hand movement when blocking or pushing needs to be both extremely short and extremely precise. And the same thing is true of her hits. Often she will hit with a flick of the wrist only, in order to avoid unnecessary and potentially dangerous footwork. On her left-hand side she will perform strokes which younger players probably do not even know anymore; a short chop (wrist-action only, bringing the tip of the blade from up left to right down), or a minimal flick close to the net (wrist-action only, flicking the ball with no-spin or light top-spin towards the opponents’ deep backhand or cutting the sideline), or a drop-shot stopping-block far left with an outstretched arm and completely loose wrist.
She also has to be able to attack instantly and this, again, she does using her wrist. Fast flicks close to the net or halfway over the table, but also behind the table, using her body and arm a little more – these strokes seem to be harmless, but are exceptionally well placed and have decent speed.
Gao Jun will never be the world’s #1. As is the case with all pips-based styles, her game is vulnerable to very heavy, consistent top-spin. With modern offensive equipment, speed and spin can be too much to handle for pips – spin-reversal becomes uncontrollable and the player will lose the initiative. Even so, maintaining her position in the sub-top for so long is an extraordinary feat. I guess it signifies that experience combined with intelligence, persistence and technical ability can bring players to great heights. And also that defenders may outlast attackers even if the latter ones are helped on so preposterously by the ITTF’s ever-changing rules