ANTI-SPIN RUBBERS â€“ A TALE OF BEAUTY.
A couple of weeks ago when I picked up my first anti-spin rubber ever, a sheet of Juic Neo-anti (red, 2.0 mm) â€“ it was a bargain, one in a crate of rubbers the shop-owner wanted to get rid of, on a booth set up at a tournament I didnâ€™t even tale part in but was by chance visiting â€“ I had no specific idea what I would do with it. Having bought it, even for only 15 euroâ€™s (the normal price being 28,90) I thought I had better try it out, so I did. As I have got used to playing with long pips over the last year and a half, it felt a little odd and dull to me, and I lost interest in it, but again picked it up a week later, in the meantime having slowly realized - or accepted, I guess - that what I had at first thought of as dullness actually was the control I had always lacked in long pips rubbers. This second time, practicing with it, I noticed that my all-round chopper-attacker game partly improved; the away from the table defence was much more solid, attacking backspin I made fewer mistakes, but attacking topspin I seemed to use the wrong kind of stroke. Intrigued, I tried to find out how anti should be properly used in a chopper-attacker style; I asked around, surfed the internet, but there was very little useful information to be had as most of it just stated that anti-spin rubbers, compared to long pips, were an outdated, simplistic, and poor response to modern topspin techniques.
Having learned to be sceptical about popular belief, but without a clue as to how to challenge it, I felt frustrated â€“ and then I got a break: Antipip pm-ed me about something I had posted on the forum and, one thing leading to another, before I knew it I had got from him a spectacularly complete and compelling view of a player who had used anti on both wings during the 1970â€™s and early 1980â€™s, and had actually been as high as #11 in the English ranking, but had quit with some disgust in the aftermath of the implementation by the ITTF in 1984 of the rule about two colours. Bowing to conventional wisdom I would of course have seen that all this confirmed how out of date and simplistic antiâ€™s had been already three decades ago; but as I didnâ€™t, and wonâ€™t, in contrast it spelled out beauty to me - beauty and possibility, and at that the growing conviction that searching for information I must have missed essential bits and pieces that would have helped developing my game.
So I went at it again. And this time I did find at least some of the bits and pieces I had missed earlier on. Trying to make sense of it all I put them together and wrote what youâ€™ll find below. Maybe it will make sense to others too; it did, finally, to me.
History, it is said, should be learned from, or else the same mistakes will be made over and over again. Here, then, is history. According to all available sources, patient defence combined with well-timed but sporadic quick attack, using the orthodox pips-out rubbers Victor Barna had introduced in the 1930â€™s, had been the way to play until the 1950â€™s, when the Japanese all-out attackers started to use fast blades and rubbers on a sponge to drive with. Put under this new kind of pressure, defenders themselves started to use inverted rubbers with sponge, both to increase the amount of backspin when chopping and to improve their attacks, but they also used pips-out rubbers with or without sponge and with pips of different lengths, and tried out different blades. The 1950â€™s were a period of ingenuity and development of new skills, a period of diversity; there were even great single-sided penholder chopper-attackers who used OX long pips (e.g. Zhang Xielin, who won the 1963 national championship in China). Still, attack seemed to benefit more from the new inverted rubbers than did defence. This became even more obvious when real topspin was introduced to the game. The idea to use topspin as the ultimate weapon in table tennis originated with the Japanese players who in the WTTC of 1959 lost to the Chinese attackers and European defenders. In 1960, the Japanese very politely invited teams from Hungary and Yugoslavia to come over for a friendly tour; what they really wanted, though, was to test their newly invented secret weapon, the loop-drive, on their enemies. To these mostly defensive players the Japanese loop proved to be devastating â€“ instead of chopping their returns low over the net preventing point-winning attack, they saw the ball fly off towards the ceiling and, if it landed on the table at all, be killed mercilessly. They quickly understood the reason, however, and began to adapt their chopping technique; they also began using topspin attacks themselves. Thus, the modern chopper-attacker style was born.
During the 1960â€™s defenders had to come to grips â€“ again and again - with the gradually increasing power of the loop. The Chinese defenders, male as well as female, preferred the combination of defence and attack, using a (mostly long) pips-out rubber on the backhand and an inverted rubber on the forehand, so they could withstand and vary the incoming spin, and provoke relatively weak returns they would attack. This type of defence came to be the accepted international model, but from a technical point of view it had at least one weakness, for the pips-out rubber didnâ€™t offer as much control as the inverted rubber did â€“ by far. Then an Austrian international, Toni Hold, came up with the idea of an inverted rubber which would not be affected by incoming spin at all. He experimented and played with home-made rubbers, using the first one in competition in 1965, and ultimately with the German firm Joola he collaborated in designing, manufacturing and marketing, in 1969, the first ever industrially made anti-spin rubber. Its top-sheet was fairly inelastic and almost (but not quite) frictionless; its sponge had big pores and absorbed a lot of speed. He himself used the rubber during the WTTC of 1971 in Nagoya, Japan, arousing quite some interest. Afterwards, other manufacturers tried to copy it and soon antiâ€™s of a similar design came to the market, though none were as frictionless or slow as the original. The Chinese didnâ€™t believe in frictionless or very slow rubbers anyway, but they did see a potential for anti-spin rubbers used by attackers, so they made their own, offensive versions. Thus, during the 1970â€™s, the new topspin attack could â€“ apart from other tactics against it - be countered or absorbed by anti-spin rubbers. Especially the Chinese antiâ€™s were confusing to the enemy as their top-sheets were glued on quite regular sponges and anyone was still allowed to use two rubbers of the same colour; attackers had to keep a very weary eye on which rubber the opponent used or they would be defeated by their own spin, and often even a very weary eye was not enough as, for instance, a young Jan-Ove Waldner found out when playing in the WTTC of 1983 against the spectacularly fast blocking, twiddling, and hitting Cai Zhenhua. In 1980 John Hilton, using his own version of anti (Toni Holdâ€™s top-sheet mounted on a regular sponge) had already won the European Championships in a similarly confusing, although more diverse and much less fast, style of play. From then on, there had been a growing amount of complaints about the confusing use of anti-spin rubbers; and the performance of Cai didnâ€™t help, of course; so in 1984 the ITTF decided that henceforth the two rubbers used on a frame must be of a clearly different colour. A lot of players who had been using anti-spin rubbers changed to long pips, or changed their style as confusion didnâ€™t work anymore; it seemed to be the out for anti in professional table-tennis. In 1988 Toni Hold, by then an old defender, at last became a world champion with his invention â€“ at the veteranâ€™s WTTC in Zagreb. He repeated his success in 1990 in Baltimore, adding victory in the doubles to it; and he managed to do the same again in 1992, in Dublin. Three times consecutively a veteranâ€™s world champion â€“ it proved the effectiveness of his invention. But to whom? No professional chopper-attacker aspiring to greatness would use this slick and rather stiff, slow anti anymore, because it could only return the spin in a predictable way since deception was no longer possible. Holdâ€™s design, it was held, dated back to a time when looping was still young and relatively weak, but during the 1980â€™s it had come of age and a 1969 anti-spin rubber was no match for it â€“ at least not on the highest level. As long pips rubbers could handle the modern amount of spin, and so could short pips if used by Chinese experts, there was no call for new antiâ€™s either. That was how it was, and that was how it would stay, until this day.
Or was it? For this is the way history is customarily presented, the history of the winners, but the history of the winners is a history of very, very few. Itâ€™s not just the winners who have played table tennis and itâ€™s not even just the winners who have played great. Looking at the top 10 of the world you will not see the couple of million others who hold a bat, nor, among them, the couple of hundred or perhaps thousand or more who could have done as well as the best if they had had the time, money, opportunities, appetites, help and luck those 10 have had. The history of the winners just tells about a handful of exceptions; it certainly doesnâ€™t tell all there is to tell, often not even about those winners themselves. I am not going to tell all there is to tell either, of course, but I will try and add to what seems to be generally accepted as the history of the game, offering perhaps a different view of it, a personal view; for history as I see it compounds the tales of a host of different individuals, and of one of them Antipip gave me the story.
Around 1970 a young classic chopper, having gone from his trusted Bergmann hard-bat to using, for a brief spell, a Sriver D13 in order to find a way to play against the new evolving loopers, got (through Peter Simpson) hold of a Joola Toni Hold Whitespot blade with Joola Toni Hold anti-spin rubbers: black top-sheets, which werenâ€™t quite as hard, thick, and slick as the version Joola is marketing nowadays, but not as grippy as modern all-round antiâ€™s either, on a 1.5 mm thick sponge which was a bit slower than Joolaâ€™s present-day version. He completely fell for the set-up. Practicing six nights a week, it took him a year to master this set-up completely and profoundly because he wanted to be able to both chop and attack with it and there was no one around to tell him how to exactly handle that. He got there nevertheless, not just finding out how to perform the required strokes, but devising tactics against attackers (and defenders; there still were a lot of those around, back then) which worked. He played Desmond Douglas and beat him in a tournament shortly before Desmond became Englandâ€™s number one (Des was no mean player even by international standards, as you can judge for yourself: on Youtube there are matches of him against Bengtsson - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKoDLnLa8IA
, for instance; also against Secretin, Klampar, Appelgren, and others). At some point he was invited to play in the national league and although he never beat a current England number one, he played against Derek Badderly (one of Englandâ€™s best loopers at the time), Paul Day, Colin Deaton, Mike and Brian Johns, Derek Munt, and Les Haslam (Englandâ€™s number four) and others, winning some, and of course losing some, but never badly, except when playing Haslam, who could hammer him. In his first year of anti, when he hadn't yet fully developed his counter-hitting, an attacker of Haslamâ€™s calibre could kill any ball he gave, but against most other players he could find a way to return the first ball safely and that first ball was the key to this style. Well aware of the fact that, using anti, his attacks would always be counter-attacks, he had concluded that he had to draw his opponents out, so he made himself easy to hit against, mostly floating back the balls from all over the court, waiting for the one he could come in for and kill. And if, coming in, he would be too late to hit a winner, he would just push and start all over again.
He tried long pips briefly, in practice, but found they didn't have the same control as his antiâ€™s; besides, by that time he could play all the shots he wanted with his black Toni Holds - chop, float and hit. Control was what he needed for his game, spin and speed killing rubbers on a slow blade which was still firm enough to allow a good crisp counter-hit. Compared to hard-bat blades, Joolaâ€™s Toni Hold Whitespot was medium paced and it was a fair bit faster than his Bergmann had been, which made it quite suitable for what he wanted.
Topspin didnâ€™t bother him, he would chop it back and even though this was a time when defenders were played at regularly, opponents would find it very hard to loop over the spin his anti returned to them. Speed didnâ€™t bother him much either, as he liked nothing better than retrieving, using all of the court for his ballet-like fleet footwork, and floating the ball back, never worrying that a float might be too easy to hit at, because he would get that ball back too anyhow. And if his opponents, worn out or thinking to be smart, started to push or drop a seemingly safe short one, he would be there, ready for it. But when he would get no speed, nor spin, it would be another story. Dealing with looping and hitting attackers was different from dealing with other defenders; against other defenders he would have to play the ball on its merits, looking to get one to hit, and when his opponent was of similar level it might turn into an expedite match. He went to expedite with Colin Deaton one time at 3-1 after 15 minutes and won as Deaton, who rarely looped a ball in a regular match, would attack in expedite, giving away opportunities to counter and kill.
Hitting against other defenders was very effective, but most of them kept everything very low over the net and were hard to hit against; he himself was easy to hit against, inviting it, wanting to retrieve and float, and then suddenly counter, killing with quick hits or flicks. He would keep his bat unusually low, confident that he would be able to raise it when the opportunity for attack arose, and being ready for very late retrieves. Countless times he hit the floor with those, but somehow his Whitespot survived. Floating, moving fast all the time, tirelessly, he was in his element. He would only roll players off if they were not of his level. In contrast, if they were good enough and able to hit through him, he gave them credit; he would see whether they could do that to every ball he could give, and attack more to try and break up their rhythm, forcing errors and poor choice of shot selection. He never systematically used massive backspin against opponents, as present-day defenders like Joo or Chen would do; if his adversaries could consistently hit through him, he would take the chop as late as he could, so the ball stayed low, but he would still mostly float it, trying to ride the storm this way, biding his time away from the table, taunting the opponent to play a drop-shot, being always ready to come in and hit.
What he did was supremely his, and, really loving it, he quit on principle some time after 1984 when the two-colour rule came off. His double black anti style, which he had worked on for one and a half decade with all his heart, was unintentionally but effectively banned for no reason. So much for bureaucracy. It might have made sense to request different colours for different rubbers, but that was not what the rule did. As he used the exact same rubber on both sides, he didn't see why he should change. The rule stopped him playing in the top division (it was applied only to premier division at first) so he played for a bit in division 1 for a 1st team, got them promoted, moved to another club and did the same, moved back to the first club which had been relegated. Adhering to the rule was optional in England for local leagues initially and a committee member promised to support his argument, but then didn't; that made him finally quit league, town and county. I guess his heart wasnâ€™t in it anymore - not as it once had been.
As I said, to me this tale spells out beauty â€“ the beauty of a human being finding a way of expressing himself completely and individually in what he does. Everything adds to that. Its simplicity; to contain topspin attack by just one rubber and a matching choreography. Its logic, too; for without the footwork the antiâ€™s become useless. And its transparency; for nothing is veiled or obscured or disguised, here, everything is open and straightforward and works as such.
In another way it visually defines to me what an anti-spin rubber is, and what its possibilities and limitations are. Topspin-producing rubbers allow a looper to load the ball with kinetic energy, by standing still, balanced, and have the body working hard. The surface and sponge of an anti absorb this energy, but only if the hard work of the looperâ€™s body is offset by the chopperâ€™s footwork; itâ€™s the rubber that catches the topspin and itâ€™s the feet that dissipate it all over the court. The better the looper is, the better the chopperâ€™s footwork needs to be. As the years went by, loopers had the one-sided advantage of ever better rubbers, since the limit of technology had not yet been reached; but there definitely is a limit to the human footwork â€“ that would explain why a double-anti style didnâ€™t bring any chopper into the top ten of either England or the world. Ultimately, the feet canâ€™t compete with technology, and something else is needed besides.
This is what the story told me. It made me see, happily, how anti-spin could work for a modern chopper-attacker; it also made me see, sadly, the beautiful simplicity disappear. When a spin-containing rubber is paired up with a spin-producing rubber, as seems unavoidable given the advance of technology loopers can use, simplicity must give way to complexity. And perhaps this complexity is what obscures the view, I thought, making it difficult to picture a modern defender using anti. If I could only see an example of it as clear asâ€¦ It is funny what tricks the mind will play on you. Because suddenly I remembered I had actually seen such an example, even more than one, only I had forgotten I had, because when watching them I had looked with the eyes of a long pips player. Still, I could watch again, for I had stored the footage: Liang Geliang, training in a jade-green hall on a table with legs that seem to belong under a billiards-table, and another Chinese world-champion, female Tong Ling, doing the same, using on the backhand not the long pips-out rubber, but clearly an anti-spin rubber, chopping, pushing, hitting, and twiddling. Those videoâ€™s (their megaupload.com data are on http://www.pingpongboard.com/showdetail ... rdid=15758
, or in an up-dated version on http://bongban.org/forum/archive/index.php/t-6772.html
) are from the 1990â€™s, but the strokes shown are essentially the same as any defender would do them now. The picture they offer of an anti-using chopper-attacker is a long way from being simple, or so it seems to me, but on the other hand it isnâ€™t more complex than the picture I have of a long pips using chopper-attacker, and it is still a very appealing picture, especially when I watch it and remember the feel of control I had chopping with the anti. So I will go on watching. Maybe I will be able to break the complexity down after a while and end up with something almost as transparent and beautiful as the picture Antipip offered me. If so, I have him to thank for it.