Some players I coach like to drift back from the table. They may start closer but after one or two shots, they will start moving further and further away from the table.
When I ask why, the most common response is that the player feels he has more time to react to my shots. He puts extra physical distance between us. The ball takes longer to get to him. He feels he has more time to see where the ball is going and to execute his shots.
Whilst this approach does increase reaction time, it also has significant drawbacks. The most obvious being that you have to move a lot more to cover a wider space. Plus your opponent has more angles available to put you under pressure.
If you also like to drift back from the table, I encourage you to stay a little closer. Or at least not to drop back by default. There will be times when you get pushed back deeper, but try to hold your ground and see if you can dominate playing closer.
When I say “playing close to the table”, I don’t mean having your body pressed up against the table. This is too close and you will struggle to return deep balls. You need a gap between you and the table, but close enough that you can touch the table. Something like a gap of 30cm-50cm is good. If you are shorter in height, you can play more towards the 30cm range. If you are very tall, then you might find it easier to play at the 50cm range.
When you start playing closer, you will initially find it harder and you may feel as though you don’t have the space and time to play your usual game. To adjust, you can do two things…
Shorten your strokes – when you play closer to the table, you do have less time to react. If you shorten your strokes using compact and efficient technique, you will feel as though you have a bit more time, plus you can still generate lots of speed and spin and recover quickly for the next shot. You will be able to play fast table tennis with high consistency.
Use your eyes – When playing closer to the table, you need to find ways to increase your reaction time. How you use your eyes becomes very important. As soon as you play your shot, switch your attention straight to your opponent. This will maxmise the amount of time available to react to your opponent’s shot. You will find it easier to see what shot your opponent is going to play and where the ball is going.
When you shorten your strokes and use your eyes more efficiently, playing closer to the table doesn’t seem so difficult. Plus the benefits are significant. You take time away from your opponent. You rush your opponent. You force your opponent to make errors. You win points through early shot timing, speed and angles.
Now here is the killer point…
When you start dominating closer to the table, you may notice that you push your opponent further back from the table. Your opponent feels rushed, so falls back to increase his reaction time.
Now our diagram is the inverse of the one at the beginning of the article. There is the same distance between the players – you have that extra reaction time you desire. But you are not the player drifting back. It’s your opponent. Now you have all the advantages. Your opponent has more space to cover and you have much better angles to win points. It’s a win-win situation for you.
So, if you’re a player who likes to drift back from the table, I challenge you to hold your ground and play a bit closer. As with any change in playing style, this will take plenty of time and practice before you really start feeling the benefits. And there will still be times when you will need to go further back from the table. But try to be the player who dominates closer to the table and force your opponent back.