How to blow a 5-0 lead – my latest tournament disaster

Image courtesy of Graham Trimming from Cippenham TTC

After my disappointing debut at the VETTS Southern Masters in February, I’ve been working a little harder than usual at improving my game. I’ve been pushing and blocking less and trying to attack more. 

I’ve been generally happy with my progress. Our team made it to the final of the Cambridge Handicap Competition. We lost in the final, but I remained undefeated in all the matches I played throughout the competition. I also won an informal club tournament in April, only dropping one game in six matches (here’s a video of the final). 

Good progress, but was I ready for my next official veterans tournament? It was time to put my skills to the test again. 

The tournament was the Cippenham “Five by Two” Senior & Veteran 1-Star Open on 28 May. The tournament was split into two parts. In the morning, it was the veterans tournament, for players aged 40+. In the afternoon, it was the senior tournament, which was open to any age. I entered both tournaments. I was a little concerned whether I would have the stamina to last the entire day, but I thought I’d try anyway. 

A proper warm-up

One lesson I learnt from my first tournament is the importance of a good warm-up before the matches begin. In my first tournament, I managed around 5 minutes with another player, sharing the table with another pair. It was not a good warm-up at all.

This time, I got to the venue early and managed to warm-up for nearly 30 minutes with Paul Martindill. I actually played Paul in the February tournament (and lost), so it was nice to see a familiar face and to warm-up with a good quality player. Already I was feeling much more relaxed, positive and focused than my debut tournament.

This was a smaller tournament than the VETTS Southern Masters, roughly 40 players participating, and the standard not quite as high. But all my opponents (other than Paul) were unknown to me, with lots of experience, so it was going to be a tough challenge. The tournament started with a group stage, followed by a knock-out stage.

My goal was to start as positively as possible. No pushing. No blocking. Just attack, attack attack. I told myself not to worry if I make mistakes, just try to get into an attacking flow as quickly as possible.

It’s all going wrong again

My first opponent was Steve Davis, who was the top seed in our group. He has a very strong backhand attack – fast and flat, with good placement. Give him a weak ball to his forehand and he will smash that away too.

Despite my good warm-up and determination to play positively, a few minutes before the match with Steve, I could feel my nerves start to ramp up again. Tension was starting to take over my body. By the time the match started I was very jittery. 

I still try to play positively, but my shots are jerky and weak. This poses no challenge to Steve, who reels off a number of unstoppable backhand attacks. I just watch them fly past me. When I try to attack with my forehand, my timing is off, my swing too short and tense and I am unable to generate any topspin. I lose the first game 11-7.

The second game continues in much the same way. I am still very tight, make a number of basic errors when returning serves and Steve continues to dominate with his backhand. Whilst a little closer, I still lose 13-11.

At this stage, I’m beginning to wonder if all this stress is worth it. What’s the point of all the practice, if I can’t perform under the slightest bit of pressure against a decent opponent? Am I just kidding myself, thinking I’m good enough to play in these tournaments? Perhaps I should just stick to playing in my local league, with the same familiar faces.

With these negative thoughts flooding my brain, I try to refocus and adopt a different tactical approach. Instead of getting dominated by Steve’s backhand, I decide to play mostly to his forehand. Even though his forehand is decent, it’s not as deadly as his backhand. I’m losing 2-0. I have little chance of winning. I may as well give it a go.

Instantly this tactical approach seems to work. Steve’s forehand definitely isn’t as strong, and he makes a few errors. Plus I am getting some easier balls to attack and my forehand is feeling a little more relaxed. I win the game 11-5. Hmm … interesting. Maybe I could turn this around?

The next game is close. Steve is trying to adapt to my tactical change and bring play back to his backhand. I also make a couple of serve receive errors. The game is tighter than I would like. But my approach of targeting his forehand is still bringing success and I manage to scrape a 12-10 win.

The match is tied at 2-2, but the momentum has shifted. I am in the ascendancy. I’ve worked out Steve’s strengths and weaknesses. I feel more confident and I can sense Steve is getting frustrated. My forehand is much looser now and with much of the play being forehand to forehand, I am getting plenty of opportunities to play topspin attacks. I race to a 10-6 lead. The winning line is in sight. I do my best to blow this opportunity with two sloppy service receives again, but manage to close out the game 11-8.

Hooray! My first victory of the day. I have already matched the number of wins from my first tournament. I was not happy with how tense I was, but pleased I was able to finish the match strong and generally play positively with little pushing or blocking.

I go on to win my next two group matches and finish top of my group. It’s nice to get the wins, but I’m mostly pleased with my general approach of trying to play attacking table tennis. I am still pushing and blocking sometimes and my backhand is a little safe, but I am using my forehand attack a lot and my level is much better than in my first tournament.

Tom vs Phil 

We now move into the knock-out stages. I win my round of 16 match relatively easily. I’m now in the quarter-finals, which I’m really pleased with. But can I go further? I reckon I can.

My quarter-final opponent is Phil Snelson. He is one of the top seeds for the tournament. We have never played before and I’ve never seen him play, so I’m going in blind. Phil is left handed and I notice he uses short pimples on his backhand. This is a horrible combination and already I am starting to doubt whether I will win this one.

In the first game, I try to work out his playing style, strengths and weaknesses. He mostly blocks and chops with his pimples, which catches me out at first, as I am expecting him to be more aggressive, like other players who use short pimples. His forehand is also very strong. He can attack with heavy topspin and then flat hit any balls which are slightly high. I’m a little unsure what to do at first. Do I play to his pimples or play to his strong forehand?

I choose to play to his forehand, as it’s more conventional. The problem with this, as I quickly realise, is that his forehand is really rather good! He hits lots of winners and takes the first game 11-7.

In the second game, I still play more to his forehand, but try to be more positive myself and get more speed and spin on my attacks. I have some success and the game now seems evenly matched. I take a 10-8 lead, but get sloppy again when returning serves, allowing Phil to dominate with his forehand. He wins four points in a row and takes the game 12-10.

The third game continues to be quite close. I am causing Phil some problems with my serve, but equally I am struggling with his. Any return of serve which is slightly weak, Phil punishes with his fast forehand attack. 

Throughout the game Phil always has the upper hand. He is tactically and technically a little better than me. He uses all his experience to seal the victory with a 11-8 game. But the score was respectable. 

By the end of the match, I felt I had a better understanding of his playing style, but it was too late. I was beaten by a better player. However, I am very happy at making it to the quarter-finals. I can play table tennis, I tell myself!

Tom vs Phil – the epic rematch!

After a short break, it’s time for the seniors tournament. Most of the players from the morning tournament are playing in the afternoon tournament also, but we are joined by a new group of players, mostly decent juniors trying to gain some tournament experience. 

By this stage I’m already feeling tired. I’ve only played five matches, but all the physical exertion and nervous tension has depleted my energy levels. I’m not sure how much I have left to give. I am much more relaxed now, having played a few games and got some wins, but I am tired. 

Once again there is a group stage, followed by a knock-out stage. In my group I win three matches and lose one, finishing second overall. This means I qualify for the main knock-out competition. 

I win my first knock-out match quite easily and now I am into the round of 16. My next opponent? Yes, you guessed it, Phil Snelson again. By this stage I am knackered. I have played 10 matches already. My shirt (the second of the day), is drenched in sweat. My feet are sore. My knees are aching. I could happily go to bed instead. The time is getting late. I still need to catch my train back home to Cambridge. A defeat to Phil now would be OK. 

But part of me also wants revenge. In our first match, I lost 3-0, but he was not that much better than me. And Phil was looking completely knackered as well! If I play well, I could cause an upset.

This time I try a different approach. I play to his short pimples a lot more. I knew the ball would be floating back, with little spin, but it would be slow. I needed to wait for the ball and spin in properly. If I had any chance of winning, I had to keep it away from his forehand and get my forehand into play. 

These tactics worked instantly. My forehand had got stronger as the day went on and I was able to hit a number of forehand winners and limit how much Phil was able to attack. I win the first game 11-8.

In the next game I use the same tactics. I’m still able to hit some forehand winners, but I start to make some errors, especially when returning serves. Phil is a clever player. One of the challenges of playing against other veterans is that they all have good brains. They have been playing for such a long time, they know how to control a player, force mistakes and get their strengths into play. And Phil is starting to out-think me. Phil wins this game 11-7.

In the next game I start poorly, once again struggling with service return. This is costing me. Anything slightly weak or predictable is getting punished. This adds pressure and sometimes I just dump the return of serve in the net. But if I can get into the rally, I’m actually winning more points. 

I’m losing 6-2  but tell myself to really focus on reading his serve. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular return of serve, just low and well placed. I start getting more serves back, try to be a little more positive with my backhand and take any opportunities to play my fast forehand attacks. I work my way back into the game and win 11-9.

This is already a much better performance. I definitely have a chance. In the fourth game we are tied 6-6. Thoughts of winning flash through my head. I only need a few more points. BIG MISTAKE. I lose focus on my game plan, make some sloppy returns of serve again and the game quickly slips away from me. Phil wins 11-7.

It’s the final game. I tell myself to be positive. Go big or go home. I start like a rocket, playing five very good points – fast and attacking – taking advantage of a momentarily spell of passiveness by Phil. I am leading 5-0. I have this now. Surely?

We switch sides. This is a big point. If I win this point it will be psychologically damaging for Phil. I play to his pimples. The ball floats back deep. It’s a perfect height for my forehand. I am well positioned. But I miss the ball completely! A little bit of tension has crept into my game. 

This miss seems to give Phil the shot of confidence he needs. Maybe he can sense a little concern on my face. Phil is very experienced and not at all phased by the situation. A strong serve by Phil, which I prod at passively, wins him another point. 5-2. We can both sense a momentum change. 

We trade the next two points. The score is 6-3 and then I experience the first signs of disaster. I feel a small cramp in my tricep. I try stretching it out, but can’t get rid of it. Phil wins the next two points. He is finding ways of using his forehand more. 

I still lead 6-5, but my big advantage has been wiped out. I’m now getting cramp in my forearm, as well as my tricep. I win one, Phil wins two. Again, I win one, Phil wins two. Phil takes the lead for the first time. The score is 8-9.

Now my arm is cramping bad. I contemplate conceding the match and have a brief chat with Phil explaining the issue. But it’s only a few more points, so I decide to play through the pain. The next point was probably the best point I have ever played in my table tennis life. A twenty shot rally, both of us playing topspin shots, and I finish off the point with an aggressive forehand topspin away from the table. A number of other players have gathered around the table to watch and applaud our efforts.

But the exertion of this rally has sent my arm into spasms. And I am completely exhausted. The score is 9-9, but I have nothing left to give. I play one backhand attack long and then make a weak return of serve, which Phil punishes. I lose the game 11-9 in the fifth. It was hugely disappointing to blow a 5-0 lead, but my performance was a huge improvement on our first match and I gave it everything. And Phil played incredibly well to come back and win. Another deserved victory for Phil. I look forward to playing with Phil again!

Lessons learnt

The title of this article is a little misleading. This tournament wasn’t a disaster at all. Overall, I played 11 matches and won 8, all against unknown opponents. I left the tournament exhausted but happy with my overall performance. 

I was a lot more positive in my play, especially my forehand. My service, recovery and third ball attack was much better and won me lots of points. My backhand was still too safe. I was flicking and opening up against backspin, but not with much sting. I was just rolling the ball on. But at least I was trying to use these shots, rather than always reverting to my backhand push, so this is progress.

The biggest area of improvement needed is my return of serves. I lost way too many points throughout the tournament. My reading of the type of spin was generally OK, but many times I was underestimating the amount of spin. The biggest issue, though, was that I just wasn’t being positive enough when returning serves. There were too many weak or predictable return of serves, which were duly punished. This is something I will be working on from now until my next tournament. 

And I also learnt a big lesson about hydration. It was a long day in a warm table tennis hall. I probably didn’t drink enough water or eat enough food, resulting in my arm cramping at the worst possible time. I have never experienced an arm cramp before, so I will try to avoid a similar outcome in the future.

Overall, I’ll give myself a 7 out of 10. Good progress but some areas which need more attention. I’m not sure exactly when my next tournament will be. I’ll probably sign up for one taking place in September or October. But whenever and wherever the next tournament is, I’m going to try really hard to keep playing positively. Attack, attack, attack!

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