How to identify and exploit an opponent’s weakness

Every player has weaknesses. An inexperienced player will have lots of weaknesses. A better player will have fewer weaknesses. The very best may seem as though they have no glaring weaknesses, but they will have areas of their game which aren’t as strong as others.

In every match you play, you need to identify your opponent’s weaknesses. You could be playing someone with a higher ranking, better technique and more experience. On paper, they should win. But table tennis isn’t played on paper! Even if you have less technical ability, you can still win if you use the right tactics to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.

Similarly, you could be the higher ranked player facing a weaker opponent. You should win, but if you play to their strengths rather than their weaknesses, or play without thinking at all, you could find yourself in a spot of trouble.

Every player is unique and will have different strengths and weaknesses. A tactic which works against one player, may not work against another. Your job is to identify, and use, the tactics which do work.

So where do you start? There are loads of weaknesses a player potentially may have. An opponent may have an obvious weakness which is easy to identify. A better player may only have a minor weakness, which isn’t easy to pick out. However, from my experience, there are a few common weaknesses to look out for.  Here’s my list of the most common weaknesses and how you can exploit them.

Common weaknesses

Poor footwork – If your opponent doesn’t move very well (or move at all!), you should play shots wide to their backhand, wide to their forehand, to their playing elbow (crossover point) and keep switching the direction of play. If you play out wide, you will force them to reach for balls, resulting in errors or weak returns which are easy to attack. If you target their crossover point, they will get all scrunched up and make more errors.

Weak backhand – It is common for a player to have a much stronger forehand compared to their backhand. If this is the case, keep playing to their backhand. The best case scenario is that you will win lots of easy points. Or your opponent will get frustrated and may attempt to play ever more risky shots to get their forehand into the game. A better player may step around their backhand to play forehand attacks, but they will leave a huge space on their forehand side for you to play quick pushes, blocks and topspins.  

Can’t return sidespin serves – A lot of players struggle to return sidespin serves. They may prod at the ball and it will pop up nice and high for an easy attack. Or they fail to adjust for the sidespin and the ball shoots off the side of the table. If they struggle with sidespin serves, keep serving sidespin serves, but vary the placement, length and speed so they don’t get used to the same serve. The sidespin serves which are often most effective are to an opponent’s playing elbow, deep to the backhand or short to the forehand.

Can’t attack backspin – Some players are really good at playing fast topspin rallies, but are terrible at attacking backspin. If you have an opponent like this, try to avoid getting involved in topspin rallies (unless you’re even better at this style of play than your opponent). Instead, try to frustrate them with plenty of backspin balls. Serve heavy backspin. Try to return their serves with backspin. Be prepared to play an extra couple of pushes. Push short. Push to an angle. Push fast and long. They will get frustrated and make attacking errors.

Poor defence – Some players can’t defend. They are so focused on playing an attacking game, they neglect developing their defensive skills. Against this type of opponent you must try and attack a lot yourself. You will probably find that one attack is enough to win the point. When serving, use serves which are most likely to set up a 3rd ball attack. And when receiving, try to topspin and flick rather than push. If you can get your attack in first, you you will win.

Sloppy pushing – Pushing can be one of the most neglected strokes by players in local league. I have seen players in the warm-up playing fantastic topspin rallies. They look brilliant. But when they match starts, their game unravels because their pushing sucks. Against this type of opponent, be prepared to play a couple of pushes more than you normally would. They will either push into the net, push long or give you floaty pushes which are easy to attack. You may consider this a bit of a negative tactic, but don’t. Table tennis isn’t all about topspin. Players need to be able to play a range of strokes. If an opponent can’t push very well, you should exploit this weakness.

Weak in the middle – Any player who uses the shakehands grip has a weakness at the crossover point between forehand and backhand strokes. This weakness is much bigger for players with poor footwork. They may not move at all, which means any attacking shot aimed at their playing elbow (i.e. their crossover point) is likely to be a winner. There is nothing wrong with attacking the corners (you absolutely should), but go after a player’s crossover point too. Your accuracy needs to be good. If your attack is wide of the crossover point, it may be very easy to block back. Aim exactly for the playing elbow (or hip) and you will have more success.

Final thoughts

During league matches or tournaments, make sure you watch your opponents against other players. Try and identify two or three weaknesses that you want to try and exploit. If you can’t see anything obvious, speak to a teammate or coach and ask for their thoughts.

It can be tough if you play someone for the first time and have never seen them play before. In this situation, you may need to try a few different things in the first set to see what they are comfortable with and what they’re not.

It’s important not to get too fixated with your opponent. You do need to play your own game too. But if you can use your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses then you will win a lot more points.  

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