How to play like Timo Boll (and beat the best player in the world)

Timo Boll is back in form. This makes me happy. For a while it seemed Timo was finished at the highest level. He suffered a few bad injuries. His age (now 36) was catching up with him. He was losing to players much below his ranking. My fear was that his form would gradually decline until his inevitable retirement.

But Timo Boll has had a fantastic 2017. He won the Korean Open – his first ITTF Pro Tour title for 7 years. He reclaimed the German National Championship (his 11th title) and he helped Germany become European team champions again.

And then he made it all the way to the final of the Men’s World Cup – his first final appearance for 5 years. On route to the final he beat upcoming Chinese player Lin Gaoyuan and in the semi-final he beat Ma Long, the current Olympic Champion, World Champion, world number 1 and possibly greatest player of all time.

Timo Boll is definitely back in form.

We can all learn from Timo Boll. I’ve watched a lot of his matches recently and I’m going to share some things he does particularly well.

So if you want to try and play a bit more like Timo Boll, here’s six things you should try and do…

Play closer to the table

Timo Boll often likes to play closer to the table and contact the ball early. Playing close means he can’t always wind up for big power shots, so instead he plays quick, shorter strokes to rush his opponent.

It doesn’t always look spectacular, but his early timing and quick strokes is very effective at pressuring his opponents and forcing them to play weaker shots or make errors. They simply have less time to react, as the ball is coming sooner than they would like.

Of course, he is equally comfortable moving back further from the table to play some bigger loops, but this doesn’t seem to be his default position. If he can win points and matches playing close to the table, without needing to always step back, this is what he will try and do.

Vary your topspins

Timo Boll uses a lot of topspin variation. Sometimes he will attack slow and very spinny, sometimes he will attack fast and low.

Sometimes he will attack the ball before peak of the bounce (i.e. taking the ball early, as described above), sometimes he will step back, wait for the ball to drop a bit and then attack with a longer looping action.

Sometimes he will topspin straight. Often he will attack with topspin and sidespin.

All of these different variations make it difficult for his opponent to know what to expect. It is his unpredictability – his topspin variations – which wins him so many points.

Squeeze and stretch your opponent

Timo Boll’s ball placement is one of his major strengths. Often it doesn’t seem as though he is doing a great deal to win a point. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that his mastery of ball placement is very effective at opening up the table and keeping his opponents off-balance.

I like to think of it as squeezing and stretching. He squeezes his opponents by playing to their crossover point (the playing elbow / hip) and stretches them by playing very wide balls, which move off the side of the table rather than the end.

When you squeeze and stretch your opponent, you keep him off-balance. If your opponent is off-balance it is much harder for him to play well.

Push and block

Timo Boll isn’t a one dimensional topspinning machine. There is a lot of variation to his game. He is very comfortable pushing when returning serves and blocking close to the table when in rallies.

This is a reminder for all players (especially advanced players) that it is OK to push and block as well as attack, attack, attack. By mixing up your playing style, you can really disrupt the rhythm of your opponent.

In his semi-final match against Ma Long in the 2017 Men’s World Cup, the match was tied at 3-3 and Timo Boll had match point at 11-10. Ma Long served. What did Timo Boll do to win the point and the match? Did he play an awesome backhand flick? No. Did he wait for the ball to drift long and rip a forehand topspin? No. He played a long backhand push to Ma Long’s crossover point. Ma Long wasn’t expecting this and made a mistake. A simple push to beat the best player ever.  Here’s the video of the winning point.

Use low toss serves

Many of the world’s top players use a medium-to-high ball toss when they serve. At amateur level, many players try to emulate this and there is almost an unspoken understanding that if you want to serve properly – and serve like the pros – you need a high ball toss and a complicated service action.

Timo Boll is a reminder that you don’t have to use a high ball toss to be really good at serving. Timo Boll only tosses the ball a little bit – enough to be legal – but not much more than that and uses quite a simple service action.

The benefit of a low ball toss and a simpler service action, is that you can make very subtle spin variations and as the action happens very quickly, it can be difficult for your opponent to read the serve.

So you can toss the ball high if you want, but it’s not essential. If a low service toss works for Timo Boll, it can work for you too.

Keep calm and play great table tennis

Timo Boll has a great attitude when he plays. He doesn’t seem to let much faze him. I think this is one of the reasons why he is so popular.

Once in a World Championship match he corrected the decision of the umpire in favour of his opponent. He ended up losing the match but won an ITTF award for fair play.

He doesn’t seem to let his emotions impact negatively on his game. His calmness helps him keep mentally focused on the big points. If you play the big points well, then you’ll win a lot more than you lose.

In his quarter final match against Lin Gaoyuan at the 2017 Men’s World Cup, the score was 3-3 and he was losing 10-4 in the deciding game. Timo Boll was facing 6 match points. Did he panic? No. Did he give up? No. He focused on one point at a time and completed an unbelievable comeback. I’ll finish this blog post with the video of that comeback. Even though I’ve told you that happens, it’s worth watching all the points. The buildup of tension is incredible.

Timo Boll, we salute you!

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