By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach
At the intermediate and advanced levels (below world-class level), the most common rallying style combines forehand looping and backhand hitting. These players often attack backspin by looping from both sides, but once in a fast topspin rally mostly hit on the backhand side. It’s simply easier for most to loop in a rally on the forehand side because the body isn’t in the way, so you have a huge hitting zone. On the backhand side, players are often cramped as they try to backhand loop a fast incoming ball, so hitting is easier and more effective. This often means trying to hit the backhand close to the table while looping the forehand from farther back. How can a player handle this?
The problem is that hitters usually play closer to the table than loopers. If they stay at the table to hit their backhands, they are jammed and rushed on the forehand side if they try to loop. If they take a step back to loop their forehands (usually after the top of bounce), their backhand hits become late and less effective. This is further aggravated because most players hit their backhands on the rise, before the top of the bounce, meaning they want to play the backhand even closer to the table. Many players face this type of problem, even at the world-class level. Players such as Gue Yuehua and Jan-Ove Waldner favored hitting or blocking their backhand close to the table, combined with a looping forehand, and they are considered two of the greatest players of all time. So how do you solve this problem? There are several options.
First, let’s look at what a hitter does. Often he hits the backhand on the rise, and the forehand at the top of the bounce. This isn’t a problem because when you turn sideways to hit the forehand, the hitting zone opens up and hitting at the top of the bounce is easy. So there’s no problem in hitting backhands on the rise and forehands at the top of the bounce. The problem is when the backhand is hit on the rise and the forehand loop on the drop. Here are six ways to handle this problem in a fast rally.
- Develop diagonal footwork. Playing a quick backhand but a forehand loop farther back means moving diagonally back and forth rather than side to side. So practice this footwork in drills. Start with a practice partner alternately hitting balls side to side as you develop the footwork and strokes together. Then have your partner hit the ball randomly side to side as you learn to react to these shots as if it were a game. (It might be easier to do these drills with a coach or player feeding multiball rather than doing it “live.”)
- Learn to both hit and loop the backhand. If the ball is coming at you very fast, or if you are close to the table, favor the backhand hit. If you have more time, or are off the table, you favor the backhand loop.
- Hit the backhand at the top of the bounce. Just as there’s no real difficulty in playing the backhand on the rise and the forehand on the drop, there is no real difficulty in playing the backhand at the top of the bounce and the forehand on the drop. You can still start the rally by hitting backhands closer to the table, but once into the rally the natural distance would be half a step back. (And alternate version of this is to simply learn to backhand loop in the rally – but of course that defeats the whole purpose of this article, which is how to combine a hitting backhand with a looping forehand.)
- Loop the forehand at the top of the bounce. This takes some athleticism, and isn’t for everybody. But if you are fast over the table and can smoothly and rapidly loop the forehand, you can hit the backhand on the rise and loop the forehand at the top of the bounce. Sometimes you will be forced back on the forehand, and in those cases you’ll have to play your backhand late (playing backhand at the top of the bounce, backhand looping, or fishing), but when you do play the forehand at the top of the bounce, the extra effectiveness of the shot (opponents have little time to react) offset that. If you go this route, you’ll want to play with a somewhat shortened forehand loop stroke.
- Play the backhand with your feet in a slight forehand stance. For most backhands you don’t really need your feet in a backhand stance. And so many players play their backhands with their right foot slightly back (for righties). This gives them a slight head start in playing their forehands, allowing them to play the backhand closer to the table while still reacting to a quick shot to the forehand. Make sure when hitting backhands that the upper body is rotated to face the direction of your shot; it is only the back foot that should be in a slight forehand position.
- Learn to loop the ball late in the forehand zone. This means taking the ball near the back of the big forehand hitting zone that is created when you turn sideways. Some players learn to loop the forehand so late in the zone that they almost take it behind their body. This means learning to loop with the contact point almost directly to the side of the body, by the right shoulder (for righties). Players who do this tend to lose power (less time to accelerate), can be rushed (since they only have a small part near the back of the forehand zone to contact the ball), and have trouble going crosscourt. I don’t particularly like this option, but some players do this effectively.
I’ve put these six very roughly in order of preference, but everyone’s different. Experiment, take your pick or picks (you can use more than one method), and go through your opponents like a buzzsaw with your two-winged hitting/looping attack.