By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach
A loop against backspin comes at you differently than one against block or topspin. At the lower levels, the loop against backspin is often the only loop they see, but as players reach the intermediate level and beyond, more and more they face loops against just about any deep ball.
And yet most players practice mostly against loops off block or (at the higher levels) counterlooping. Much of the reason for this is how easy it is to do drills where one player loops, the other blocks. You can do a continuous drill in this way, facing a loop something like every second, and rapidly become proficient at blocking (or at higher levels, counterlooping) such loops.
And then someone loops against your backspin in a match (usually off a push or a long backspin serve), and you miss. Why?
Three things that make a loop against backspin different
First, a loop against backspin usually has more topspin than other loops. This is because the looper is adding to the spin that’s already there, i.e. using your backspin. The spinniest loops are those against the spinniest backspins.
Second, a loop against backspin is usually (not always) done closer to the table than a loop against a block or topspin. Most blocks and topspins force the opponent off the table, both in games and in drills. So you both have less time to react, and your opponent has more angle against you.
Third, since the loop against backspin is usually both spinier and done closer to the table than other loops, the trajectory of the ball is different. A slow, spinny loop against backspin often has more arc than other loops, which can throw off your timing. It also means you have to adjust your contact point. Against a more driving loop (i.e. less arc), you can just stick your racket out and let the ball come to you. Against a more arcing loop, you need to get your racket closer to where the ball hits the table or it’ll bounce up, forcing you to lift your racket to react – and probably lifting the ball off the end.
How do you handle such a loop differently?
When blocking, take it quick off the bounce, with a slight jabbing motion at contact. You need to block somewhat aggressively or the ball’s spin will jump off your racket. The harder you hit it, the less the spin will take. However, the harder you hit it, the less control you’ll have, so you have to find a balance. You can also block less aggressively with a more closed racket (to compensate for how the ball will jump off your racket), relying on the softness of your shot to give the ball more time to drop as well as to throw off an opponent’s timing, if he’s using to more aggressive blocks, but if you do this too often opponent’s will jump all over them.
When smashing or counterlooping against a loop against backspin, take the ball at the top of the bounce or even on the rise. This is where many players face problems as they are better doing this when the opponent loops from farther off the table, giving them more time. With less time, they are often late smashing or counterlooping. So the key here is not to hesitate. If you hesitate even slightly when attacking a slow, spinny loop, you will probably miss.
When counterlooping, make sure to loop nearly the very top of the ball. Any major lifting motion will send the ball off the end. You lift more when from off the table because the ball has more distance to travel, and so more time for the topspin and gravity to pull it down. Not so when looping against slow, spinny loop against backspin.
In general, against a loop that lands short, block aggressively, or smash or counterloop. Against a loop that lands deep, still play aggressive, but focus on control.
How to practice against a loop against backspin
Too often players only face loops against backspin in a game, and so they might get to practice it once every few minutes. If they do drill against it, it’s a drill where one player starts off the drill with a loop against backspin and then they continue the drill (or free play), and again you only limited practice against this type of loop. What would be more valuable is a systematic way of practicing against this type of loop where you could do so over and over, like a multiball drill. Except a coach can’t feed the type of topspin you see in a spinny loop against backspin.
Or can he? Here’s an improvised multiball drill where you can face a loop against backspin over and over, and practice blocking, smashing, or counterlooping it, depending on your playing style and level.
First, get a box of balls, and set them on a chair or other stand near the table. The first player grabs a ball and serves backspin. The second player pushes it back to a pre-set spot. The first players loops. While the second player practices against this loop against backspin, the first player is already reaching for another ball from the box. DO NOT PLAY THE POINT OUT. Instead, the first player only serve and loops, and then grabs a new ball to do it again. The second player alternates pushing and practicing against the loop against backspin.
The result is one player gets lots of rapid-fire practice looping against backspin, while the other gets lots of rapid-fire practice against loops against backspin, with the added bonus of practicing his push. (Take that part seriously and your push will also improve.)
There are four variation of this drill.
1. Variation One: the first player always loops to the second player’s forehand.
2. Variation Two: the first player always loops to the second player’s backhand.
3. Variation Three: the first player loops randomly either to the second player’s forehand or backhand.
4. Variation Four: the first player loops randomly to all parts of the table.
The first two variations allow you to focus on developing your technique against loops against backspin. The third one is your stepping stone to toward doing it in a match situation, where it’s simplified to just two possibilities. Ultimately, you need to get to the fourth variation, as that lets you rapid-fire practice what you’ll face in a match – but if you can’t do that consistently yet, then focus on the first three variations until you are ready for number four. So pick out the variation where you need the most work, and go practice!