Firstpost Masterclass: Forehand topspin to aggressive play, Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

India table tennis legend Kamlesh Mehta explains the physical and mental intricacies of table tennis.

Jigar Mehta August 03, 2020 09:39:50 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Forehand topspin to aggressive play, Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

There is a certain amount of aesthetic pleasure you derive while playing Table Tennis. It can bring unadulterated joy. It's easily accessible and can be played all year round. However, it can be one of the most difficult sports to master. It might look easy to the eye but it is one of the most complex disciplines laced with skills, technicalities, science and art. While it's always had a widespread following in Europe and Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea, the sport's popularity is picking up in India. The success of the Indian table tennis team in the international arena has brought back a lot of focus on table tennis in the country. And one person who has seen it all is Kamlesh Mehta.

Mehta has been involved with the sport for five decades and boasts an impressive CV. For 25 years he held the record of winning the most number of National Championships (eight) before it was broken by Sharath Kamal last year. He donned many hats too. As a Table Tennis player, he represented India for 14 years of which he was the captain for eight years. Coached the national team for 16 years and travelled with the Indian team at three Olympics - twice as a player and once as a coach. He was a national selector for a while and is currently the director of the Ultimate Table Tennis league. Mehta is also a recipient of the Arjuna Award.

It's unsurprising he can talk about the game with unflinching enthusiasm and passion for hours. And we got him talking on the intricacies of table tennis in the latest edition of Firstpost Masterclass.

Let's start off walking down the memory lane. How did you start off playing table tennis?

I was born in a Gujarati family and my father specifically had this philosophy that sports is a must for every child and this stems from our Guruji Pandurang Shastri Athavale's philosophy that “Krishna made play divine”. So if you play sport, there are many values and qualities that you imbibe which helps you in life. My father implemented this thought in all of us, everyone in my family took up some sport. I still remember on 1 May 1970, when I turned 10, he took us – me and my elder brother Yogesh, to Matunga Gymkhana, Mumbai, and made us members there. Then we joined a summer camp at central YMCA where we learnt the basics of the game. Since it was a new thing, we used to play wherever we got a chance, against the wall, on the ground, in the house.

My father had this habit the moment he came from the office he would ask me whether I went to play. His one philosophy really helped me: Anything you do you should do well so that people remember you. Don't give up. So that kept my consistency going. Because of my father's persistence, I kept on playing regularly. I played for my school – St. Joseph’s High School Wadala, my club – Matunga Gymkhana, but then I had a one and half year break because of an illness. Since then my family and friends encouraged me to continue playing the game and from thereon I played for the district - Mumbai and state - Maharashtra. It was in 1977 that I first represented Maharashtra in seniors and that was my first major break, a turning point in my life. In my very first match of senior national and team championships, I was pitted against then national champion Manjit Dua, I created an upset and that was my announcement on the national scene.  Before that, I wasn't ranked even in the top 10 in the country in juniors. After that, I started playing with more seriousness and with the focus of wanting to play for India.

What's the biggest change in Table Tennis from your era to the current era?

Table tennis is one sport that has totally evolved. From the size (from 38 mm to 40mm), colour and material of the balls to the colour of the tables, everything has changed. Even the rackets and choice of rubbers were very limited, there were only 3-4 choice of rubbers but now there are more than 1600 rubber coverings and more than 500 plies which are approved.

The equipment technology has become very fast, the blades have become faster, the rubbers have new technologies where the lift and power are more.

The other thing that has changed is earlier we didn't have all these world circuits, the number of exposures would be a maximum of two per year. Now there is a circuit for the men's senior players, youth, junior and even for cadet so there is so much exposure. During our time there were only two age categories when I started off and during my career – U-17 and senior boys and girls. And as my career progressed, the sub-junior, cadet and others were added. The major component is that physical fitness levels have changed. What I used to do at the age of 20-21, the players of this generation are doing at 14 - 15.

What about the changes in the gameplay?

Action and tactics have also changed. The topspin that I used to hit during my time...because the rubbers were slow so there was little more lift, my action was much longer and spin was there which is not as much as we have now, but it has obviously come down due to the plastic ball. As the rubber technology became better, the spin also improved. So that action has totally changed. The second thing is the gameplay. Earlier, short service had just started when I came into the seniors till then most of the play was long service play so from there it has become short service play and first attack - trying to attack at the very first opportunity. Then it turned to attack and counter-attack and attack away from the table and later on in my career, backhand topspin came into influence where backhand became not only a tool to keep a rally going but also became an attacking flank. So basically the double flank attack started.

Then came the funny rubber. The magic rubbers had same colour on both the sides. That's one major change. Earlier you could use any colour rubber and you could use the same on both sides and that's where the game took a different dimension where players were playing with two very different kind of rubbers having absolutely opposite characteristics. So with the same colour it was very difficult for the opponent to actually know what rubber is being used and what is the impact of the ball as a result and the game lost a lot of its popularity and viewership because even the top players were not able to understand and the spectators found it so difficult to even fathom what was happening. Later on, a chance rule made it compulsory to use different colour rubbers and now only two colours are permitted, red and black.

With regards to the playing style, nowadays its attack from the word go and counter-attack. The numbers of defensive players or choppers have drastically reduced over the years but in the last 1-2 years, there has been a little rise again in those numbers. But still, they might be hardly one or two percent.

You have played a vital role in developing youngsters, what’s the first thing you work on a budding youngster who's just taken up TT?

There are two types of youngsters: One who has just taken up TT and is an absolute beginner is different and the other is a player who is wanting to become a good player. He is already doing well at say state level and wanting to do well at the national level or international level. So there are two different attitudes altogether. When somebody is playing for the first time, the first things is to create interest in him, so basically a lot of joy and fun element is involved at the same time teaching element is there but everything is related to his interest and joy because at that time the focus span of that child is not so high and the interest in the game is yet to be developed. But if a player has already decided I have to become a better player and play at the national and international level, then he has the basic interest in the game and he is already had a certain degree of achievement. There basically I personally would like to focus on his attitude and secondly enhance his energy and confidence. If the attitude is right, even if you don't know something, you will be easily picking it up in time to come and confidence is not a constant thing, it keeps changing, it is the petrol for any child to keep moving forward.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Kamlesh Mehta coaching the kids. Image courtesy Kamlesh Mehta

So the mental part is more important than the technical part?

He is already at the state level, so he's got a certain level of technical proficiency. Those are the continuous process of change. That will happen but first I look at is the attitude - 'Is he willing to learn? Is he having the hunger to try out new things? His attitude has to be that of a learner who is wanting to have more.' The technical part has to be there, that is a different question altogether. It all depends on the player to player. If you are strong in a particular thing I would definitely make it better and stronger and at the same time analyse where he normally gives away more points and try to make it better. It's the same as SWOT analysis you do in any field.

While the mental part is the preference, what are the technical things you need to work on very early?

Normally at the start, we simply try to put him on the table very early. We should try to focus on the basics like the Chinese do basically. They are the best in this field and we should try and learn whatever we can from them. The first thing is how you hold the racket, the grip is very important. Because if a wrong grip is formed and he is used to it, it's very difficult to make changes in the later stage. People have changed but it takes a lot of time.

Secondly, whatever skills are taught, they have to be very patient because some skills get picked up fast, some don't. Some children pick up some strokes well because they are used to certain movements naturally while some find it difficult to even do the basic tapping of the ball. But you have to be very patient and in the first year-and-a-half, there should be a lot on focus on - grip, proper action of four basic strokes, strengthening of legs because TT is played on legs and core. Once you develop a good core action then learning advanced strokes like topspin and all becomes easier.

What kind of strokes will you start off with?

There are four strokes that you need to strengthen. Some are very comfortable playing forehand counter, some backhand counter and there are two other strokes which I personally feel one should start is the backhand push and the last stroke would be the forehand push.

So there are different things we do sometimes to keep the interest of the child. If he has the adaptability to learn push then backhand push is the first stroke that I would want anybody to learn. Then comes forehand counter, backhand counter and last forehand push because it's tougher than the other three strokes.

They say the most important skill in TT is to keep the ball on the table, it sounds really simple but how tough is it?

Everyone who is playing from district to international level must have heard this advice umpteen number of times from umpteen number of people, that please keep the ball on the table. And that is so true with every sport, in cricket, they say keep your wicket, the runs will come but it's easier said than done. And especially in TT it's very tough because the ball is light and the racket and rubbers are very fast. When a beginner touches it, it just slides off. There are three types of spin: forward, backspin and sidespin, the balls can rotate at 150 rotations per minute out of which sidespin can be combined with any of the two main spins – forward and backspin – so that adds to a different complication because it's not only spinning one side but also sideways.

Another aspect is the speed. TT has become a very fast, powerful and aggressive sport and the ball can travel anywhere up to 150kms/hr. TT is one sport where speed and spin can be played together. Both the components are pretty high and that too on the light ball which rotates rapidly over a distance of just about nine feet. When the ball comes with that speed and spin, you have to control it and counter it to a small area of four-and-a-half to five feet. And the ball travels in milliseconds so you don't have enough time and with all these complications you have to control it so you can understand why it is so difficult to keep the ball on the table.

How does a TT player develop that control of keeping the ball on the table and perfect it?

There are various exercises that the player goes through. We give them a target - you have to keep so many balls on the table. So basically control is trying to play longer rallies without making an error. TT is a skill game and it can only be developed by a lot of practice. And practice, practice, practice.

Why is it that so many Paddlers take up an aggressive style of play?

When a child comes to a club or an academy where he starts playing, he is also influenced by the people around him. There are senior players, champions, etc., so by watching them and being with them, he gets influenced by the moment. And if you go to see in the majority of academies, 99 percent of players are playing attacking TT. So it's absolutely natural that a child would decide to want to play like them. They idolise them and make heroes and then visualise themselves doing that. When I was playing there was a good balance of attackers and choppers so there were many players who would also adopt a defensive style of play but now you don't find many choppers, so it's very natural.

Why is forehand topspin so popular?

Forehand topspin is one stroke you have to possess if you want to play at any good level. I don't know whether it's a correct statement or not because to be a champion you need to possess all strokes. There are some you might play well and some you might not be so good at. It's not that you will have all strokes very strong, but having or developing a good forehand topspin is very important. It is one of the most winning strokes in the world of TT. If you see the number of points won by forehand topspin, it will be higher than any other strokes combined together.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Kamlesh Mehta in action during a rally. Image courtesy Kamlesh Mehta.

Does it mean that a backhand is a bit difficult to execute and perfect?

No. It's not the case. It's not difficult, it's just that it's a requisite. Like Sathiyan was basically what we would call a defensive player. Defensive doesn't exactly mean he was a chopper but he would rely a lot more on opponent's error and not himself win points by attacking. So he had an attack but it wasn't very strong. Especially forehand attack wasn't very strong for a player of his level. Once he realised it, he also has now developed a stronger and better forehand topspin. Similarly a chopper, his main game is to chop and play from behind but no chopper in the world can win only on the chopping game. From 1975 all the choppers have developed a very good attack and basically forehand topspin as a surprise element to upset the opponent. Because at some stage you may have to play that particular stroke and you cannot say I don't like it or am not good at it. You have to work on it to make it better.

Even Sharath Kamal had a good forehand topspin but was lacking in the backhand in the early part of his career, isn't it? And then he developed his backhand to balance his game...

That stage happens to every player. Sharath developed his backhand topspin and also his backhand block. And now he's also developed the banana flick. So if you want to survive you need to upgrade yourself, upskill yourself and learn new techniques. And actually, that problem is not there with paddlers. They are very adaptive because every six-nine months there is some change or the other either in technique or equipment.

What's the key to executing a perfect forehand topspin?

There is no particular key. It's a combined effort of the entire body. But yes, there are two major components A) the leg movement, the strength comes from there. B) Strong and controlled core movement. Then comes your hand movement, these three are co-ordinated together to get a good topspin. Only legs will not do, neither will the core or hands. Yes, the role of legs and core is very high as compared to hands. Many times you see the Indian players they only use their arm. But now many top players are getting better at an earlier stage which is good for the game.

Can you delve deep into the technique of hitting a forehand?

The first thing that turns is the core and the leg, it goes towards the direction of the ball. If I am a right-hander, I twist with my left shoulder coming forward so when I take it forward automatically the core also turns in a correct manner and then the right leg goes out towards the ball and my weight is on the right leg. And when you execute the stroke, your hand goes behind and down not very much low but almost around the hip level, and depending on the height of the ball...of course his hand action will also depend upon whether there is a backspin ball coming or a counter or a forward spin ball coming, so that height is adjusted according to that and when you go in to hit the ball, the weight is transferred from right leg to left leg and through that you are twisting your core. The power comes from there. And your hand action goes forward and upwards. The hand action increases the speed gradually from the starting point and is supposed to reach its peak when the racket is coming in contact with the ball. And this action is always forward with the use of forearm and wrist. The major power comes from the leg and core and not the hand. The hand movement actually helps him to generate that speed and spin. Spin is one factor that is very difficult to control. When you have good spin, you tend to have an advantage.

For aggressive players, when do they start the attack? Should they get the eye in with blocks and chops or straightaway go for attack?

There is no fixed formula. You have to play according to the ball and what you can do. Yes, there is an attack answer to every ball in TT but it may not be the right answer. So basically out of practice and experience, one must learn to understand which ball you should attack, how hard and where to place it. And that can only be learnt on your own, no coach in the world can teach you that. I can teach you how to play a good topspin but I can't teach you when to use that.

A lot of players go for the third ball attack, is it becoming a norm?

The third-ball attack norm has been there for many years and it is the best strategy. It can only happen when you are serving. When you are having the service in your hand that is the only time in table tennis that you have everything under your control the way you want it. So a lot of importance is given on good service, good serve doesn't mean you get a service point, but it means it restricts the opponent from doing what he wants and makes him do what you want so that you can play the game the way you want after the serve to have an upper hand. Third ball attack is serve and attack, it's the actual meaning of it. Most of the practices generate focus on third ball attack. But right now there is another concept which has started - the second ball attack. You need to serve short because with the banana and strawberry flicks, the attack starts right from receiving itself. When you serve, the return will be very aggressive.

What's the role of wrists?

Wrist plays an important role. When the racket is going to hit the ball that's where the wrist comes in play a lot. For example, everything starts short - short serve, short receive to contain the opponent, or a banana or strawberry flick. For all these strokes the wrists are very important. During a rally may be the wrist plays a lesser role but it does play a role because spin can only be generated if there is some amount of good wrist movement. If the wrist is very tight then the amount of spin you will generate is very less. So basically in TT we always say you need to have very supple and strong wrists both are very contradictory but yes there are certain exercises which help you develop them. Wrist plays a bigger role when we are playing short play and plays a little lesser role when it comes to long rallies away from the table and getting into rallies.

With forehand topspin, what's more important - placement, amount of spin or power?

Most important is to win the point. I can win a point hitting a very easy topspin because I have to hit a good topspin. A good topspin doesn't mean that it's hard or fast or having a good spin. No. It is the one that gives you a point. When you are hitting any stroke, not just the topspin, the idea is to beat the racket of the opponent. You may hit a very powerful topspin but if you hit it straight to his racket there is all possibility that he might return it and sometimes you hit a slow topspin, he is not in position but it's too slow so it gives him the time to get in position and return it. So there cannot be an answer to this question except that the best topspin is which fetches you a point.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Kamlesh Mehta hitting forehand topspin. Image courtesy Kamlesh Mehta

Then the placement becomes important, isn't it?

As I said, suppose the placement is correct but it is too slow then even though the opponent is not in the position, he will come back into position. If the placement is correct but the spin is less, the opponent will immediately get back to position. So you cannot say what is good here. Because it's a combination. Sometimes placement is good, sometimes hitting hard is good. With everything you cannot be in position every time to hit what you want.

Who is the best forehand topspin hitter according to you?

I would go from the beginning, Istvan Jonyer was very good, then my favourite Tibor Klampar was one who played topspin on the bounce but his action wasn't very easy to copy. However one of the best players I have seen is Jan Ove Waldner and now Ma Long and Xu Xin are unbelievable.

How does one make a smooth transition from forehand to backhand during a point?

It is being taught to you right from the beginning. If I am teaching you an exercise, it’s always a combination just to get your reflex, hand-eye coordination, body movement coordination, control movement. You are always taught from the start how to play with both sides, random as well as fixed. So over a period of time, it becomes your muscle memory.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Kamlesh Mehta executing a backhand stroke. Image courtesy Kamlesh Mehta

If the grip goes wrong, how does one recover quickly?

Grip initially if it's wrong it's okay. Like grip does change a little bit, most of the players after playing so much with it, hardly anyone notices their grip has gone wrong, because they have done it so many times that it becomes a part of him. So it's not a big issue except if you have developed a wrong grip right from the beginning, that's the issue. But a little bit of change in grip while you are playing is recovered faster by players because if it has happened in the match it has also happened in the practice so he's done it so many times.

During a point how does he recover?

If the grip goes wrong, he has to come back quickly to his original grip that's it. There is no technique to teach him or exercise to do that. It's just that one learns it in the process of moving. Initially, it happens but once you are getting comfortable and your muscles get used to it, invariably because of the practice the grip goes back to the same place.

In TT the margin of error is really less, it's about keeping the height of returns as low as possible and not give the elevation. How do you make sure the elevation is as low as possible?

This is very true especially when you are playing the first two shots - the serve and the receive. A huge focus is on keeping it low. But when it comes to topspin or anything...Sometimes to go the distance you give the ball more elevation so that it gives you a lot of spin and at the same time the length, which in turn reduces error. But these are all very soft touch plays. And a lot of skill is involved not only in playing the stroke but also understanding the spin. Because all these things can only happen when you know what kind of spin the opponent is imparting. So, the reading of the spin is very important and most of the time the opponent camouflages the spin so that also is a matter of process where you need to keep observing and learning. The best part is to keep watching the opponent a lot and keep practicing the same in similar kinds of conditions. And this requires a lot of patience because it doesn't improve immediately. It requires a lot of control. A minuscule hard touch and the ball bounces even if it goes one cm high it's out. The margin of error is less and even if it's a bit high it becomes easy for the opponent. You have to have a very strong observation of the opponent’s position.

Technique wise what should a paddler's hand positioning and angle be to keep it low?

It is difficult to explain because there are so many kinds of spins. If it's a backspin, the angle has to be open, if it's a forward spin, the angle has to be closed. So it depends on the amount of spin that has been put. And that can't be measured and can only be judged. It's all a lot of your judgment, observation and alertness. And this can only be known from the point of contact of the opponent which is the most important indicator for you to judge what he is doing.

How crucial are defensive shots like block, chop, push in aggressive TT?

Every stroke is important because it makes you a complete player. Like in cricket only hitting fours and sixes is not possible, similarly attacking every ball the way you want is not possible. Controlling points is important, you cannot always win points by attacking but can also win points by controlling the opponent. That is where when somebody attacks you have to have a passive role. Of course, now the counter-attack is the trend. But it's not always possible to counter-attack and that is the time when all these strokes also help. Most of the matches are won with margins of only 3 to 4 points. So every point is important and hence in TT as I said earlier, control is one of the major factors and to have that control you must have a very good combination of attacking and defensive kind of strokes.

While playing aggressive TT, is it just explode, explode, explode or relaxation, maybe, on alternate shots in necessary?

It really depends on the situation to situation and opponent to opponent. For example, there are some players with whom when you play very fast and hard. They are very comfortable so the strategy against them would be not to go too hard because it helps him to play and return your balls faster and better. And that time you should vary the pace. The basic principle in every sport is that you have to play to the situation and according to the ball. The ball will come the way the opponent hits but what is your position to play what stroke...For example, I am ready to play a forehand stroke and if the ball comes on my backhand since I am ready for forehand, I will not be equally ready to play the backhand so maybe I will have to play a very safe stroke - may be slow spin, not very hard topspin. Then I will continue with the rally and wait for the right position to again take the opportunity to attack.

What's the thought process that goes into setting up a winner?

One is you control the rally and push the opponent to one side and hit the winner to the other. There are also two strategies: One is to play on the opponent's weak point and the second is to break the opponent's strong point. You have to use this in a mixed way because nothing is constant. For example, if I am catching you on your weak point, after 2-3 times you will also understand and will be prepared for it. So then that weak point doesn't remain weak. At that time you have to again make the change. And sometimes you want to catch him on the weak point but are not able to do because his service and play are so strong that you are not able to catch him on the weak point, in that case, we always say break the strong point of the opponent so that once he loses confidence in his strong point it can also psychologically affect him and he can play it in your court. The thing is when to apply it at that particular moment must strike to you and you should have the courage to do it.

Do taller players have an advantage over the short ones because of the vertical and horizontal reach?

For everything, there are advantages and disadvantages. Earlier, people used to say in TT, it’s important not to be very tall. When I was playing there was this myth that tall people have disadvantages - one is they have to bend a lot more and have to be physically stronger and secondly naturally its believed that taller people have less reflexes and TT is a very strong reflex game. And if you are medium height it is good because your reflexes are faster, your footwork is more nimble and you don't have to bend so much so it comes well at your desired height.

But if you see over the last decade, most of the top Chinese players are pretty tall and the reason is also the game has now become physical and power-oriented. So if you are very short, it impacts your footwork because you need to cover faster and the area becomes bigger for you. And if you are taller, being a double flank attack it is a little bit more advantageous because most of the rallies if you go to see after the first two points are generally happening between two and a half to five feet. So there reach also helps you to cover strokes better but there are both pros and cons. So I don't say that there is a distinct disadvantage. How you use your height in your game matters. Like Xu Xin and Ma Long are tall but Fan Zhendong is not very tall so according to that also they modify their game.

Someone like Sathiyan doesn't have that height so does he have to work more on his speed and reflexes compared to a taller player?

Sathiyan is not as tall as Sharath but his reflexes are much faster than Sharath. He's got better near the table control, short receiving, blocks etc. But when it comes to power, Sharath is better, because he's got the height to follow it up. However, if you see both their rankings, they are 31 and 32, there is hardly any difference. So you cannot change your body structure but you can make the best of what you have and that's what both are doing.

TT is more about skills, you learn via practice however are there things that are innate to a player, or come as natural?

Yes, like Sathiyan is naturally more of a good reflex player. Sharath likes to hit the ball hard which is natural. There are some natural traits you have, some people have very good wrists so they are able to generate more amount of spin, some people's wrists are not so flexible and supple they are not in a position to generate more spin. So that natural thing also impacts the game.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Sharath Kamal hitting a forehand topspin. Sharath Kamal/Facebook

If a coach tries to change the natural trait, what happens?

You may have natural trait and touch which will get you to a certain level but after a certain level, you need to modify them because as you grow, the requirement also changes. Like the shirt you wear in 10th standard, you again try to wear it in 12th it might not fit you, you need to modify, this is the same with TT. Those who might be extremely talented, they will need to keep working hard and sharpen the skills. Those who are at the junior level your talent will help you because at that level there is a huge variation in talent. But when it comes to seniors, almost all the players at that level are talented. So there more skills and hard work will make a difference in the result. Natural things can be changed because when it becomes a restriction in your development, you have to change. Like in my case, I had a backhand jab which was natural to me. It helped me become a national champion for four-five years. That time it was a trend. But as the game became faster I found it difficult to cover my forehand and started struggling against people with whom I used to win easily, especially younger players, because youngsters have a different skill set, add to it a new change in action. So I had to shed the backhand jab which was one of my favorite and natural strokes and change my action to convert it into backhand topspin. It can help you but if it becomes a restriction, you have to modify it.

Do you get time to decide the placement of the ball or it comes with the flow?

You get time. The mind starts working right from the beginning, the young players know that the opening is there so I need to hit there. You have to find the time (laughs). There is no option if you want to be a good player. Not just find it but use it as well.

How important is playing to the lines?

If you are able to play the lines it is more difficult for the opponents because they have to cover more distance. But it’s easier said than done. If it lands its good but if there’s is little error in judgment of the ball that is coming with so much spin and speed, to keep it on line there is a huge amount of risk involved. But yes, the aim of top players is always to skillfully put more number of balls there and it helps them.

It requires a lot of control and practice to perfect it isn't it?

Skill plus courage to play it. Most important is courage because you might be practicing but at the crucial point when it comes, you are in position or not in a position and you have to play it there requires a lot of courage.

How often should one use his most lethal shot in the game?

As often as you can.

Then doesn't his shot become too predictable for the opponent?

The lethal shot is not one fixed shot. You should try to win the point at the first opportunity with whatever strokes you have. You cannot wait to use that stroke at a crucial stage because I don't know what the crucial stage is, for me, it's 0-0. I get a two point lead, it's very crucial for me. Many people have answers that the crucial stage is a deuce or 9-9. But my question to them is supposing 9-9 doesn't happen then what? And at that point, will you have that courage or the opportunity to use that stroke or whether the opponent will give you the chance to use that stroke? There is a question mark. So basically, if you are sure of winning a point, win it at the earliest opportunity, there is nothing to wait for a better position. A better position is always fiction. You have to make the position in whatever you are better.

What's the key to selecting one's equipment?

There are so many types of rubbers and blades available it's actually confusing. There is no fixed answer to what is the right equipment. In fact, if you ask me with what rubber I should play, there are something like 1600 rubber coverings available and it's impossible for me to know everything about them. And they are not cheap, they all are expensive.  So there is no way you can try out as well. Earlier when we were playing we had two or three major rubber coverings and we knew everything about what suits whom and what not. But now the variation is very high and of course, everything depends upon the kind of game that you have because every ply or rubber has got certain characteristics and qualities and most of the time the qualities are also mentioned on the rubbers.

And the best part for a player to select the equipment would be in the offseason because it's a trial and error method and he can try out in that period. You play with the rubber-ply combination that somebody else in your club is playing, if not then you have to buy them and if it doesn't suit you then you have to change it. But before doing that, there are qualities of each rubber known through the website or other sources that give you an indication that this would suit my style and feel. So you shortlist them and then talk to your coach and players who have played with it to understand how it is or maybe play with it for a session or two and then take a call.

It's a process. And after doing all this it's not guaranteed that you will start playing the matches. In practice everything will look good but in matches sometimes the result goes against you, you start finding faults with the rubber. That is also a dangerous thing because that is what we advise that when you lose a match, try to think about the technique and tactics that you have used rather than only the equipment. If you only focus on the equipment you are missing out on some important hint that this defeat might have wanting you to learn.

What's the ideal distance to stand from the table?

It also depends on your height. Secondly, there are certain principles of stance and other things. Normally, when you start off the rally, you shouldn't be very far from the table and should be approximately at one-arm distance. And you should bend with eyes almost at the net level so that your reflex becomes better and the place of standing should be such that you reach all the corners of the table with one step. That is the normal stance.

Are there any other positions?

The stance while starting a point is the ready stance position. But then depending on the opponent also we try different stances. For example, if there is a left-hander playing then again the ready stance position changes, if there is a player who hits the first topspin really hard then again the stance changes, and if there is a chopper, then again will have a little different stance. And not only that even during the game, if I am finding it difficult to cover my backhand and getting stuck over there then I will change my position so that I can cover it a little better. This position will vary according to the situation, opponent and what you want to play. For example, if I want to play a banana flick from my forehand corner then my stance would be a little bit towards the centre beforehand only so I am ready for that ball.

If you are playing with someone who has more power then the distance from the table will be farther. You have to make that adjustment. Supposing my balls are going out maybe because of spin, so what I will do is go a little behind so that I can get a little more time to control it and secondly the ball slows down by the time it reaches you which also helps you put the ball on the table.

The only fixed position if you observe most players is the ready position before the start of the rally.

While serving what should be the position?

You can serve from anywhere. In fact, we should learn to serve from anywhere because there are a huge number of variations. Normal service everyone practices, you should try out something new and different. It can always be a useful weapon in the armoury.

The Lower body plays a more important role than the upper body in TT. How true is that?

To move your upper body, you need to use your lower body. But it's wrong to say that the lower body is more important than the upper body. The execution is done by the upper body as well. Yes, the way the game has become faster, as you grow higher and higher, the upper body is also becoming one of the most important factors. But yes, right now it's said that TT is played by legs because for proper technique, movement happens on your legs. That's why Chinese, Japanese and all have a very strong lower body and lighter upper body so that they can move quickly as well as have more stability.

Connection of the ball is very important in forehand topspin in action as well as the point of contact on the racket isn't it?

The point of contact is the point when the racket meets the ball. The ball has no life. So basically the ball will behave the way the racket guides it or the way you hit it. You hit the top of the ball with the angle closed. You can't hit on the top of the ball with the angle open. With a closed angle it will generate forward spin. In any stroke, the point of contact is very important because it determines how the ball is going to behave. Coming to topspin, when we teach a child, we focus on his stance and basic strokes. Because one of the basic strokes is forehand counter or a forehand drive. Normally we only make them play more of arm movement because it is easier to pick up and gives you immediate results. But what we have understood is that the Chinese guys focus more on their legs and waist movement. If you have to have good topspin you have to have proper footwork and waist movement because arm action is not very difficult to improve. But these two require a lot of effort, fitness and practice. So if anyone has to master the topspin, there are many points but the major part is the footwork because the power comes from legs, good controlled movement of your core and your hand action during the point of contact.

When the contact takes place ideally the arm should be in front of your body because when you hit a forehand topspin for a right-hander, the body is twisted to the right but still it’s in front of the body. But there are many times when you are not in a position and late on the ball, there are also people who hit from the side of the body but the ideal position is always the front of the body.

And what about the sweet spot on the racket?

To generate the spin...The friction...the contact of the bat on the ball is very delicate and that is very quick and for a really short time. It's not very hard but technical in a sense you just brush it, it's very quick. When you want to generate more spin, the sweet spot is generally on the lower part of your racket. Normally the sweet spot is in the ply. In rubber wherever you hit the impact is the same but the action is such that when you have to generate more spin you have to hit from the lower part of the racket.

Can you expand on the technicalities of the leg and core movement?

If you are a right-hander hitting the topspin, the movement starts from your right leg and it is slightly behind the left leg. The weight is on the right leg and when you are playing the stroke, you are transferring the weight from ankle to knee to waist. The body has to move forward, the leg is twisted forward and the weight is transferred forward to the left leg which is ahead of the right leg. So it's a forward movement with the leg and as far as the core is concerned, it is also twisting from the right to left and the hand action is forward and moving upward. There is a forward and upward movement in core and legs but not that much as compared to the hand. So all the three parts are having forward, twisting and slightly upward movement.

What's the role of the non-playing arm in TT?

Any part of the body is important. We call the free arm as the balancing hand. It also helps you to move aerodynamically. When the hands are in a particular position you can also move quicker. When you see a runner he uses both his hands though he is running with only his legs. It also gives him power, rhythm and movement. Similarly in TT, the free hand should be well balanced and relaxed not tight. We tell them not to keep their freehand down, straight. Because it affects your balance. In any speed-related sport, it's largely the balance and not the speed that helps you. Here it's a series of continuous rallies and not just one so along with power and speed one of the important things is balance. And for that, the freehand is very crucial. Normally we ask them to keep it above and relaxed. Initially when people start they keep the arm and fist very tight which has to be removed. Some people naturally get it, some take time. It should be relaxed and in a comfortable position and not hindering your movement.

What are the crucial aspects you need to visualise in the opponent while receiving a return?

My advice is very simple, watch the opponent's racket, it has an important message for you. Because what kind of strokes he's playing and where, you can make out from the point of contact, so you should be very alert and the focus should be on the racket. Your body movement might be anything but the ball will behave when it's hit by the racket. So you should not get distracted.

What should a player do if the opponent is easily reading his strength?

Change his strategy and tactics and try new things, simple. Principally if one thing is not working you have to try the other. You must have the courage to do so. If the first two don't work then try the third.

So you need to be ready with plans A, B, C, D...?

Any player when he is practicing for so many years, he already has many game and rally plans. So that is imbibed, the only thing is you have to be aware to use it. Sometimes you may have practiced it in the practice sessions but don't have the courage to try it out in the match or you are under pressure. All these things do happen and you become blank. It is possible at every level even with top players. You say that I will get pressure only in the Olympics and not at the state level, no that is wrong. You get pressure at every level and if you have to progress you have to keep trying different things.

How much is the role of premeditation?

A lot. Because it is so fast it is not possible for you to think everything on the table. To play on the table you must have thought of a lot of possibilities outside. So when you go on the table it becomes easy. All the top players use that technique and now even state and district level players are using it. They study the opponent, discuss with their coaches, colleagues and then they go for the match.

On the table, do players premeditate two or maybe two-three points earlier?

No. When you go on the table we always tell them to take point to point.

In TT there is a lot of focus given on the rankings and nationality of the opponents, how much role does intimidation play? You come to know that you are up against a higher-ranked player or a player from China, how does it affect the mindset?

Intimidation does happen. China is so dominating...For the last three decades, they’ve had absolutely one-sided domination in the sport. If you see the rankings and the results of the Olympics, out of 32 possible gold medals, 28 have been won by them. So obviously that aura and image that Chinese players - they are very good, they prepare so well, they are very tough - is there is everyone's mind. And it does impact your mind. But physical intimidation is not much like in any other sport like cricket, football or boxing, it's not there in TT.

Firstpost Masterclass Forehand topspin to aggressive play Kamlesh Mehta explains intricacies of table tennis

Kamlesh Mehta having a chat with India table tennis players. Image courtesy Kamlesh Mehta

So basically we have to enhance the player's confidence and change his focus from who he is playing to what he has to play. We keep insisting that every match is played on love-all and every player gets two service each. You have an equal chance. We change our focus to what he should do. Instead of targeting the win we focus on the strategies and another thing we tell them is you have nothing to lose, you just go and play your strokes and enjoy your game. It's nothing but another kind of mental training before a match. We should not talk about the rankings, we tell him what needs to play. Even the practice session is organised on the strategies we have decided to play and you have to try your best there.

Why are left-handers considered tough opponents?

Left-handers are not necessarily tough opponents but yes the number of left-handers are very less and their angles of play are very different. So, many times players are uncomfortable against the left-handed players because they basically have not had any exposure and practice against them. There are many players who are comfortable playing against left-handers because they have lot of practice partners who are lefties and they are used to that.

What's the key to succeeding against a defensive player?

If I have to say it in two words - patience and consistency.

A defensive player requires a different set of skills. Theoretically, you may know everything but unless and until you start practicing with them, play practice matches...Even the best of attacking players might just lose very easily because the game style is different, the skills as well and the technique to play defensive players is different compared to the attacking players. So it's something like how you play with funny rubber, the technique itself is different so unless you are used to it or practiced with them you will not be able to play with them. The simple thing is you need to practice against the choppers. And the number of choppers that are available are so less that many of the academies don't have a single chopper. In countries like China, Japan, and Korea they have a system that encourages a lot of chopping players to come up as a strategy. In fact, during my time these three Asian countries whenever they arrived for any tournament they would surely have one chopper as a teammate. And the other countries including India where there were very few quality choppers at that time even the best players would lose very easily because they were not used to it. Even now, Japan and Korea do get a chopper not necessarily every time but in the women's sector, there are many juniors in the pipeline coming up.

How crucial is the role of the atmosphere and weather inside the stadium?

The ball is very light. It gets affected by a slight movement of air also. So if the hall is small, the ball travels faster because the resistance in the air is not much. Whereas in a bigger hall there is more air. And if it's cooler, there is even thicker air so resistance is slightly more. So everything impacts - if it's an AC hall or no AC, whether it has a high roof, whether the flooring is of concrete, wood or synthetic, even the quality of the table. The quality of the ball itself differs from brand to brand and tournament to tournament. And most of the players do get adjusted fast. They have been doing this since they started playing competitive TT because the tournaments are held in different tables, conditions and with different equipment. It does affect and one has to get used to it.

In terms of the crowd, when there is good support for you it can be very motivating and pressurizing when the opponent has that support.

In TT, you lose a point and then it could be a procession. You keep losing points. What's the key to getting rhythm back quickly?

You just take a little break, take a deep breath. Go away think and come with more vigour and think extra on the next point. You need to break the rhythm of the opponent so that's why we tell them to take a break, you relax by taking deep breaths and pass a positive thought just to motivate yourself like 'Come on you have to win this point'. so your focus is more on the next point. You are relaxed, broken the rhythm and more enthusiastic.

What do the Chinese have that rest of the world doesn't?

If I knew the answer I would probably have done something (laughs). One thing is that the Chinese basics of coaching are very high. This is from some of the information we already have. None of us ever get a chance to see how they train, even if we do it would be probably for a session that may not give you any indication. But the Chinese training system is very hard and systematic. To give you an example, when Olympic and World Champion Kong Long Hui announced his retirement, in one of the interviews he was asked the reason, he said he couldn't handle the pressure of training, he didn't mention the pressure of matches. He said that he couldn't take the pressure of training. That is the kind of training the Chinese go through. They are not only training hard but also scientifically. Right from the equipment, they have a person who has an expert in different things like an expert in equipment and who is a part of the core team and helps develop equipment to suit a player or a particular kind of strategy they might be playing. Expert in ply, rubber, ball, even forearm. So they have a lot of specialized people involved with the national federation, team and training. When the team travels for competitions, if there are 10 players then at least they have 10-12 support staff people - the coach, interpreters, assistant coaches, masseurs, video analysts, etc. their core is very balanced. The kind of training they do is unbelievable and if you see the quality of players they churn out...even in tough situations they are so cool and just go on playing their game. And they never have a foreign coach with them, they always have a national coach. And all the top players are trained to become good coaches. The basic level of training is very tough with a lot of focus on technique in a systematic manner. They train harder and longer than anyone else in the world and that's why they are so ahead of everybody.

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