Monday, March 21, 2011

Shenzhen Ping Pong: SuperCPen

Recently I've been tinkering with a traditional Chinese-style penhold blade to better support the reverse backhand I've been learning and practicing with. (See here and linked posts therein.)

Attempting to improve my reverse backhand further, basically, I took a regular Chinese penhold blade and epoxied a thumb grip for stability and power for the backhand loop and over-the-table backhand wrist open. (You can see the epoxied support in the picture to the right.)

Details of that experiment can be seen here. Initial indications were very encouraging.

SuperCPen is Dai Feng's idea. (See his website here.) He offers a more much professional-looking solution. And to my eyes, it's a considerably more labor-intensive and adventurous modification than my humble experiment.

He had mentioned to me that he had tried something like a thumb grip before, so I was very curious to see how far Dai Feng had taken the concept.

I was also intrigued about what his modification has to offer someone like me who has been training for the reverse backhand, but also occasionally use the traditional backhand. Moreover, although I don't have any grip problems with the forehand, an improvement there would always be welcome. So I ordered and sent him a brand-new Butterfly Amultart to modify.

[The traditional backhand still offers an advantage for certain common situations in game play. If the ball is looped to your forehand/backhand crossover point, if the incoming ball is a surprise, it's possible to react faster with a traditional block because there is no crossover point.]

I've never seen a paddle quite like it. (See the picture on the right.) Its sheer width and large surface area permits support for the thumb, and also allows maximum surface area contact with the index finger and the fleshy part of the hand between the thumb and index finger.

It also cut a 10g off the blade weight; doesn't sound significant but percentage-wise, that's quite a change: 86g down to 76g.

The thumb achieves its support by rotating the blade in the hand until the thumb contacts the middle or centerline of the new handle. This re-angling of the blade makes the SuperCPen concept unique.

[To get an idea of how different: compare the placement of the thumb here with that of the first picture above.]

By comparing the SuperCPen picture above to the initial pictures below, you can see I've shaved away some material from the beveled top to provide a large, flat angled area for the thumb. (I've also removed a bit of material from the index finger side since I got a blister first time I played with the SuperCPen.)

In contrast to the beveled top, the reverse side is completely flat with a cork sheet glued for good grip.

Initial impressions? Well, I don't have any problems with the traditional Chinese grip. And my thumb modification already improved on that for the backhand, so I didn't expect that much more from the SuperCPen. But what about the forehand?

I've only had the SuperCPen for a weekend. I did some ball drills with it. And I played a few matches, switching back and forth between the SuperCPen and a traditional blade nearly every game. My impressions? It's early days yet but here you go:

  • It's definitely good for the reverse backhand stroke.

    Stability is assured. Removing some of the beveled top surface seems to provide a flat thumb area seemed to improve it further. Compared to my thumb modification, the SuperCPen is as good (or better).

  • You gain leverage for power on both sides. Your wrist ends up further away from the blade. A bit like the effect of a longer handle.

  • Over the table backhand topspin/sidespin flick, the traditional block, and the reverse side small counterloop are definitely not as good.

    The simple reason is that I cannot achieve the same rotation as easily with the wrist.

    It could be a lack of wrist flexibility with the SuperCPen or the fact that the wrist rotation point is further away from the ball contact point: the "long lever" effect. You can easily test your wrist flexibility by closing the distance between your index finger and thumb to zero and then cocking the wrist back. And then check that against having the thumb and index finger further apart. There is a significant difference in my opinion.

    Mitigating against this: let me point out there is a rudimentary video on Dai's website for the "wrist turn" backhand, and also documentation for a "control" grip.

  • As for the forehand loop, I found the SuperCPen a bit awkward. Grip was solid, but as I mentioned earlier, I don't have any grip problems with the regular Chinese-style blades. No net improvement felt.

  • Push. I found I had less control with the push due to the long-lever effect. I didn't experiment with switching to the control grip just for this shot.

  • Serve. Inferior experience due to less wrist flexibility with the SuperCPen.

I'd like to emphasize that some of these problems may go away with more playing time as I adjust to the angling imposed by blade. (Also, my wrist became fatigued after about an hour.)

[Clearly there is some adaptation involved. Initially, I was losing games against the (same) opponent with the SuperCPen that I was winning with a regular Chinese-style blade. Towards the end, I was able to win with it too but not to the same comfort level.]

For comparison, here is the SuperCPen and my modified blade side by side:

[Ignore the short pips rubber illustrated above. I don't use short pips. I loop with Tenergy 05.]

And my modified blade superimposed on to of the SuperCPen.


I felt the grip was rather uncomfortable and I never got really used to it. So I converted the Amultart SuperCPen into a paddle equivalent to the thumbgrip Amultart shown earlier in this blog entry. Meanwhile, I sent Dai another new paddle, a Butterfly Innerforce ZLC to be modified into a SuperCPen.

After a week or two playing with the Innerforce ZLC SuperCPen exclusively, I managed to hurt my index finger (bruise near tip and first joint pain). It eventually became too painful to stroke freely and overcompensation gave my wrist a bit of an overuse injury too. I stopped and went back to the thumbgrip-modified Amultart SuperCPen. Before stopping, I shaved the SuperCPen down to 50mm width to see if that helped. Unfortunately, I still had problems executing my strokes without pain. There could be morphological reasons for this.

For posterity, here is my last video with the SuperCPen executing the reverse backhand (in some pain):

The positioning of the fingers on the SuperCPen:

When I went back to my thumbgrip paddle, the index finger pain went away almost immediately, and the wrist felt under less strain.

At the time of writing, I am playing with the thumbgrip paddle (which plays conventionally but with better grip) and have sent the Innerforce ZLC SuperCPen to be modified into a SuperCPen (size S) - which was not available at the beginning of this experiment. When my injury is healed, I will try the Innerforce ZLC SuperCPen S. Meanwhile, I will try to re-discover and re-balance my strokes with the thumbgrip paddle.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mons, Belgium

It has been a while since I've posted anything about travel. Recently I went to Belgium for an academic conference.

What do you associate with Belgium?

For me, it's a close personal association with beer, chocolate and ping pong.

Well at least, the beer and chocolate are uncontroversial. There is plenty of evidence for these.

For example, in transit in Denver International Airport (DEN), I was immediately confronted with the New Belgian Hub visible below. Add in frites (French fries) and moules (mussels)? Pretty much case closed.

How about the ping pong? Well, on arrival at Brussels airport, I was heartened to find that these posters were very much in evidence. "Be a fan of skill," exhorts the poster. Absolument! Amen, brother.

As I mentioned earlier, I was there for a conference (on the topic of Language and Recursion as it happens). It was held at the University of Mons, bang in the middle of what seems to be a small town of around 30,000 inhabitants. (To compare, the University of Arizona has more students than that.) But even in this modest town there are 3 ping pong clubs. I visited CTT Ecurie Mons, which meets in a high school gym.

It is the middle club of three in terms of size in Mons. They field some 8 teams, with the top team in the Belgian national league (3rd division). Plus, more recently, one women's team. I hit for an hour with the guy on the left. His name is Guillaume. (He seems to be around the 2200-2300 USATT level.) Guy on the right is Laurent. He was the guy who responded to my attempts to contact someone over the internet.

No chance to play people like that where I live. So yes, due to its popularity, ping pong in Belgium can be pretty good even in a small place.

How about Mons itself? Well, it was just a 3 day conference, a short visit.

Let me offer the Grand Place (main square) by day (with the typically grey skies of Spring can you even spot it's 6pm?):

and the Grand Place by night:

At the conference reception inside l'Hôtel de Ville (aka the town hall), the big building in the above Grand-Place-by-day picture:

Let's take a closer look at the mural, which depicts a scene that seems familiar to me.

Once a year, there is a re-enactement of the St. George and the Dragon story in the Grand Place in Mons. Note I used the definite article here. Because I grew up in England, I thought this was an original English-only story. Perhaps the indefinite article would have been more appropriate. Apparently, St. George and the Dragon both might not be so English…

As for the conference? Well, it included all the (free) beer and wine you could drink while ruminating and attempting to think serious academic thoughts.

Seriously. I'm not kidding. All we had to do was flash our badges at the hotel bar. Talk about hospitality. Well then, who's a lucky monkey then?

Patting Le Singe de Mons (the monkey of Mons) on the head at the Hôtel de Ville with your left (has to be left) hand is said to bring good luck.

Finally, back at Brussels airport, the counterpart of the New Belgian Hub I began this post with in Denver, the Leffe Plaza Café

(All pictures taken with my Olympus E-P1 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens.)