Sunday, January 10, 2016

Table Tennis: The Reverse Penhold Backhand (RPB)

The traditional penhold grip uses the same side of the paddle for backhand and forehand strokes. The newer penhold style with the Reverse Penhold Backhand (RPB) stroke follows the more popular shakehands grips in using both sides of the paddle.
(Ma Lin, RPB, from ITTF website)

The shakehands grips dominates the professional game because it is possible to generate heavy topspin from both sides. With traditional penhold, only the forehand can generate significant topspin; the backhand is limited to the block or flat hit.

(Kim Taek Soo, backhand flat hit, from ITTF website)
(Moon Hyun Jung, backhand block, from ITTF website)

This, of course, limits the attacking possibilities for the traditional penholder. By standing further to the backhand side, additional footwork can be used to cover more of the playing angles with the forehand, but having to cover more ground with the forehand has become a relative disadvantage. Nevertheless, penhold has enjoyed considerable success historically; for example, the current head honcho in the Chinese national team, Liu Guoliang (刘国梁), was a penholder in his playing days (achieving both world singles champion and Olympics titles), but in recent years, it has become clear that, at the world class level at least, the traditional penhold grip is outdated and dying out. In the past, both South Korea and Japan have had penhold success, but there hasn't been a top penhold player in either team for a while, and there appear to be none emerging on the junior side. The last significant penholder from South Korea was Ryu Seungmin (유승민; hanja: 柳承敏), born 1982 and Olympic champion in 2004. On the female side, aside from a few former top Chinese players representing European countries, penhold can be effectively declared extinct.

The first player who was successful at adapting the shakehands style to the penhold grip was Wang Hao (王皓), born 1983 (now retired), who became world singles champion in 2009 (Yokohama).
(Wang Hao, Olympics 2008, from gettyimages)

He used the other side of the paddle to execute his signature backhand topspin; this stroke is known as the Reverse Penhold Backhand (RPB). Ma Lin (马琳), see first picture, born 1980 but more properly belonging to the traditional penhold era, was a penholder able to play both styles, became Olympic champion in 2008 (Beijing) but never world singles champion, also now retired.  In the modern game, there are only a few top penholders left, all of whom use the RPB on the backhand side. In my opinion, currently the best two penhold players on the world circuit are Xu Xin (许昕), born 1990, and Wong Chun Ting (黃鎮廷), born 1991.
(Xu Xin, from

Xu Xin, who probably has the strongest forehand in the world and incredible footwork, obviously favors his forehand side and uses the RPB only when forced to. On the other hand, Wong Chun Ting favors his RPB, and his forehand is considerably less well developed.
(Wong Chun Ting, from

For those wishing to emulate the RPB of the professionals, I recommend studying youtube videos of Wang Hao, Wong Chun Ting, and Xu Xin (in that order). In particular, it is my belief that Wang Hao's RPB has not yet been equalled.

As an amateur (purely at the club level), in recent years I've been learning the RPB. Since table tennis is a sport where quickness is perhaps the most important limiting factor, muscle memory invariably dominates. As professional coaches repeatedly point out to me, if one has to think through and consciously adjust the mechanics of a stroke during a game, one hasn't really properly internalized the stroke. Therefore, for penholders like myself who began with the traditional penhold game; switching over to the RPB is a constant struggle and source of frustration: the degree of difficulty of which should not be underestimated. Practically speaking, despite training exclusively with the RPB for the last few years, even now, under pressure at times I inadvertently revert back to jabbing the ball using the traditional penhold backhand stroke initially programmed into my muscle memory.

As I mentioned above, those who wish to emulate the relative perfection of the world class players would be well served by studying videos of Wang Hao, Wong Chun Ting, and Xu Xin. These talented athletes make very difficult shots look easy and natural. In addition, the amount of spin and power they achieve with the RPB can be quite astonishing. But I believe there is sometimes value and something to be gained in studying the flawed strokes of ungifted amateur play too. More precisely, one can spot technical errors (not present at the world class level), and see if (A) one has the same flaws, and (B) perhaps take corrective action. Pursuing the line of thinking outlined above, I humbly offer the following video clips of me training at the South China (colloquially known as 南华club (formally, the 世纪南华乒乓球俱乐部) in Luohu (罗湖) district, Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. The video clips were all taken on day 3 (my last day) of an all-too-brief trip in Jan 2016.

The coach is He Qiming (启明), the current manager of the club and a native of Hunan province. I've taken the liberty of setting the embedded video to play at a minimum quality level of vq=hd720 (the original uploaded content is at 60fps/1080p), and I've annotated the videos with comments(using iMovie). My Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII camera that I used to shoot the videos unfortunately only has an on-board microphone, but for those who can understand Cantonese (unfortunately, I am not a Mandarin speaker), perhaps you can hear the coaching comments first hand.

In the above drill, I use three variants of RPB stroke for play at three different distances from the table: (1) over the table (the return of serve), (2) close to the table, and (3) at middle distance. To be a competent at RPB, I believe one needs to learn all three variations.

Here is a similar video but with a bit more instructional content:

The middle distance RPB

Also here:

The close-to-the-table RPB

In my own opinion, my forehand has considerably more significant flaws than my backhand now. I count that as a small but significant indicator of progress. Of course, I learned the RPB with significant professional coaching right from the time I began retooling my backhand, but my forehand loop is home-grown and mechanically ugly. However, it is reasonably effective at the club level, and, somewhat ironically wins me many more points than the coached RPB. The topic of retooling the forehand is left as a possible subject for future posts.