In the early days of competitive table tennis, rackets were made without a sponge layer beneath the rubber, and being that sponge is the component that generates spin, the game was, shall we say, a little more straightforward… figuratively and literally.
Yep, back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s the suits were sharp, the jazz was smooth, and the table tennis strokes were straight — During these decades, the sport was more about control and precision.
Then came the 50s, marking the introduction of sponge to the traditional “hardbat”, after which the game of table tennis was irrevocably changed… As the years went by, spin became the most prominent aspect of the entire sport.
Fast-forward to present day, and if you don’t have a thorough understanding of skill sets based around spin techniques, I’m sorry to say, you simply don’t have a chance of playing at a competitive level.
If you want to dominate the table like the pros, you need to master the art of spin, both offensively and defensively, and I’m going to help you do it. Welcome to the ultimate guide to spin in table tennis!
Walking Before You Can Run… Or Spin, Anyway
Spin is undoubtedly one of the coolest things about table tennis. Seeing the ball bend in midair as if the laws of gravity don’t apply to it is awe-inspiring, but here’s the thing… It’s very tricky to do and even harder to do right.
You may be excited to learn the magic of spin and begin your tenure as a ping pong wizard, but it’s an exceedingly advanced technique, so before you start learning how it’s done, you need to be well acquainted with the basics of table tennis.
Once you have the following rudiments on lock, you will have set a robust foundation from which your spin skills can develop:
- Basic Serve
Got those three essentials down? Excellent, now we can move on to the exciting stuff!
The Single Most Effective Way Of Mastering Spin
Okay, so admittedly, that header is a little misleading. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, magical way of attaining spin mastery. It takes – you knew this was coming – the three Ps: Practice, practice, and more practice!
I know, I know… it’s a cliché, but it’s unequivocally true! Table Tennis is such a fast-paced game, it’s just as much about instincts as it is about technique, both of which must be refined through years of structured experience.
Think about it. When a quality opponent has an immaculate, aggro style, and they’re spanking the ball at you at 60 mph with spin that could make a buzz saw blush, you don’t have time to think about anything rationally.
You can’t say to yourself, “Okay, now I’ll use that special spin control technique I learned from that online article of an evening”. It all happens in the blink of an eye — synapse-quick!
Your eyes need to be trained to pick up on minute split-second cues such as the subtle movement of your opponent’s racket, the ballet of the ball in the air, and the blurred logo of said ball.
The same is true when using spin offensively. Both the ball and racket need to feel more like extensions of your body to tame such a wild technique.
I can give you some epic pointers here today, but where you take it from there is completely up to you.
What Causes Spin?
Spin is the effect of a tangential, brushing stroke as you strike the ball. The more emphasis you put into this brushing action, the faster the ball will spin, and the more dynamic its movement in the air, on the bounce, and on the rebound will be.
The problem is, if you get the movement even a little bit wrong, you can accidentally put too much force behind the ball instead of increasing spin.
Another common issue is leaning too deeply into the brushing motion and not giving the ball enough oomph, amounting to it plopping down disappointingly on your own half of the table.
As such, refining that brushing stroke is absolutely critical to honing your spin skills. To do so, your first port of call is to learn the effect that striking angle has on the ball.
- To hit a ball straight as an arrow, you’d strike the ball as close to the equator as possible with the racket at a 90° angle, and with a forward motion.
- To put spin on the ball, instead of using just a forward motion, you’ll need to apply a downward, upward, or sideways motion to that forward momentum of your racket. This creates the brushing stroke.
Combine this motion with a racket angle of above or below 90° and the ball will spin more and travel a shorter distance.
Of, course, the type of rubbers on your racket will affect the nature of spin as well. If you’re looking for the “spinniest” of all, you need reverse rubbers. I’d also recommend something with a thicker sponge, something like Dignics rubber from Butterfly.
The most common forms of spin are topspin and backspin, but side spin plays a pivotal role in the game as well, especially at pro-level, so let’s address each type individually, and discuss how they can be achieved.
1. Topspin (Ball Spinning Forward)
Topspin is generated by beginning your stroke beneath the ball, then brushing against it tangentially with a forward and upward motion. The contact point on the ball should be on or just beyond the equator.
2. Backspin (Ball Spinning Backward)
To generate backspin, you simply have to invert that topspin technique. Rather than starting your stroke from below the ball, it should start above the ball, and instead of a forward and upward motion, you should approach the ball with a forward and downward motion.
The idea is to strike the ball with a tangential brushing motion dead on or just south of the equator, with the racket held at a 130–140° angle. To generate a lot of backspin, your stroke needs to be quick and accurate.
3. Sidespin (Ball Spinning Right Or Left)
This type of spin is generated by striking the ball tangentially with a sideways stroke. If you’re a right-handed player, and your racket travels right to left, you’ll generate left-sided spin, and the ball will veer to the right in the air and off the bounce.
If your racket travels from left to right, you’ll generate right-sided spin, and the ball will veer left in the air and on the bounce.
Sidespin is almost always combined with either topspin or backspin, adding nuance to the trajectory and rebound of the ball.
What Are The Effects Of Spin?
1. Effects Of Topspin
Topspin imbues the ball with a rapidly descending trajectory and an insanely fast, low dash off the table.
When a ball with topspin strikes the racket of the receiver, the downwards pressure pushes the ball upwards, taking force out of their stroke.
2. Effects Of Backspin
Backspin gives the ball a higher trajectory and higher bounce off the table but with less momentum. Oftentimes, if there’s enough backspin, the ball may begin traveling back towards the direction it came from.
The reaction of a ball with backspin hitting an opponent’s racket is equal and opposite to that of a ball with topspin hitting their racket. The forces at play push the ball downwards, often preventing the receiver from achieving the lift they need to return the ball.
3. Effects Of Sidespin
Sidespin arcs the ball midair in the opposite direction of the stroke. So, for example, let’s say you’re a right-handed player, and you stroke the ball with a tasty backhand, your racket would be moving to the right, and although the ball will initially head in that direction, sidespin will invert its flight path, causing it to swing to the left.
A ball with a nice amount of right-sided spin will bounce to the left of the receiver when it rebounds off their racket.
A ball with a decent amount of left-sided spin will bounce to the right of the receiver when it rebounds off their racket.
… So, that’s the execution side of spin taken care of, but what about defending against it?
Defending Against Spin
As mentioned earlier, reading spin comes with experience. The more you play this glorious game, the more fluent you’ll become in this physical language, but it can’t hurt to introduce you to the concept right here, right now.
In a nutshell, reading spin is all about searching for clues, the first of which will be the angle of your opponent’s racket as it makes contact with the table tennis ball.
As you now know which racket motions and angles correspond with each type of spin, observing the angle and contact point of your opponent’s stroke is by far the best way to ascertain how the ball will behave in the air, on the bounce, and off the racket.
Sidespin is a little trickier, as there are two types, but this can be determined by following the direction of your opponent’s racket. If it travels to the left, creating left-sided spin, the ball will veer towards your left-hand side. If it travels to the right, creating right-sided spin, it will veer towards your right-hand side.
Having said that, this visual clue won’t always be as obvious as I’m making it out to be here. Quality players will have such nuanced control of the ball and such a fluid mastery of spin that, to some extent, they can disguise their intentions.
Pretty sneaky, ay? But the good news is that, although the racket may lie, the ball does not, which is why the second visual clue for reading spin is how the ball travels in the air directly after a stroke.
If it has a driving low trajectory, you’re dealing with some intense topspin, if the trajectory is fluffier and higher, it’s backspin. If it veers left or right, you’ve got some sidespin coming your way.
Should the flight path tell you nothing, the following bounce on the table will reveal all the secrets of the spin. As per our earlier discussion, topspin has a low, accelerated bounce, backspin has high, low acceleration bounce, and sidespin will send the ball to the right or the left.
The logo on the ball can also be used as one final visual clue as to how the ball is going to bounce and rebound. If you can’t see it, it’s because it’s spinning incredibly fast. If you can see it, it’s because the ball has little, if any, spin.
… Next up, let’s figure out how you should approach countering a ball with a significant amount of spin on it.
Defending Against Spin
First, you’ll use the visual clues we just spoke about to identify that it is indeed topspin coming your way.
To refresh your memory…
- A topspin brush begins below the ball and travels up over it.
- In the air, you’ll notice the ball dip due to a combination of rotation and air resistance.
- Your next clue will be that the ball accelerates at a low angle off the table.
So, you’ve spotted the topspin threat… What now?
Well, remember when I said that the rebound of a top-spinning ball forces it upwards? All you have to do is account for that with the position of your racket. The easiest way to do this is to employ a closed racket angle. In other words, your racket should be angled down slightly.
Next on the agenda is choosing an appropriate returning stroke. Generally speaking, when defending against topspin with a closed racket, you should choose to…
- Drive — An offensive, medium stroke that should land close to the opponent’s baseline, setting you up for an aggressive next strike.
- Loop — A stroke with lots of retaliative topspin.
- Block — An almost static stroke that uses the force of the opponent’s shot to send the ball back over the net.
But, for the imaginative player, a closed racket response isn’t the only option. If you’re playing defensively, with some distance between you and the table, you can open your racket right up and hit your opponent with a fiery chop:
- Chopping — Chopping is an open racket stroke that makes contact below the equator of the ball, causing a tremendous amount of backspin.
To defend against backspin, we’ll once again be scanning for visual clues to establish that’s what we’re dealing with. You’ll recall that with backspin…
- The racket begins above the ball, then, in a forward and downward motion, sinks below it.
- In the air, a back-spun ball is slower than a top-spun ball, and the trajectory will be higher.
- Backspin bounces high over a short distance.
Yep, that’s some serious backspin heading your way, so what do you do?
When the ball rebounds off your racket, the backspin is going to send it downwards, so you have to open up your racket a bit, meaning it should be angled up ever so slightly. Then, strike the ball beneath the equator to generate some extra lift, otherwise known as a Push stroke.
Again, this is the most straightforward option, but not the only one. If you wanted to clap back at your opponent with an incendiary counterattack, I’d recommend keeping a slightly closed or perhaps even neutral racket, and making a swift, upward brush stroke, moving from beneath the ball, to the top.
This is the Loop stroke I mentioned a moment ago. It has a significant amount of topspin, and it’s just the shot you need to put your opponent on the back foot.
As covered earlier in the article, sidespin occurs when someone strikes the ball with a sideways tangential brushing motion, passing their racket either from left to right or from right to left.
The direction of the spin is dictated by the direction the racket is moving upon impact, and the direction of the spin dictates how the ball will react when rebounding from your racket.
Now, as I’m sure you remember, sidespin is rarely, if ever, used in its purest form. 99% of the time, it’s going to be a hybrid shot, a combination of both sidespin and either top or backspin.
This can make it slightly trickier to distinguish in the heat of the moment, but there are a few tricks you can learn to make identifying the nature of the sidespin a little easier.
The most effective tip is to take a mental note of the starting position of your opponent’s sidespin stroke. As the ball is going to travel (and rebound) in the opposite direction, angling your racket towards that initial racket position sets you up to counteract the awkward rebound and get the ball back over the net.
Now let’s take a look at left sidespin and right sidespin individually to give you a better idea of what to do in these sorts of situations.
- Returning Left Sidespin
For the sake of argument, let’s say your opponent is a right-handed player. If their racket is moving from right to left, or forehand to backhand if you prefer, the ball will be spinning clockwise, which is a left sidespin.
This will rebound off your racket to your right and your opponent’s left, so, to neutralize the effects of said rebound, you need to angle your racket to your opponent’s right, where their stroke began.
That is, of course, assuming that you are in a position to do so. Table tennis is all about adapting to the situation in real-time.
- Returning Right Sidespin
Let’s take this imaginary opponent of ours and invert the offensive. This time, their racket moves from left to right, or backhand to forehand. This turns the ball anticlockwise, otherwise known as right sidespin.
When the ball hits your racket, it’s going to rebound to your left and your opponent’s right, which means, following our rule from earlier, that you should angle your racket towards your opponent’s left to take the sting out of the spin and mount a counterattack.
Pro-Tip — If, in the panic of the situation, you fail to identify any visual clues as to the nature of the sidespin, aiming your stroke dead center is the most forgiving option, as it provides 50% of the table as a target regardless of the direction of the spin.
Pro-Tip #2 — If you do identify the direction of the spin but get confused about how it will rebound, just picture the ball as a tiny wheel and your racket like the road beneath it. For instance, the topspin wheel rolls up the road, and the backspin wheel rolls down it.
I believe the best way to develop your spin skills is to simply play the game, but there are also exercises you can do to improve. Here’s an easy one that you can do on your own.
The general idea is that, throughout these four steps, you keep the ball bouncing straight up into the air.
Step 1. Bounce the ball continuously into the air with no spin — just a bog-standard equatorial strike with the forehand side of your racket.
Step 2. When you’re ready, strike the ball at an angle, thereby generating spin, but try to keep the bounce vertical, in line with your previous spinless strokes.
Step 3. When the ball returns, adjust your racket to account for the spin and keep it bouncing straight up.
Step 4. Rinse and repeat, trying different spins as you go.
You can make this exercise harder by increasing or decreasing the height of your bounces. Remember to keep your wrist loose, as it’s your wrist that should be generating the spin, not your forearm or shoulder. Practice this a few times a week, and you’ll be a veritable spin demon in no time!
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