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Hold It! Why Sometimes it is Better to Hit the Ball Late Instead of Early

Better Late than Early?


Photo of Zhong Ze Liu of Singapore

Singapore's Zhong Ze Liu Waiting for the Right Moment

© 2006 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
There is a lot to be said for the general rule of hitting the ball early in table tennis. After all, if you can strike the ball quickly, you can use more of your opponent's pace, you give your opponent less time to get ready for his next stroke, you are closer to the table so you increase the angles you can achieve, and you give the ball less chance to deviate due to your opponent's spin before you hit it.

All of the above are valid reasons in support of hitting the ball as early as comfortably possible. Nevertheless, there are times when hitting the ball later can be a good idea too! Let's examine a few of the reasons you might want to occasionally wait a bit longer before making your shot.

Reasons to Wait A Little Longer Before Hitting the Ball

  • Make Him Commit - If you are in position to hit the ball at your leisure, then sometimes just by waiting a fraction of a second longer than usual you can get your opponent to commit to moving in a particular direction. Once you see your opponent shift his bodyweight, you can then send the ball the other way, and your opponent will struggle to change direction in time to get to the ball.

    While this can be done during the rally, especially with higher, slower returns from your opponent, it can also be done with great effect during the service. Some players tend to stand still with a narrow stance and lean forward while receiving serve, and if you make them wait a little longer than normal, they sometimes lose their balance and tip over to one side or even forwards. That is then the time to serve a fast serve to take advantage of their loss of balance. Be warned though - if you continually hold the ball in your hand for many seconds while waiting for you opponent to fall over, you are likely to aggravate most of your opponents, and get a warning for delaying play from the umpire. So use sparingly and don't wait forever to serve - it's unsporting.

  • Make Him Stop - It is easier for your opponent to get to a far away ball if he is already moving than if he is standing still. Good players know this and will try to adjust their movement between shots so that they are moving towards the likely location of your next stroke. If you can delay contact with the ball, you can sometimes bring your opponent to a complete halt. Once he has stopped moving, he will find it very difficult to get started again in time to reach any ball that is put out of reach.

  • Disrupt His Rhythm - Changing your timing to take the ball later on occasion can make life more difficult for your opponent. If he is not paying full attention, he may find himself in the contact zone for his stroke before the ball has reached him. This is also the reason why it can be so difficult to hit the ball well when your opponent uses junk rubber to hit the ball - the ball does not travel at the normal speed you expect it to - it is much slower than the same swing with normal rubber would produce.

  • Settle Down - Sometimes just taking that little longer to get yourself settled into position properly before contacting the ball can be a good idea. Although you lose some of the benefits of hitting the ball early, you also gain in that you will be hitting from a more stable base, and should improve your power and precision as a result, making you less likely to miss the shot.


So as you can see, for any generally accepted tactic in ping-pong there is almost always a time when it is better to break the rules. Look at some of the great artists of the sport, such as Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner. He ignores the accepted traditions of table tennis matchplay on a regular basis, because he knows when the time is right to make an exception. When you are capable of knowing when the time has come to break the general rule of hitting the ball early when possible, you will have taken one more step towards approaching his level of tactical play.

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