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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TOP-TIER TABLE TENNIS. Ma Long of China serves during a table tennis match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the world of table tennis, itís all about the spin: Topspin. Backspin. Sidespin. Side under spin. Side over spin. Heavy under/over/side spin. Light under/over/side spin. World No. 1 Ma extended Chinaís utter domination of table tennis with his 4-0 gold medal win over countryman Zhang Jike, the reigning London champion. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #16 (August 15, 2016), pages 4 & 8.

Only masters of spin win at Olympic-level table tennis

By Foster Klug

The Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO ó Ask a table tennis player to describe the most important part of the game and you usually get a single word answer: spin.

After that it gets more complicated.

Thereís topspin. Backspin. Sidespin. Side under spin. Side over spin. Heavy under/over/side spin. Light under/over/side spin. And, perhaps most devious of all, no spin.

In the course of a single Olympic match, it may all be there, and almost all of it will go unnoticed by spectators caught up in long, mesmerizing rallies filled with smashes, drop shots, and miraculous defensive saves.

Spin is so crucial in table tennis that itís easy to determine its masters: Just look at the top 10 players in the world. But itís also a great leveller, allowing older and physically weaker players to hold their own and, sometimes, even beat the worldís best.

And while the best players can determine what sort of spin is coming by the speed and angle of the batís movement and the rotation and direction of the ball, the mechanics of spin are still something of a mystery. It is ubiquitous but imperfectly understood, sometimes even by the players who use it to perform feats that basement ping-pong players canít even dream of.

Here is a look at the Art of Spin.

Itís all in the wrist (and the rubber)

Spin ó sometimes mind-boggling, post-it-on-YouTube spin ó is the backbone of Olympic-level table tennis.

But how do they do it?

Itís all in the wrist ó and the rubber.

No wrist movement means no spin. Rotate it like youíre turning a key in a lock or slice it like youíre executing a karate chop, and youíll make the ball spin, dance even, sometimes in unreturnable ways.

In his first- and second-round matches against players half his age, Spaniard Zhiwen "Juanito" He, a 54-year-old left-hander, employed spin constantly, his wrist slicing, swivelling, and rotating, the ball seeming to veer in midair like a gunshot bird before glancing off the table and screeching off in another direction. He won the first and lost the second match, but his spin continually flummoxed his young opponents.

The type of rubber on the bat a player uses also matters. Thick rubber vs. thin. Hard vs. soft. Pimples out vs. pimples in. It all produces different kinds of spin.

Spin as zen

Executing good spin requires that a tremendous number of different things all go right at the same time.

But to do it well, players must largely forget the details and just play.

"If you think, you have lost," said Thomas Weikert, president of the International Table Tennis Federation.

The trick to achieving a zen-like level of spin is practice. Lots of practice, for hours a day, every day, for years on end.

"I know many athletes at the top of different sports, and ... they donít need too much practice since they are already good. But we always need practice," Dimitrij Ovtcharov, the German world No. 5 player and the bronze medallist in London, said in an interview after a practice session at the Riocentro arena.

Ovtcharov notes two Chinese players who were practicing nearby, world No. 1 Ma Long and world No. 3 Xu Xin, were rocketing the ball at each other in a rally that lasted for what seemed like half-an hour, their wrists flicking the ball so that it spun in a blur just over the net, each player progressively moving back from the table until they were 10 feet away, yet still putting the ball exactly where they wanted.

"They are practicing the whole day because of spin," Ovtcharov said. "Repetition after repetition will get you more feeling, and if you get more feeling you will react better under pressure."

Spin, done right, is often ugly ó or unnoticed

Another paradox about spin: Despite its importance, not many people watching the Olympics realize itís happening at all.

The rapid rotation on the small ball is simply too hard to see.

Therefore, some spectators will be confused when an opponent botches a return of a masterful slow-topspin shot, for instance, wondering why thatís so much harder to hit than a scorching smash.

Spin is also a great leveller.

When two players who know each otherís game intimately play against each other, table tennis is often very fun to watch: long, exciting exchanges, with smash after smash.

"But if you donít know each other so well, the game doesnít look so nice sometimes because the players donít adapt to each otherís spin," Ovtcharov said. "With no spin, the better one would have it a lot easier and there would be a lot less surprises."

The game is filled with specialists, like the Spaniard He, who deceive and frustrate opponents with spin.

Itís not always pretty, but it works.

Spin can often be seen in the games of "choppers," defensive specialists who use backspin to slowly chop an attacking opponentís ball back at them, over and over, negating attacks and waiting for a mistake.

It only works with spin.

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