If you’re not watching the men’s and women’s team table tennis competition this weekend, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. It has everything you would want in an Olympic sport: fast-paced action, feats of endurance and precision, and people who throw balls high, high in the air. A ping pong watcher can’t help but notice that many of the top pros toss the ball skyward before serving. Why are they throwing the ball so high?
Teodor “Doru” Gheorghe, the coach of the United States women’s table tennis team, told me that throwing the ball is less about strategy and more about the personal style of the player and the style of the coaches with whom the players meet. are trained. “Each player [finds] the right [height] throw the ball based on his game and skill,” Gheorghe wrote in a quick email from London. “Some like to throw it higher, some don’t.”
Throwing the ball higher can help a player get more spin on her serve. Gheorghe notes that a well-thrown ball increases speed on its descent, which can help a player give more topspin, backspin, or sidespin. But the amount of spin on the ball also depends on the movement of your racquet.
American Ariel Hsing, the teenager and friend of billionaires who advanced to the third round in singles before losing a close match against eventual gold medalist Li Xiaoxia— begins his service with his back to the table. After throwing the ball in the air, she twists, straightens and kicks. I thought she was trying to get an extra couple behind her serve, or something. (I always assume sports strategy comes down to torque.)
But Gheorghe, his coach at the London Games, explained that Hsing was just trying to keep his spin a secret. “Players try to hide or not reveal the movement of the racquet,” he told me. Professionals pay close attention to the movement of their opponent’s racket and the spin of the ball in order to position themselves for a return shot. As such, the server will go out of their way to deceive, much like a baseball player tries to hide the ball before letting it fly towards the plate.
Hsing’s twist makes it harder for his opponent to pick up the spin. This also explains why Li throws the ball high in the air and then, on her way down, contorts herself to look like she is hitting the ball with her head. She’s not spastic, she’s just strategic.