Manika Batra is known for her ferocious forehands and quick variations, which she achieves by switching to spiked rubber during rallies. Manika, one of India’s top table tennis players, has rarely looked puzzled when facing an opponent, even in the matches she has lost.
Things were a little different on Saturday when she faced Germany’s world number 8 Ying Han at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Chengdu, China.
Manika looked confused. She tried every trick in her book, but somehow nothing seemed to work. She ultimately suffered a 3-11, 1-11, 2-11 loss. While the loss wasn’t all that surprising considering Han is a seasoned paddler and has been at the top for several years now, the way the German managed to confuse Manika was intriguing. Even defending national champion Sreeja Akula, who normally reads the opponent’s game perfectly, couldn’t find answers to Han’s game. She too was beaten 3-11, 5-11, 4-11.
The reason was simple: Han, 39, is a specialist in defensive chopping, a style that has been in decline since the mid-1990s. The fact that there are no top 20 professionals playing this style in India means that Manika and Sreeja had no real experience playing against defensive choppers. And that’s the reason they just couldn’t cope.
A defensive chopper is the type of player who, through their reactive approach, blunts the opponent’s attacking blows by patiently using backspin or deploying spin reversal.
Former India international and eight-time national champion Kamlesh Mehta puts it simply: “Defensive choppers depend on the mistakes of the opponent. They generate massive backspin with every shot and play away from the table. What they basically do is they wear down the opponent and mess up their rhythm before they pick the right moment to earn an offensive shot to win the rally,” he said.
While normally defensive choppers play with long buttons to counter ball speed, Han was using short buttons on Saturday.
All about fitness
You might think that for a defensive chopper, whose style is to slow down the pace of the game, fitness might not be paramount. Neha Aggarwal Sharma, who represented India at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, says the opposite is true.
“A defensive helicopter has to cover more ground than attacking players. First, they play away from the table. The attackers know that to beat them, they have to play all around the table and vary the rhythms. This means that the helicopters not only have to move left and right, but also move forwards and backwards,” she said.
State of mind
Relentless, like a startup boss who has put all his money on the line, a defensive player must make sure to return every ball, no matter the pace of the offense, no matter where it is placed on the table. Since their game depends on forcing their opponent to make a mistake, they have to keep rallies very long. Often a seven-game match against a top defensive helicopter can last an hour and a half, with each match sometimes lasting 20 minutes.
“More than anything, they have to be mentally strong,” says Neha. “They can’t be fazed by attacks and variations. It’s very difficult to play the same shot over and over again and that too with extreme precision.
While this style of play can be very effective, as Han has shown time and time again, it’s a rare commodity. Although that’s largely because the game itself has gotten very fast, Mehta says it’s very difficult to train a kid to be a defensive player when all of their peers are likely to be forwards.
“The rules of the game have changed over time. It’s gotten really fast now that it’s hard for the choppers to dominate. Young people like to imitate what they see and right now most of the best players are strikers.
Neha says the test is to spot a player at a very young age who maybe has the mental conditioning and focus to become a defensive player.
“There are so many kids going to an academy. The coach will need to give you individual attention. Not only that, the results will not be easy. Developing as a versatile defender takes a long time and in this results-oriented world few parents have the patience,” she said.