Manika Batra is known for her ferocious forehands and quick variations, which she gets by switching to the pimpled rubber during rallies. Seldom has Manika, one of India’s top table tennis players, looked perplexed by an opponent, even in the games she has lost.
Things were a bit different on Saturday when she faced Germany’s World No. 8 Ying Han at the World Table Tennis Team Championships in Chengdu, China.
Manika looked confused. She was trying every trick in her book, but somehow nothing seemed to work. She eventually suffered a 3-11,1-11, 2-11 loss. While the loss wasn’t all that surprising given that Han is a seasoned paddler and has been at the top for several years now, the manner in which the German was able to confuse Manika was intriguing. Even the reigning national champion Sreeja Akula, who normally reads the opponent’s game excellently, couldn’t find answers to Han’s game. She too was beaten 3-11, 5-11, 4-11.
The reason was simple: 39-year-old Han is a specialist in defensive chopping, a style that is in decline since the mid-1990s. The fact that there are no professionals among the top-20 who play this style in India means that Manika and Sreeja had no real experience of playing against defensive choppers. And that’s the reason they just couldn’t cope.
A defensive chopper is the type of player who, through his or her reactive approach, blunts the opponent’s attacking shots by patiently using backspin or deploying spin reversal.
Former India international and 8-time national champion Kamlesh Mehta puts it simply: “Defensive choppers depend on the errors of the opponent. They generate massive backspin on every stroke and play away from away the table. What they basically do is they wear out the opponent and spoil their rhythm before choosing the right moment to win an attacking shot to win the rally,” he said.
While normally defensive choppers play using long pimples to counter the speed of the ball, Han was using short pimples on Saturday.
All about fitness
One may think that for a defensive chopper, whose style is to slow the pace of the game, fitness may not be paramount. Neha Aggarwal Sharma, who represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, says it’s quite the opposite.
“A defensive chopper has to cover more ground than attacking players. First of all, they play away from the table. Attacking players know that to beat them, they have to play all around the table as well as mix up the pace. That means the choppers not only have to move from left to right, they have to go front and back too,” she said.
Relentless, like a startup boss who’s put all his money on the line, a defensive player has to ensure they return every ball, no matter the pace of the attack, no matter where it’s placed on the table. As their game depends on forcing their opponent to make an error, they have to keep the rallies really long. Often, a seven-game match against a top defensive chopper can go on for an hour and a half, with each game 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 playing the same shot over and over again and that too with pinpoint accuracy.”
Though this style of play can be very effective, as Han has shown time and again, it is a rare commodity. While it’s largely because the game itself has become really fast, Mehta says it’s very difficult to coach a child to be a defensive player when all their mates will probably be attackers.
“The rules of the game have changed over time. It has become very fast now that it’s difficult for choppers to dominate. Youngsters like to imitate what they see and right now, most of the top players are attackers.”
Neha says the test lies in scouting a player at a very young age who perhaps has the mental conditioning and focus to become a defensive player.
“There are so many kids that go to an academy. The coach will have to give you individual attention. Not only that, the results will not come easy. Developing as an all-round defender takes a lot of time and in this result-oriented world, not many parents have the patience,” she said.