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The V-for-Victory Grip in Table Tennis.

On a recent trip to China I encountered a new grip, under development at one of the premier table tennis schools, which I would like to share with the US and international table tennis community. This article describes this discovery and what I have learned in trying to use it since my return. I believe it will have a significant impact on our sport.

In October 2000, I took a trip to China with my sister, to visit my mother who is teaching English for a year at a university near Shanghai. In fact, at the same time the USATT-organized Youth and Coaches trip to China was traveling from Beijing to Shanghai, we were traveling from Shanghai to Beijing (cf., http://www.tomveatch.com, "China" for a detailed report).

During this trip, through the generosity of, and helpful contacts provided by Y. J. Liu of Vancouver BC, I was able to get in touch with and make a visit to a Chinese table tennis school (the Cao Yan Hua table-tennis school in Shanghai) for a couple of days of personal training. Basically this was a live-in elementary school where the students played table tennis several hours a day in addition to their regular primary-school education. Cao Yan Hua, the perennial Women's World Champion of the 1980's, is from Shanghai, and she started this school just a year or two ago. Already it is one of the premier places in China for development of future champion-level table-tennis players. The kids' skill level was about 200 points times their age; I felt I could probably beat the 7-year-olds with my 1565 USATT rating; I had a hard time earning 8 points a game from the 9-year-olds; and with the 10-year-olds, well, there was no point in being humiliated, so I didn't play them! It was a tremendous adventure and, just like Marco Polo, I came away with some new things to share with you.

Observations at a Chinese Table Tennis School

In my eyes-open moments between practice sessions, I made two remarkable observations. First, in the land of the pen-hold grip, 90% of the kids in this school were playing shakehand. When I asked, the coaches said that shakehand is easier to learn than penhold, so since these are kids, that's what they do. Second, and what I want to tell you about here, is the brief glimpse I had of a boy playing with what I'll call the "V-for-Victory grip" or "V grip", where the blade is held in the V between the forefinger and middle finger. I have been learning to play with the V grip recently, and in this article I would like to share with you what I have learned. I believe this discovery will be momentous for our sport: I predict that the 2008 Olympics will be won by a player using this grip.

Summary

In summary, the V grip is easier to learn and provides more control, more spin, and more speed all at once, as compared to the other grip styles. Below I will describe the V grip itself, then the playing style of the boy I saw, the mechanics of the forehand and backhand topspin and chop strokes as well as my hidden corkscrew serve, and finally the mechanical advantages of this style of play over the penhold and shakehand grip styles.

Grip mechanics

To make the V grip, hold your hand up, and spread your forefinger and middle finger apart in the V-for-Victory sign (a.k.a., the Peace Sign), pointing up. Let the handle of the paddle also be vertical, with the blade above the handle, and put the handle against the palm, rotated so that the blade is perpendicular to the palm and is squeezed BETWEEN THE FOREFINGER AND MIDDLE FINGER. You can bend the last two knuckles of the forefinger and middle finger, so that you grip the paddle blade between bent fingers as if between bent tongs. Hold the handle against your palm with ring finger and pinky, and rest the thumb on the top of the handle wherever it seems comfortable; you can curve the forefinger around the thumb. Here are some pictures.

The V grip is something like a pistol grip but instead of having the business end of the weapon extend out from between thumb and forefinger, in the V grip, the paddle sticks out between the forefinger and middle finger. ("Pistol Grip" is the name used for a different and even more strange blade configuration from China, discovered by Barney Reed, Sr., which looks something like a cut-off handsaw, with the blade made of the first few inches of the saw.)

The handle on the boy's paddle, that I saw in China, was something like that of a pistol with a rounded vertical flange coming down from the horizontal blade, which was pressed into his palm and butted up against the heel of his palm, and held there by the ring finger and pinky. The idea is that the blade and the palm are perpendicular instead of parallel: the blade is horizontal when the palm is held vertically with the thumb on top. Using small rotations of the wrist about the axis of a horizontal forearm the grip shifts between angles appropriate for extreme topspin, when the forward edge (on the side closer to your opponent) of the paddle is raised, and for extreme chop, when the forward edge is lowered.

Stylistic observations

The boy that I saw was about 10 years old, and I estimate that his skills were on the level of a 2000-level player in the U.S. rating system, along with all the other 10-year olds at this school. His style of play was to stand relatively back from the table, and to swing the wrist and paddle like a whip to produce extremely fast and spinny topspin loop drives with the bottom side of the paddle. The forehand strokes reminded me of a jai-alai player, and the backhand strokes were equally whippy.

He seemed to be very relaxed and comfortable, with a wide-spread posture and bent knees but a vertical body posture, with a smooth rhythm that seemed almost casual, yet the drives combined extreme speed and spin with apparent effortlessness. He made it look so easy that it actually gave the impression of being playful and non-serious (most of the boys were very serious about playing), I even thought he might be lazy! Now, having studied the stroke for a while, I must say that these characteristics are intrinsic to good form when using the natural strokes and style of the V grip, and not a reflection that the boy I saw lacked any iota of seriousness.

It turns out that it is extremely natural and effortless to produce cracking power drives, power loops, and even incredibly rapid far-wide-to-the-side reaction-block loop counters. The posture and strokes that fit the style make it so you don't look like you're working very hard; indeed you're working a lot less for a lot better results than players using other styles.

Stroke mechanics

Let me describe the mechanics of block, topspin and chop on both forehand and backhand, using the V grip. Although I describe them separately, the same side of the blade is used for both forehand-underspin and backhand-underspin, namely the thumb side; similarly topspins are done on both forehand and backhand with the same side of the blade, namely the bottom side.

Backhand

On the backhand, the edge of the blade on the back of the hand can be lifted or lowered by a wrist rotation about the axis of the forearm. With the back-of-hand edge lifted, swinging the wrist from bent to open, or the forearm in the same arc, produces a topspin stroke. With the back-of-hand edge lowered, swinging the wrist from bent to open, or the forearm in the same arc, produces a chop stroke. Thus slight lifting and lowering gives angles appropriate for extreme topspin and chop, where the movement of the wrist's main "hinge" joint combined with the arc of the forearm through the same plane combine in a powerful swing that can generate very heavy spin.

Lifting or lowering by rotating the wrist 90 degrees in either direction puts the paddle into a flat-hit or blocking position. With elbow pointed toward your opponent, and thumb toward your chest, the small "handshake" movement of the wrist combines with the very large movement of elbow extension to produce another extremely powerful, but in this case flat-hitting, stroke.

Between these pure extremes of extreme topspin and flat-hit are a smoothly-varying range of combinations of drive (via elbow extension) and spin (via elbow rotation about the axis of the upper-arm, which swings the forearm in the same arc and plane that the hinge-opening wrist follows).

The back-hand block is done simply by moving into flat-hit position without doing an elbow-extending drive stroke. This block stroke has three characteristics, derived from its simplicity and from the forward position of the elbow, which lets you freely rotate your body toward the backhand side much more easily than the penhold or shakehand grips in which the elbow must be kept more or less back and in the body's way, during a backhand block. First, the block movement is more intuitive than for other grips, because the natural movement of rotating your body toward the backhand side (to gain coverage of wide-to-the-backhand shots) does not conflict with any simultaneous need to keep your elbow back in order to angle the block back toward the table. Second, the same reasons also make the movement lightning-fast. And third, it also makes it easier to cover much wider backhand angles, reaching far wide-to-the-backhand shots with reaction-time responses. I have been able to powerfully block and counter-drive against loops and loop drives to my far backhand with this grip, after a very few hours of practice, shots that I have never before been able to return, even after years of playing and studying this game using other grips. I find myself grinning with surprise and amazement at the shots that I can successfully slap back. Finally, and best of all when those wide-to-the-backhand shots are topspin and topspin/sidespin loops, the available range of wrist rotations extends easily from vertical to flat, and with a powerful elbow-extending "swatting" motion you can effortlessly block down a loop no matter how topspinny it is.

I have observed several things about the V grip's backhand chop stroke, in which where the upper (thumb-side) surface of the paddle undercuts the ball. First it is extremely stable, since even with large-muscle movements the blade stays in its plane. Second it is able to generate extremely heavy backspin through an arcing forearm, with or without the hinge of the wrist swinging open. Third it provides tremendous control, so that I have no trouble nailing intended short dropshot dink chops alternating with flat-trajectory deep chops, to left, center, or right of the table, with much better control than I have ever attained with my penhold grip, which until now has been the superior grip for the close-to-the-table chopping game. The amazing degree of control is due to the stroke's in-the-plane stability and to the fact that it is carried out by larger muscle groups making fewer joint rotations over larger joints. For example, to shift aim from a chop to one edge of the opponent's side of the table to one aiming toward the other edge, the modification in the stroke is done not by rotating the wrist, since in this stroke the available wrist rotation to do that is the small "shakehand" rotation -- which better used by keeping it stiff, or using it as a small, fine adjustment. Instead, you raise or lower elbow via a large rotation of your shoulder joint, and this sets the leftward or rightward cross-table angle of the chop stroke. Obviously when you are using big muscles and big joints to make control adjustments, you gain a lot more control than when you are using small muscles and small joints, which can spin out of control so much more easily.

Forehand

So far I've talked only about the backhand; the forehand follows basically the same principles, although it definitely feels more wierd than the backhand when playing with it. Again the table-side edge can be lifted or lowered, and the forearm swung through an arc to produce an extreme topspin or chop stroke. And again the wrist can rotate 90 degrees in either direction to reach a flat-hitting position. Of course instead of the elbow pointing toward the opponent as for the backhand, the elbow either points down or is lifted to the back in the two flat-hitting positions. The forehand topspin stroke, which is the most powerful stroke for basically all penholders and most shakehand players, is equally powerful in the V grip, but feels exposed and wierd with the wrist and elbow both rotated far outward at the beginning of the power part of the stroke; it gets a lot stronger and more solid as you swing the wrist from open to closed and the forearm in the same arc, and as you push down extending the elbow to drive forward through the loop or drive stroke. Kept compact it feels more solid; this is a very quick, short, blocking stroke yet with plenty of power and leverage if you swing with it even a little bit, to produce massive acceleration and some just amazing drives and loops. I have had the same feeling of wonder at these shots as I did when I first hit golf balls at a driving range: the ball rockets out of there so fast that it seems like a miracle that I actually did that myself.

After only little practice, I have so far found the forehand chop to be somewhat less stable than the backhand chop with this grip, but I expect that to be solved by stiffening the wrist a little more, which shifts the in-the-plane chop-spin movements from being controlled by the movements of the wrist joint to being controlled by the movements of the forearm.

Serves

Two more important issues include serves and shots at the elbow. In my own game I am really a serve specialist, with a lot of sidespin and deceptive under-the-armpit side-topspin/chop/corkscrew special effects. So far I'm finding that this grip produces better spin, speed, and control in service strokes as compared with the penhold grip, just as in the other strokes, again primarily because of the in-the-plane stability of the wrist "hinge" movement, but also because the stroke encourages you to bring your head down closer to the point of ball contact, and that means you can both see and control what's going on that much better. Indeed with the V grip my corkscrew serves are better controlled than with my normal penhold grip, and I find it a lot easier to add topspin or chop, and to produce triple-bounce serves or ultra-speed corner-to-corner services. These strokes all share a beyond-90-degrees side-turned body position, a toss of varying heights, my upper-arm parallel to the ground and pointing back away from the table or behind me, and a heavy wrist snap in one direction or the other, with the ball coming out under the armpit. I find that my under-armpit deception serves are better hidden with this stroke because my elbow is higher and less of the paddle can be seen flashing by through the armpit space. In addition, a guess-the-direction game can be played on your opponent, since with the same overall stroke, you can do a small, hidden wrist rotation and send the ball in the opposite direction, with the opposite spin, giving no visible clue to your opponent. Finally, I've discovered an ultra-speed topspin serve that I never had before by adding a hip punch rotation to my normal corkscrew topspin movement.

The stability and control in V grip services again derive from the in-the-plane characteristic of the blade during the wrist hinge movement and the forearm rotation; to set the plane of movement you basically have to adjust the position of your elbow by rotating your shoulder, a very large movement as compared with wrist or forearm, and once you have that right, it's really right; small jiggles will have a hard time screwing it up; and at the same time the free swinging of elbow and wrist don't destabilize anything, but rather simply accentuate the movement of the blade within the already-fixed plane.

In short, although the penhold grip has heretofore been the leading service grip (certainly over the shakehand grip) in terms of intensity of sidespin and intrinsic capability for deception, I find the V grip superior to the penhold grip in both respects.

Elbow shots

The next question is how the V grip handles the point of weakness and indecision at the elbow. Shots aimed at the elbow of a shakehand player force a quick decision to hit with a forehand stroke or a backhand stroke; oftentimes you can't get around in time to make the shot; and sometimes an opponent will curve a sidespin shot so as to convince you initially to use a forehand stroke since it starts by coming out toward the forehand, but then it curves into your body and you can't back off far enough to keep your forehand on it. The cut point at the elbow between forehand and backhand is a primary weak point of shakehand players. Different players may adjust better to the left or to the right, depending on their style. Some players cover substantially overlapping ranges with both forehand and backhand, so they can defend this weak point well; while others have big gaps at their elbows.

As a response to this problem, the V grip shares with the Seemiller grip the ability to do a windshield-wiper stroke; topspin to one side or the other side can be met with an elbow-underneath windshield-wiper stroke; shots to the middle can receive the same windshield-wiper counter. However this is most effective when the elbow shot comes at you with top-spin. A chop or flat shot is hard to respond to; you can try to rotate around enough to loop through the chop or bend your elbow more to bring the forearm up towards vertical for a straight-up flat block, but these are extreme and unhappy solutions for handling these shots.

I also noticed that the backhand stroke can be somewhat uncomfortably extended a few inches into the space naturally stroked-through by a forehand stroke, and vice versa, so that there is indeed some overlap of forehand and backhand stroke zones. But it seems to be less overlap than is available with the shakehand grip (and the penhold grip, you could say, doesn't even have this problem), so I would say that elbow shots are the primary weakness of the V grip approach to table tennis. However, it seems that with some attention, that weakness can be made solidly defensible. The best approach seems to be to play a little farther back from the table and to concentrate on your footwork, so that you can get around an elbow shot and handle it with a regular forehand or backhand stroke. This is what I observed in the off-the-table play of the boy in China. Another element here is a happy discovery that I made when I found that I could successfully top-sidespin an elbow shot that had already blown past me, by reaching back behind me and using the thumb side of the paddle; I fall back and to the side to give the ball space to go past my body, drop my hand behind my waist, thumb oriented towards my back, then I can lift the ball out as though I'm pulling it out of my back pocket; and amazingly the result is a pretty stable topspin/sidespin countershot, with good speed and power.

General characteristics

The V grip is a dramatically new and different way of playing table tennis. It reduces cognitive load (and therefore response time), stabilizes the stroke by removing or minimizing the destabilizing effects of small-muscle groups by locking them out of the stroke or making them irrelevant to blade angle, and assigns drive, angle, and spin to different large-muscle groups.

Extended Reach

The grip also adds reach. Just as the penhold grip adds slightly less than an inch to the reach of the blade (measured from elbow to paddle tip), the V grip adds about another inch of extension. This produces is an effect in the direction of playing table tennis with a tennis racket, if you can imagine that, in terms of the increased leverage and ball-contact speed that is produced. It means more blade speed, more power, and more spin, in addition to slightly better reach for wide-angled shots.

Wide angles

Most of the wide-angle reach advantages are from the backhand's forward elbow position, described earlier, which allows more body rotation and thus greater backhand-side reach, and on the forehand, from the naturally correct angle of the paddle for returning wide and deep shots that you have to reach back to get.

At the same time the grip allows you to flip short balls at very sharp angles and high speeds against your opponent, since you can extend the blade straight in front of you as far as you can reach, and produce massive lateral blade acceleration using the large muscles that move the forearm and stabilizing the stroke with stiffness in the handshake rotation dimension of the wrist. This sideways-flip shot is much more solid and powerful than the corresponding shot with the shakehand grip, which requires simultaneous coordination of a lot of additional muscular support across the hinge joint at the wrist, which the V grip doesn't need.

Paddles

What about paddles? While specialized paddles are best, I find that any kind of (two-sided) paddle can be used with this grip: the pistol-type handgrip I saw in China; my own "Sung Yang Special," a Korean-style radically-modified twiddler-grip penholder paddle with asymmetrically-offset thumb-and-forefinger gripping posts; and also your average shakehand or two-sided penhold paddles. So you should really be able to use your own paddle for an initial tryout of this approach, at least, although I would recommend you have something custom made for you if you decide to really get into it.

Stability of the stroke

Generally speaking, the V grip produces swinging, slingshot-like, whippy strokes, in which, as the wrist swings open and shut, the blade moves in an arc, lying flat within a plane, which is itself the plane of the surface of the blade. To get this ideal and stable stroke characteristic, every other wrist-moving stroke in table tennis requires simultaneous and coordinated movement in more than one of the natural degrees of freedom of the elbow, wrist, and shoulder, or uses primarily the smaller, "handshake" rotation of the wrist; none of them keep the blade flat in the plane of the blade as the main hinge joint of the wrist bends and straightens. This means that the V grip grip allows big wrist- and forearm-swinging motions which require no coordinated adjustments of other joint rotations to keep the blade in a plane. Movement in the plane of the blade is of course the kind of movement that produces spin. By stiffening and preventing the small, handshake rotation of the wrist, and by providing that the free-swinging, large, hinge rotations of the wrist have no directionally destabilizing effect on the stroke (just adding a little more or less spin -- and even that you can cancel by stiffening the hinge joint also, or you can use it to enhance the spin-generating forearm rotation), all the destabilizing effects of movements of the small joints are taken out of the equation. Then the position of the upper arm, and the extension of the elbow, become primarily responsible for controlling the shot. The result is much more control (since you can more easily control large muscle groups), and at the same time, more speed and power (since the upper-arm and elbow do the driving work instead of the wrist), and also more spin (since forearm rotation in the plane of the blade can produce very high blade speed).

A New, Big Ball Game

These characteristics are perhaps even more important now that the big ball has arrived. A new style that generates hyper-spinny, hyper-powerful shots, from standing a little farther back from the table, is just what the doctor ordered, since the big ball is heavier and faster after contact with the new heavier paddles, but slows down faster, so that a middle-distance game is favored. The V grip is a style that will do particularly well with the 40mm ball.

Quick and Easy to Learn

In my experience using it so far, I've seen that players who try it can produce consistent backhand rallies not far below to their current skill level after only a few minutes of practice with a patient partner.

It seems to be relatively easy to learn; easy to calibrate your shots; easy to attain stability and reliability in repetitive drills. The ease and speed of learning with the V grip could not contrast more sharply with my own extremely long and painful experience in learning the reverse penhold backhand, which I've been actively studying for most of a year and which I have still not successfully made into a stable, game-useable stroke (see www.tomveatch.com, click on "China" for the story of how far I've gone to improve it). In contrast, I started winning games with good players after less than three days of practice with the V grip, and I fully expect to surpass my penhold skill rating after a month of drill and play. I find myself creatively hitting big strokes in ways I hadn't imagined I could, with zing and accuracy.

Conclusion: Try it, you'll like it!

In conclusion, the V grip has tremendous mechanical advantages over both the penhold and shakehand grip styles of play including control, speed, spin, simplicity, response-time, and reach. So let me encourage you to take some time to try it out for yourself; with a little patience I believe you will discover it can quickly improve your game, even if you've spent years tuning up details of your game within shakehand, penhold, or even Seemiller styles. What I've found is that my skills are easily transferrable into this new form, and actually I have found that only now can I finally do what I've been trying to get myself to do for a long time -- the good habits come naturally. Another advantage, if you are an early adopter, then you will have a real advantage against the conservative masses who aren't willing to try something new. Although the initial reaction of many people that I have talked to about it has been laughter -- they can't believe I'm serious, and if I'm serious they think I must be crazy -- nonetheless the reasons given here would argue that the V grip is going to change the world of table tennis very soon. I hope you'll consider being a leader, rather than a silent observer, of this change. And if you don't believe it, then I encourage you to remind me of my mistake after the 2008 Olympics! But if I'm right, then promise you'll try it yourself!
 

Copyright © 2000 Tom Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: November 16, 2000. Comments? Please contact the author at tv@sprex.com or 1-206-352-1407.