www.tomveatch.com / Table Tennis

A 4-month Status Report on the V grip

Introduction

Here's an update on my observations on and experiences with the V grip after using it for four months. In addition to expected outcomes, there are both new challenges and happy surprises to report. The summary, though, is that although it is taking longer than the initially-expected month, I am gradually starting to play better with the V grip than with my old penhold style. If you're interested in the V grip, you'll find many tips and suggestions here.

The new challenges include control, footwork, and the time needed to regain general maturity of play. The happy surprises include a whole new category of stroke, namely, the thumb side forehand topspin (i.e., topspin with the underspin-side of the blade), as well as several stroke variations that I had never previously been capable of, including full-strength two-winged loops, a powerful chop return of topspin, distinctly stronger spins than opponents have expected, a newfound ability to convert underspin to topspin, the ability to block against loops, a new thumb-side topspin serve with outside-sidespin that seems to surprise everyone. I have been getting reports from opponents that it is surprisingly difficult to read the direction I'm intending to hit the ball.

Terminology: Thumb Side vs Ring (Finger) Side

It seems like we could use some less confusing terms to refer to one side of the paddle versus the other in the V grip. "Topspin side" and "underspin side" are confusing because either side can actually be used for either type of spin. Maybe we can refer to the two sides of the paddle as the "thumb" side and "ring finger" or "ring" side; these terms are at least unambiguous. So the thumb side is the one that is naturally on top when the hand is in neutral position, with the palm vertical. And the ring finger side is naturally on the bottom in neutral position. The thumb side is used primarily for underspin but also sometimes for topspin. The ring finger side is used primarily for topspin, although it's also possible to rotate your forearm and do backhand pushes with it.

"Top" and "Bottom" are probably the most natural terms, but they are still not completely unambiguous, because there are some strokes where you rotate the paddle over so the Top side is on the bottom. We could use them unambiguously only if we can all agree to they are intended specifically with reference to the neutral position, and not with reference to the current orientation of the paddle, which might be the opposite. So you could say "push the ball with an lifting underspin using the Bottom side on the backhand" and even though the Bottom side is on top, it's still called the Bottom side.

If I want to be extra clear, I'll use 'Thumb' and 'Ring' sides instead of 'Top' and 'Bottom'.

Expected outcomes

As predicted in my original article, my serves are distinctly improved, reaction-blocks are awesome, my reach is increased by inches (and my control on long-reach returns is also excellent, increasing my effective reach by as much as a foot in either direction); kill shots have tremendous speed; and lob kills are generally easier. Although I expected distinctly stronger spins because of the extended reach of the V grip, I have been pleasantly surprised by several opponents comments that the spin is stronger than expected; this means not only that is the spin stronger, but also that it's harder to see how much spin is on it.

Unforeseen Challenges

Control

Control required some work at first; it was not as easy to develop as I initially expected. As Fan Yi Yong first pointed out to me, playing with an extended reach, as the V grip has, would tend to reduce control. However, this is certainly mitigated, partly or even completely, by the stability of the paddle orientation through wrist opening/closing movements. After a few hours working with the Newgy Pongmaster game, I have learned to stabilize my joint movements, and generally play with a stiffer body. Since then I've felt that accuracy and control are not my primary problems.

The secrets have been to keep my shoulder pressed down, and my elbow close to my side; stiffen my arm as I stroke and use lots of body rotation; the results after some training are pretty stable and accurate. Basically, I've increased my body's stiffness, so that when I rotate my body into the ball, the paddle, handle, forearm, upper arm, shoulder, and everything really move as a unit. Although that may sound inflexible and wrong, if you have a chance to see any videotapes of Andresz Grubba, the Polish champion of the 80's and 90's, you will see the kind of arm stiffness and body-movement-based (as opposed to hand-movement-based) strokes that I have found necessary to get control of this grip.

Posture

The forehand topspin stroke brings up its own special control issues. The normal body posture in table tennis is to lean your body forward in a crouch. But for the forehand topspin with the ring finger side of the paddle, the proper posture is the one I saw modelled by that boy in China: with the knees bent, certainly, but with the BODY LEANING BACK INSTEAD OF FORWARD. It looks like a
Jai Alai player. Through much experience I have consistently found that with my previous natural posture, leaning forward, I need great luck to hit the ball on the table, I am wild, inconsistent, and also weak. On the other hand, with my body leaning BACK, I have excellent control and consistency. So if you have a problem with control on the forehand, try leaning back. It's wierd, I know; it's against everything I ever learned in any sport, but it really has been the solution for me. Once I made this change, everything stabilized quickly.

More support for this leaning-back posture was pointed out to me by David ??, from California, who is also a tennis coach, and mentioned in a phone conversation that the Western Grip in Tennis uses movements and strokes very similar to the V grip (but with thumb on top and forefinger underneath). He said that Western Grip players also use a leaning-back posture, again similar to a jai alai player, for their forehand strokes. He said to watch for this particularly in clay-court tennis matches, where the Western Grip is apparently more often used.

Use either side on forehand

Two people that I've introduced this to have initially had the opinion that forehand topspin should primarily be done with the thumb side (top) of the paddle, either because it seems more natural, or because of this control problem. However, my own opinion is to follow what I saw in China, namely, to primarily use the ring finger (bottom) side for forehand topspins. It is a much faster stroke off the bounce; it is extremely solid, consistent, and strong once you get your body in position, and the topspins are much stronger than the thumb side forehand-topspin. Actually, one should be able to do both strokes well; then you can do abrupt rhythm changes by switching from one to the other; and both definitely have their place and come in handy. But the ring side stroke basically is a lot more aggressive, so I prefer it where I have the choice.

Footwork

Footwork remains a problem for me, because after five knee surgeries, I'm just not as mobile at 39 as I was in the teenage edition of this body. Even so, the anticipated elbow-area weakness of the V grip, which should require a lot of attention to footwork, has rarely cropped up in actual play. Instead, if a ball gets blown past me, I can open back, hitting a lot of middle-distance loop drives, where there is plenty of time to move aside to get elbow shots. A real positive surprise here is that because of the extended reach with extended control found with this grip, the limited footwork that I do have seems to do me a lot more good.

Maturity

The time required to re-establish a mature level of play is the other real surprise for me, beyond the adjustments needed to develop control. Becoming a competent tournament player means learning how to respond to a wide variety of shots in a wide variety of play conditions, and you simply have to play a lot of games over a long period of time and to keep analysing your errors in order to figure out all the little adjustments that are needed in all those cases. It's not just a month's work, even though in a month you can develop really strong basic strokes. In this dimension of maturity of play, I still haven't caught up with myself as a penholder. One explanation for this would be that the grip really reduces control, but I'm not willing to admit that yet.

Happy surprises

Thumb-side topspin

Early on I discovered a whole new category of stroke, the thumb-side topspin, which is a topspin or drive stroke with the top side of the blade. Initially I found myself using it as a recovery stroke for shots that I felt had already gone past me, but I could still reach back or out far to the side with the thumb side of the paddle and pull out a successful return.

This turns out to be a sleeper stroke.

Backhand Loop

The backhand loop is rippingly powerful with the V grip. I have been studying Grubba as my role model for this stroke: it's a body stroke, the wrist is stiff, the body turns slightly in the windup, though not as much as for a forehand loop, the shoulder tucks forward and down, and the stroke proceeds like a whip starting from the waist: the body rotates back to parallel, and the shoulder opens and lifts, the upper arm rotates about its axis, and the hand whips up. Wrist is unnecessary; you can add that later after you have control with the basic stroke.

Forehand Loop

The forehand loop is not really a surprise; the 10-year-old in China had ripping forehand loops. It's just that when you start doing them, it seems a little miraculous. Flip your body a little, and a rocket ball shoots out. Keep your elbow in tight, even slightly back, and let your body rotation do the work.

Chopping

I've suddenly developed the ability to play the defensive game of a chopper. You should know that chopping is quite different from pushing, which is just an underspin against another underspin. A chop is a large hatchet-like downstroke against a topspin shot, usually well back from the table; this is a defensive stroke used mostly by specialist players who can chop anything back and win when you finally make an error in looping or driving back their heavy underspin.

With the V grip, the blade speed is so great that it's not hard to chop back even heavy-topspin shots, even for a beginning chopper like me. I started doing this as a fun way of training some of my friends to loop; I had remembered that in China when I wanted to learn the reverse penhold backhand loop, they simply had me play against a chopper (see here). So if you want to teach people to loop, just practice your chop against them. Chop against topspin turns out to be pretty easy with the V grip. In games, I can now reach some fast serves that used to blow past me, by taking an opening step to the back and putting a heavy chop onto it. Control seems reasonable.

Blocking a Loop

Before trying the V grip, my Achilles heel had been trying to return a loop drive: I never found a way to control the hyper spin of an opponent's loop, and even though I put the blade over as far as I thought I could, the ball would spring out far beyond the table. This would happen to me time after time, and was quite frustratingly unsolveable for me. Now, though, the loop block is quite easy, because in the V grip, the blade in neutral position is already set in the horizontal position needed for a loop block. I also got a useful pointer that I should time the point of contact to be early, just off the bounce. And now although I'm not yet perfectly consistent, I have come to the point that I feel there is no intrinsic limit to the amount of topspin on a loop that I could successfully block back.

Thumb-side serve: topspin with outside sidespin

I've talked a lot about the V grip's advantages for serves (here, and here), but I wanted to mention a new serve I've discovered with it. This is a mid- to high-toss serve with a thumb-side topspin stroke with added outside-sidespin. Contact the ball close to the body and put your body into it, rotating your hip into the point of contact. Both the topspin and the sidespin can come out stronger than they seem, and it's a kind of spin that somehow surprises everyone. Even Fan Yi Yong scratched his head and looked thoughtful when he airballed one past me the other day. Made me smile. But then I only got one other point in that game, so there you go.

Directional deception

A last surprising advantage of the V grip has been reported by several opponents I've played: they can't tell which direction I'm going to hit the ball. Looking left, I can hit right, and they can't tell until after I hit the ball. This deceptiveness might be nothing but lack of familiarity: they just aren't accustomed to playing against V grip players, since so far, I'm the only one. But I think it might be real, because for all three topspins (backhand, forehand, and thumb-side forehand), the difference between hitting to the left or the right is mostly in the instant of contact in the arc of the forearm, rather than in the orientation of the stroke. Swinging early and moving the forearm through more of its arc sends the ball one direction, swinging late and moving the forearm through less of its arc sends the ball the direction, with the same body orientation and basic stroke movement. So I am starting to convince myself that directional deception is for real with the V grip. That's certainly a happy surprise.

Equipment

Let me say a few words about what I've done for rubber and blade. Because of the added control with the V grip, I switched equipment from a control-oriented relatively slow penhold paddle with short pips rubber (Clippa), to the fastest blade on the market, the Stiga Clipper CR penhold blade (apparently used by Liu Guoliang), with a soft, spinny, inverted rubber (Mark V GPS, 2.5mm).

Since I felt I had lots of control, I wanted a faster blade, to enhance the power and speed advantages of this style. I happened to have a Clipper CR penhold blade that Sean O'Neill sold me in 1999, so I've been using it. And since it's so natural and easy to put massive spin on the ball, indeed to depend on the spin-torque of sticky rubber to project the ball back as much or more than the rebound-against-the-wood bounce effect, and because I felt I could there's plenty of control even with this approach, I chose a soft inverted rubber with maximum-thickness sponge, to really catch and hold the ball against the sticky surface, so that the rubber's tackiness can be used to spin, drive, and control the ball. If you're going to spin, you might as well have the equipment to really spin, and control-oriented short-pips won't really do. So far I'm pretty happy with this combination, although I'm not sure I won't change again after more experiments.

Although the Clipper CR plus 2.5mm Mark V GPS combination makes for a pretty heavy bat, with the V grip you're holding it against your palm and using several good grip points (with my cork-customized paddle grips, at least), so it's not a problem, unlike, for example, with the penhold grip, in which the paddle is held by the sides or tips of various fingers, which simply don't provide as strong a suspension system, so that a much lighter paddle is really helpful. I still enjoy playing V grip with my light and airy Korean-style penhold paddle, and now that my strokes are stabilizing, it may turn out that using short-pips rubber on one side of the paddle will be a good source of complexity for my spin game, but I don't have enough experience to say if that will be a net plus. Right now I don't want to give up spinniness on either side of the blade, so I have the same inverted rubber on both sides.

Twiddle-able penhold paddles are a good place to start thinking about the handle for the V grip. My Korean friend Sung Yang shaves his twiddler-paddle handle down to a pretty thin, fat-ended spike (1/2" diameter at the end, 3/8" diameter at mid-handle) to make the twiddling easier; this is not the best idea for the V grip since you have a spike poking you in the palm. Leave the butt of the handle large, or if you want to shave it down, make it thinner but not shorter.

Brian Pace, in the Butterfly booth at the US Nationals, told me that the Backface paddle (which has a shelf for the thumb to press down against) was designed for this grip, but if you actually read Butterfly's writing on the paddle itself, it's for penhold players who want to also use the reverse side on the backhand, as Ma Lin and Liu Guoliang have been doing. The extended shelf for the thumb gives you more orientation control when the forearm is rotated around for the reverse penhold backhand. So I disagree with Brian; I don't think Butterfly actually had the V grip in mind at all. Nonetheless it has symmetric posts perpendicular to the blade, and is a reasonable off-the-shelf solution for the V grip paddle.

Conclusion; How to Start

Although I feel I'm still learning pretty rapidly and although my V-grip maturity of play is less than my penhold maturity, even so, because many aspects of my V grip game are stronger than my penhold game, I'm probably already slightly better as a V grip player than as a penholder. I have taken games from stronger players than I was able to as a penholder, and I even scored 16 points in a game with a 2800-level player a couple of weeks ago.

If you have ever hit golf balls at a driving range, you probably know the slightly rubbery feeling of the vibrating driver head on a relatively whippy (i.e., not very stiff) shaft after you hit a sweet drive. I often get that sensation when I hit a strong forehand or backhand drive with the V grip, out on the tip of the paddle, except that it is my arm and paddle, not a golf driver shaft, that is resonating after the contact against the ball. So sweet, so powerful.

Although the V grip has not turned me into Superman in a month, its weaknesses continue to seem manageable and few, and experience is confirming its real strengths, including several surprising and new advantages. I have seen pretty steady progress over the last four months, and I still stand behind my suggestion that you think about trying it.

If you're interested, the way to approach the V grip is to try it with a steady and consistent drill partner and to decide in your mind that you're going to spend at least 10-15 minutes on the attempt, and then work exclusively on developing a flat-hitting BACKHAND stroke. Be thoughtful: give yourself patience for the inevitable uncalibrated airballs, and think carefully about how to recalibrate your forearm rotation from shakehand or penhold orientation to the far-rotated position required by the V grip. If you give it a few minutes, you'll probably discover you can drill consistently in pretty short time. Worry about spins later, and worry about forehands later; first get the backhand flat-hit consistent.

Okay, there you have it. Let me know if any of this doesn't make sense to you, or if you have a question about something. I don't have a digitizing camera, but Alan Lee helped me out with a couple of preliminary photos that he emailed me, so you can see those here.

 

Copyright © 2001 Tom Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: March 6, 2001. Comments? Please contact the author at tv@sprex.com or 1-206-352-1407.