After winning Gold at the World Championships 2011 in Rotterdam and the gold medal at the London Olympics 2012, many jokingly remarked that the top of the podium at the world championships 2013 in Paris was already reserved – for ZHANG Jike. And they were right.
What is the key to his success?
Nobody is better suited to answer than the 26 year-old Butterfly player himself. So we invited him last year to the Butterfly headquarters and sat down with him. The result was a fascinating insight into the workings of a great champion. Thank you Zhang Jike for visiting us!
Our findings in a nutshell:
We came to the conclusion that it is not the perfect feeling, not the adaption of newest techniques or his trademark banana-flick and serve variations. It is not magic, either.
Rather, Zhang Jikes dominance is a product of a “perfect package” of technique, explosiveness and physical and mental strength. Zhang Jike sums it up:
“Explosiveness is the reason for my effective game”
“In China, this concept” –which is best translated to “explosiveness” – “plays an important role” Zhang Jike explains. It describes the ability to produce a high amount of power on contact and impart it onto the ball. To advance in the system of Chinese table tennis, a player has to get a note confirming the explosiveness from their coaches.
“I think this explosiveness is an important reason for my level of play and it makes me special.”
Continuously working on their technique and steadily advancing the basic strokes is high priority for a player in Chinese table tennis. Zhang Jike agrees:
“It is crucial for a player not to just train the basic strokes, but really pay attention to it in detail and look closely at every part, every movement and every timing. If you make this a part of everyday training routine, you can feel the effect it has on your game.”
“My basics: Forehand Topspin on a long shot.”
As a first example of Zhang Jikes broad palette of shots, we take a look at his forehand topspin on long shots.
“To produce maximum power, I bend back my upper body and hip, put my weight on the right foot and extend my arm backwards, straightening it out.”
Besides body tension and foot placement, this is the source of Zhang Jikes power on the forehand.
“During a shot, I quickly move my hip, body and arm forward and turn my body to the upper-left position, moving my weight from the right onto the left foot. I always try to hit the ball on its upper side.”
Click on the first picture to enlarge the slideshow.
Crucial: the elbow
Zhang Jike places great importance on the angle of his elbow during the forehand, and keep the elbow tight to the body. Keeping the arm angled like this ensures a minimum of power lost on the shot. This slide show demonstrates, how the lower arm and wrist also imitate this movement:
Click on the first picture to enlarge..
Played this way, the power is imparted onto the ball and produces a maximum of spin and speed.
“I focus more on putting pressure and rotation on the ball, than try for maximum speed.”
The world Champion knows this is not the only way of playing a forehand topspin. Many players –in fact- play it quite differently.
“My technique has been a matter of discussion among me and my coaches. We were debating whether we needed to change the whole technique, making it shorter and tighter. But in the end, this technique is unique to me and my playing system and it “lives” on me stepping back from the table and play at least two topspins to score.”
My basics: Forehand topspin on backspin
A typical feature in Zhang Jikes play is his powerful forehand topspin with heavy rotation on back spin shots. His aim here is the same: To produce as much explosiveness as possible.
“I bend both my legs, but more so the right side and extend my arm and wrist to the lower right side, so the racket points to the ground.”
In this stroke, the explosiveness does not come from the arm or wrist, but rather from movement of the whole body (wrist, arm, body and legs) from the lower right, to the upper left corner.
“As with all movements in table tennis, it is important to keep body tension throughout.”
All of these movements demand a certain physical strength of leg- lower body and lower abdominal musculature, which very few non-professional table tennis players possess in the same way as Zhang Jike does.
Typical Zhang Jike: Hit the ball in front of the body, not on the side
Contrary to most others, Zhang Jike hits the ball in front of his body and accelerates it, supported by his legs and the movement of his body.
“This technique enables me to stand a bit further from the table so I can remain in my neutral stance and attack immediately with a topspin.”
Click on the first picture to see the shot against backspin.
My basics: Backhand-topspin on long shots
Let’s have a look at Zhang Jikes feared backhand topspin.
The principle is quite the same as on the forehand side, but the shot is more complex and the movement of the wrist plays a bigger role. Important to Zhang Jike:
“On the backhand topspin on long shots I try to bend my body over the ball and close the racket as much as possible. In contrast to the forehand shot, there is much less space available on the backhand, so the stroke needs to be short and compacted.”
The swing back
On the backhand topspin, Zhang Jike lifts up his elbow, bends his body slightly to the side and positions the racket in front of his body and closes it.
Looking at the picture, two other aspects are obvious:
- The elbow is elevated and forwardly positioned
- The wrist is bend towards the body
The wrist plays an important role in Zhang Jikes topspin, it is –in this picture- pointed towards his body. While the performance of the shot can be increased by this complex swing-back, it is not recommended for players with less exercise, as it can be a source of mistakes if not executed properly. Practise makes perfect.
On contact with the ball Zhang Jike manages to impart power and spin and take the initiative in a rally. Its intentional effect is that many players struggle to deal with his backhand topspin. The Olympic champion explains his technique:
“By closing the racket as much as possible, I make sure to hit the upper side of the ball, not smash against it. This creates the spin and the low trajectory and pressures the opponent immediately.
It is difficult but also crucial to bend the upper body over the ball in order to play it in the right direction, especially against offensive shots.
I also make sure to hit the ball early on the bounce and make my elbow the angling point of the whole shot, supported by the wrist movement. The whole shot becomes unstable, once you move the elbow too much. It has to remain fixed, so you move at a constant angle relative to the ball.”
These pictures illustrate the complex movement of Zhang Jikes backhand topspin on long shots:
My basics: Backhand Topspin on back spin
In this last special, we take a look at Zhang Jikes special technique on playing a backhand topspin on back spin.
Zhang Jike places great value on hitting the ball aggressively on the backhand, not wait for the option to play a forehand topspin but rather immediately attack.
“With the backhand topspin against backspin it is not possible to support the stroke with the movement of the upper body the same way you could with the forehand”, he says. “In order to compensate you have to tighten the abdominal muscles, which also stabilizes the whole movement of the shot. On this shot as well, I try to hit the ball on its upper side with a closed racket.”
The difference to the backhand against long shots can be seen in this slide show. Click on the first picture to enlarge..
Additional insights into Zhang Jikes special technique
Watching Zhang Jike demonstrating his abilities and technique over the day, we were able to get additional insights into his unique playing style.
To have a stable view on the ball and the table, Zhang Jike does not change the line or angle of his view during a shot. As you can see in the picture, his free arm (left arm) remains at the same level (roughly the level of the bounce) and barely moves during a shot. These two facts help him stabilize the stroke even more.
“It helps me to keep my body balanced, so I have trained myself not to move my free arm upwards with my body.”
Text adapted from Japanese Original by Frank Völler. Translation by Sebastian Hallen