Let’s take a look at my absolute favourite video of Zhang Jike. I can't embed it so watch and I'll wait till you come back
"Sure,” you might say, “We already know Zhang Jike is great player. But what’s so special about this video in particular?”
Well, the rarely seen side-on angle of this video shows 3 skills Zhang Jike has that make him the best, having already completed a Grand Slam last year at just 24. Let’s look at them now.
#3 Moves further in less time
If you look closely at this video, you’ll see that even though the pace of the rally is quite fast, Zhang still manages two bounces with his legs between each shot. This allows him to move further between shots than most other players and is only possible thanks to tremendous leg strength. It’s also the only way he can execute his fast Chiquita backhand and still get back far enough to play the next ball comfortably
What it means for you: You can’t move as fast as Zhang Jike, so when playing aggressively against a short serve, you should opt for more spin than speed, to give yourself more time to recover back to a good distance for your next shot. You should also vary the depth of these shots to keep your opponents guessing, because thankfully your opponents can’t move as fast as Zhang Jike either!
#2 Plays strong shots even from difficult positions
The second shot that Zhang Jike plays in this video is a backhand where he is reaching a long way out in front of himself. This is because he quickly realises the incoming ball is too good for him to play in his current position with a vertical back, so he leans forward to take it early and use the ball’s “vertical kinetic energy” (discussed in more depth here) to his advantage.
In doing this, he still manages a fast racket speed to counter his opponent’s spin, which is only possible through great strength in the core, hamstring and calves, to keep his body stable in a difficult position so he can still move his arm quickly and generate spin.
What it means for you: Your core strength isn’t as good as Zhang Jike either, so you need to choose your table distance more carefully to cover possible returns with a more balanced stance. More on that below.
#1 Superior table distance management
Probably the most interesting thing about this video though is the transition between the second and third shots. Zhang goes from playing a backhand well before the top of the bounce to a forehand slightly after the top of the bounce.
Zhang takes the forehand after the top of the bounce on the final shot. Photo source: Screenshot of above Youtube video by DiegoTTTube
If you’ve read this article, you’ll know that before the top of the bounce is the best place to hit the ball. But since writing that, I’ve learned that even after the top is better than at the top, because at the top the ball has no vertical kinetic energy for you to use to your advantage. Zhang Jike gets extra power by hitting the ball before and after it in this video, seamlessly transitioning between the two.
What it means for you: Of course you should try to contact the ball before the top of the bounce, but if you are forced back from the table, opt to play topspins after the top until you get an opportunity to force your way back to the table.