How to Beat Jan-Ove Waldner at Table Tennis

Photo of Jan-Ove Waldner and Liu Guoliang playing table tennis
Jan-Ove Waldner vs Liu Guoliang at the 2000 Olympics. Photo by courtesy of the ITTF
Forum member Sean P. O'Neill, 2-time Olympian and 5-time US National Champion, shares his thoughts on how to take on table tennis legend Jan-Ove Waldner and win.

Here is how to compete with the Maestro.

First off the more offensive you are with smooth rubber the worse shape you will be in. Note that I didn't say pips. A top 10 pips out hitter can cause Jan-Ove (JO) a major league headache as Kim Ki Taek, Johnny Huang, Jiang Jialang, Chen Longcan, Liu Guo Liang have all done in the past. The reason I'll get to later.

If you look at the players that have handed JO some painful losses they are all extend the rally players. I have watched Kong (Linghui), Vlady (Samsonov), Jorgen (Persson), (Andrei) Mazunov , (Georg) Bohm, (Carl) Prean, (Mikael) Appelgren all get JO to over hit when they don't try to finish the point until it is absolutely necessary. JO lives to get you out of position and if you don't try crazy shots then you will see a different side of JO. This is one reason why he does so well against Asian players like Ma (Wenge), Kim Taek Soo, Yoo Nam (Kyu), etc. as he uses their power against them with precision placement.

So Rule Number 1: Keep it on the table.

JO does like to play longer rallies so you have to make sure when he is off the table you don't go for broke since his fishing is so deep. Better to pull a Samsonov and keep spinning at 70% to his wide backhand until he tries to chop or lob and then finish the point.

So Rule Number 2: Reduce the urge to finish the ball when it looks too juicy.

JO loves to wait for you to move and then he decides where he is going. This is possible due to the fact that he is so balanced when he hits the ball and that he gets into ready position probably faster than anyone. If you start to hedge where you are going expect the ball to be somewhere else.

So Rule Number 3: Wait to move until he has hit his shot. Moving early will cost you.

JO has power if you let him use it. Off of his serve his backhand (BH) and forehand (FH) loop are lethal especially if you try to push his topspin serve. If you do a slow loop off his half-long serve you should expect it to be relooped either wide angle or to your elbow. This 1-2 combo is tough considering how deceptive his serve is.

One big key is to make sure you use the J.M. Saive tactic of opening up off his serve at every opportunity and to move your loops around to keep him guessing. If you try to push a half-long serve the point is over. Making a super safe and balanced opening loop that is low has worked for: Saive, Persson, (Damien) Eloi, (Zoran) Primorac, (Peter) Karlsson and Appelgren.

So Rule Number 4: Open off his serves to a smart location whenever possible.

JO sometimes gets impatient especially if the match seems inconsequential. The more on the line the more concentrated he becomes. Getting him in an early round can be a godsend as compared to the finals when he really likes to shine. Along the same lines keeping your cool and not cho'ing until you shake hands goes a long way. Also if he loses a point he will often try to do the same tactic to prove to the opponent that he can beat them with it. Ala Jimmy Butler, JO tried to beat him BH-BH. Not the wisest way to win.

So Rule Number 5: Take the theatrics out of the match so you don't tweak him to go into super focus mode. If you win the first game don't go bonkers, just change ends and serve. If you have an upper hand be prepared to play it often.

JO likes to use spin against you thus the reason (short) pips-out gives him more trouble than long-pips does and pips changes the game to speed vs spin. If you are fast enough, you can often hit through his defense when he is up at the table. He will not be able to use your lack of spin against you. Also his serves can be easier hit with pips then with inverted since often his serves do go long by mistake when he is serving topspin.

So Rule Number 6: If you are a pipper and are top 10-15er (in the world rankings) you will see a different side of JO as he will often try to force his game on you early with his offense as he doesn't like to block smashes up at the table.

So there you have 6 rules of thumb to increase your likelihood of not getting skunked (beaten 11-0) by JO.

When I played him in Sweden I violated 3-4 of the rules and even though I was leading 15-8 in the first game (back in the days of games to 21 points), that was all I got as he ran 13 straight points on me. Second game was probably 12 and there were 12 winners but you don't beat JO with winners.

I know Andre will say, "Just serve him long." But I actually prefer to hit a couple of balls prior to walking to the barriers to pick up the puck.