The Rise And Fall (And Rise Again) Of The Penhold

Once upon a time, the penhold was mightier than the swordhold. Well, that statement would be true if the swordhold grip was in fact “real” and existed beyond the fringes of garage ping pong. The colloquially coined swordhold is a grip where the player holds the racquet handle with two hands, Ned Stark style, like it’s a heavy, fear mongering sword.

If it were to stake a claim as a legitimate grip on the circuit, the swordhold would be vying against two stalwarts of the game. Sure, there is no law in which one must grip, but coming up against shakehand and penhold is like a launching a new smartphone operating system. Good luck.

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The penhold is a style so synonymous with table tennis that no-one can agree on its origin – the Japanese, Chinese and English have all staked claims to it. From a shakehand player’s perspective, heck, whoever wants it can have it. Playing penhold feels wrong, ungainly, uncomfortable. Penhold players are painstakingly taught how to play this unnatural style where the racquet is held the same way you’d hold a pen. This focuses its power on one side of the racquet – eliminating the need to switch strokes. It enables responses to every single attack from the front side and this offers unparalleled control of the blade, much like the Death Star looming over Alderaan.

However, like the Galactic Empires’ Death Star(s), it has one critical weakness – the backhand. Try twisting your wrist at anything beyond 90 degrees. (Editor’s note: Please don’t try twisting your wrist at anything beyond 90 degrees.) Chances are that you can’t – and that’s okay, you’re a normal, bona fide flesh and blood homo sapien. If you can, see a doctor, stat. For the traditional penhold player, the grip translates to a less powerful return shot when forced onto the backhand. And in a highly competitive environment, all it takes is one moment of weakness to be dumped mercilessly from the tempo of the game. Heavy.

Try twisting your wrist at anything beyond 90 degrees. (Editor’s note: Please don’t try twisting your wrist at anything beyond 90 degrees.)

So here we are, at a point in table tennis history when the penhold was losing out to shakehand – the grip of primeval simplicity; the one where you just hold the racquet all natural and swing it like you’re Nadal at Roland Garros; or perhaps more suitably, Jan-Ove Waldner on almost any day in the nineties. Unlike the traditional penhold, the shakehand offered flexibility, power and an easy, effortless transition from a forehand drive to backhand chop. It reigned supreme and the future of penhold looked a dire place where purists cried relevance as elite players abandoned ship.

But then, unlike the Empire, a few penhold players sat down, took a long hard look at themselves (and their grip), and mustered up a solution. Enter the reverse penhold grip. The reverse penhold grip was the same grip but with a twist that eliminated the weakness of the traditional penhold’s backhand. The twist was, ironically, a twist of the wrist so the player could play backhand shots on the reverse side of the blade. This simple adjustment get more topspin follow through over the ball. South Korean and legit master Ryu-Seung Min was one of the early adopters and was rewarded with great successes. Chinese players then followed suit, including Wang Hao who filled out a trophy cabinet in his folks’ home.

On the verge of extinction, the penhold fought back; evolved.

On the verge of extinction, the penhold fought back; evolved. And even then, like the vinyl music, some of the world’s best players stayed old school – Ma Lin continued to kick major ass using the traditional penhold, and a majority of up and coming Chinese superstars are trained with a combination of traditional penhold, reverse penhold and an additional loop innovation.  Like that of the Jedi and the Sith (Editor’s note: Last reference.), the battle of the grip will last for many years to come.

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