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Which Blade Handle?

17 June 2022  | Posted in: Table Tennis Tips

Which handle should I choose when selecting a blade?

     Table tennis players often spend countless hours obsessing over which rubbers or blades to use. However, an aspect that receives less attention is what handle they should use. Most players will be familiar with flared (FL) and straight (ST) handles, as well as Chinese (CN) and Japanese (JP) penhold handles, but what about anatomical (AN), conical (CO), Dotec or Tenaly handles? What type of player would use those? 

     Many players have probably arrived at their handle of choice through trial and error or by following the advice of coaches and more experienced clubmates, without thinking too deeply about their choice. But are there any differences between handle types beyond comfort? Do certain game styles favor a particular handle type? I will reflect on this topic from the perspective of having played table tennis for ~25 years. Moreover, in preparation for this article, I played 6-8 weeks using Neottec Magic Control Allround blades with ST/FL/AN/CO handles, the Donic Waldner Dotec AR and Donic Persson Dotec OFF with their unique Dotec handle, and the Nittaku Tenaly Original blade, which has a bent handle.     

     For context, I’ll outline my own “handle journey”. My first couple of blades, back when I was a kid, had AN handles, which felt comfortable and facilitated a driving and flat-hitting style that many juveniles adopt initially. As a kid, I used a BH-centric grip, which impeded my FH development. At some point during my cadet years, I started to use a Hanno Allround blade with an ergonomic and asymmetric “Master Grip” handle that has an extended tongue on the BH side, which encourages a neutral shakehand grip (i.e., neither a FH- or BH-centric grip). To this day, I have a habit of switching my grip during rallies, from a FH-centric grip when playing FH to a BH-centric grip when playing BH. After returning to the sport as an adult, I started using ST handles for improved stability when BH blocking with short pips but have recently been using FL handles to gain more FH wrist flexibility. 

Characteristics of Various Handle Types

Flared(FL)

     Flared handles, which are also called concave handles in some parts of the world, are by far the most common handle type among professional and recreational shakehand grip players. FL handles are narrowest in the middle, slightly wider towards the top of the handle, and – depending on the degree of concavity – slightly to considerably wider towards the bottom of the handle. The wider the handle is towards the bottom, the more this part can press against the palm. FL handles encourage a looser grip and maximize wrist flexibility, which facilitates loops, flicks, and wristy pushes. Execution of Chiquita flicks is particularly enabled by FL handles. There is very little tension in the forearm when using blades with FL handles. Their main drawback is that FL handles introduce the potential for a wrigglier motion on BH blocks, which can reduce consistency. Moreover, FL handles render it slightly harder to twiddle the blade - i.e., the practice of rotating the BH rubber into the FH and vice versa - compared to ST handles. This is probably why FL handles are slightly less popular with players who strategically twiddle between regular and pimpled or anti-spin rubbers during rallies. The FL handle is traditionally seen as the handle of choice for FH-dominant players. However, I think a more correct description would be that the FL handle is particularly usual for two-winged loopers interested in maximizing spin on their loops and who aggressively attack short pushes using different flick techniques, including Chiquita flicks, which require maximal wrist cocking. 

Straight(ST)

     As the name implies, this is a handle type that - more or less - has the same width along the entirety of its length. There are two fundamental ST handle types, i.e., rounded ST (RST) and squared ST (SQST). The Stiga Rosewood NCT VII and Neottec Magic Control Allround are examples of blades with RST handles, while the Tibhar Samsonov Force Pro Black Edition is an example of a blocky SQST handle. ST handles reduce the range of motion of the wrist a little bit compared to FL handles. This results in more stable drives and blocks, especially on the BH side. Looping and flicking, are a little more restricted since the wrist cannot be cocked as far back as with a FL handle. For example, I feel more tension on the outside of my forearm on FH loops. The bulkier and more squared the ST handle is, the more extreme these effects become. As someone who uses short pips in BH for blocking, driving, and punching, bulky ST handles have been beneficial for me, as the motions for these strokes are shorter than normal. Twiddling is easy with ST handles, which is probably why modern defenders prefer ST handles, especially long ST handles as it provides additional leverage for long-distance shots. ST handles seem to be the second-most popular handle type among professional shakehand players. Notable examples of players using ST handles include Timo Boll, Darko Jorgic, Jan-Owe Waldner, Jorgen Persson, Wang Xi, and Mathias Falck. ST handles have traditionally been viewed as the handle-of-choice for BH-oriented players. I see it as a handle for players using a more direct and punchier style where speed has greater emphasis than spin generation. 

Anatomical(AN) 

     The anatomical grip is narrow where the handle meets the playing surface, as well as at the handle butt, whereas it bulges out in the middle of the handle. The AN handle encourages a deep grip, i.e., the hand is pushed up towards the wings, resulting in a tight pinching contact in the area between the thumb and index finger. Perhaps that’s why the AN handle works well kids as the upper part of the handle essentially becomes a type of gentle FL handle. In any event, the AN grip seems to allow for more power generation from this area of the hand when playing smashes, as well as counter-drives from mid-distance. It also works very well for BH pushes. FH loops are decent even though the wrist motion is slightly restricted, resulting in a little less spin generation compared to FL handles. Thus, the AN grip encourages flatter and fast loop drives over slower, spinny loops. The slightly restricted wrist mobility was most evident on FH flicks, though these shots still could be executed competently. BH flat hits with short pips were almost as good as with the CO grip discussed below; the blade head is tilted slightly downwards, which automatically gives BH flat hits more forward momentum. I could see this becoming problematic for BH loops with regular inverted rubbers. FH-to-BH transitions seemed to be marginally slower than with the other traditional shakehand handles. I did not notice any restrictions while executing pendulum serves with the AN handle. In my opinion, the AN handle lends itself to be used by kids, defenders, or attackers playing close to the table with a game style that revolves around FH flat kills.

Conical(CO)

     This is probably the least frequently encountered regular shakehand handle. CO handles are narrowest at the top and gradually widen towards the handle butt, almost rendering them as a hybrid between ST and FL handles. At first, the CO handle felt a little weird, almost like falling out of my hand, but I quickly grew to enjoy it a lot. The CO encourages a looser, almost Truls Moregardh-like grip, which worked particularly well on FH-to-BH transitions resulting in punchy BH short pip drives, as the blade head is tilted slightly downwards, giving the shots extra forward momentum. As a result of the handle geometry, the handle butt pressed up against my palm, which allowed me to generate extra power on all types of driving and blocking shots. Wrist motion was only minimally restricted, resulting in slightly less spin on FH loops. While the wrist cannot be cocked as far back as with FL handles, I did not have any problems executing BH flicks with short pips, although it needs to be said that the motion is shorter than with regular inverted rubbers. I did not feel limited in my ability to serve pendulum serves with this handle. I was very positively surprised by this handle type and see it as an option for players employing a direct and punchy style and an alternative to ST handles. BH short pip players should take particular note of this handle type.   

Dotec 

     The unique Dotec handle, which is made from a single piece and surrounded by natural cork, is curved and designed to have perfect ergonomics and a seamless transition to the playing surface. Different versions are available for right- and left-handed players. The curved Dotec handle looks like an extreme conical handle with an asymmetric handle butt, but there is more going on than that. The side of the handle facing the palm, bulges towards the palm, resulting in an unusual pressure point and blocky feeling. The side of the handle that the fingers are wrapping around and resting on, bulges slightly towards the fingers. Somewhat similar to the aforementioned “Master Grip” introduced long ago by Hanno, the Dotec grip encourages a neutral shakehand grip (i.e., neither FH- nor BH-centric grip), yet the FH playing surface is rotated towards the FH side, automatically resulting in a more closed bat angle when playing FH, but a more open bat angle when playing BH, which are the hallmarks of a normal FH-centric shakehand grip. Hence, FH drives, blocks, smashes, flicks, and loops are facilitated by the more aggressive bat angle, as the hand and wrist are preorganized for these shots. Additionally, the shot trajectories are flatter. Since the wrist cannot be cocked as far back as with more conventional handles, less spin is generated on FH loops. The more open bat angle on the BH side required an adjustment period. For example, many of my BH short pimpled openers against long pushes overshot the table by a considerable distance at first. As I reduced the length of the stroke and rotated my forearm towards the table, I was able to land a higher percentage of shots. While this adjustment resulted in improved consistency, I felt more tension in my forearm. The reduced wrist flexibility also impacted my BH short pimpled flicks against short backspin pushes. Since it is challenging to cock the wrist very far back, I had to hit the ball in its zenith with a shorter motion. For the same reason, I imagine that banana flicks with regular rubbers would be challenging. Surprising to be, FH and BH pushing motions felt more natural with the Dotec handle. I was concerned that the Dotec handle would compromise my ability to execute pendulum serves, and, sure enough, I had to alter the resting position of my fingers. However, this did not significantly impact my serve motion. All in all, the Dotec handle feels bulky. Some would say it feels clunky. Along these lines, FH-to-BH transitions seemed to be more cumbersome than with traditional handles. Moreover, while twiddling is possible, it results in the shorter side of the handle rubbing against a player’s hand, which may be problematic for players with big hands. Lastly, I felt that my reach was slightly reduced relative to regular shakehand handles. In my opinion, the Dotec handles cater to FH-oriented players with a punchy style. 

Tenaly 

     Without a question, the most unusual shakehand handle type covered in this test is Nittaku’s Tenaly handle. It is described as a bent FL handle that is offset relative to the playing surface’s vertical symmetry axis. This handle type, which can be used both with shakehand and penhold grips, has a small but dedicated following in Japan. Proponents of the Tenaly handle, assert that the blade becomes a natural extension of the player’s hand, resulting in a natural angle between the forearm, hand, and wrist. Having now played with the Nittaku Tenaly Original, I view the Tenaly handle as an extreme FL handle. I was expecting FH shots to be favored by the Tenaly handle, but it is actually BH shots that benefit the most from the curvature of the handle. The shape of the Tenaly handle bestows the wrist with maximal flexibility on BH shots. Thus, BH loops, blocks, and – above all – BH flicks are greatly facilitated by the Tenaly handle. The motion on BH and FH pushes also feels very natural and results in high-quality shots. Diagonal FH loops/blocks felt pretty much normal, whereas I felt a slight restriction on down-the-line FH loops/blocks. Perhaps for similar reasons, BH-to-FH transitions felt a little impeded. My pendulum serves seemed to be just fine, even though the useful service area (i.e., the area on the paddle resulting in high spin) is smaller than normal to the blade’s unusual geometry. A special sidenote for all tomahawk serve lovers: the geometry of the Tenaly handle pre-fixes the arm and wrist into the proper geometry for tomahawk serves, which are comfortable to execute. The biggest limitation of the Tenaly handle is the inability to twiddle the blade, which is an important feature to have access to if you are using pimpled/antispin BH rubbers. However, players using two regular rubbers might want to give the Tenaly handle a try. I found it to be far easier to play with than expected and would be very curious to see an extremely BH-oriented player like Dimitri Ovtcharov use a Tenaly handle. 

Penhold(CP and JP)

     I have played with a shakehand grip my entire life and can therefore only offer brief comments on the two types of penhold grips from an opponent’s perspective. The traditional Chinese penhold grip – which uses what looks like an ultra-short conical handle – allows for a traditional FH-only style (e.g., He Zhiwen) or the modern style in which players use both FH and a “reverse penhold” BH (e.g., Wang Hao and Xu Xin). The Chinese penhold grip - in which the blade is held upside down, the thumb and index finger curled around the (normal) top of the handle, and the three remaining fingers curled off to the side on the BH side - gives the player complete wrist freedom. This, in turn, maximizes their ability to generate spin, and in particular sidespin, on serves, loops, and pushes. The traditional FH-only style requires outstanding footwork as players must minimize and protect their weaker “BH side”. Due to the lack of a BH, the FH playing surface is swung over to the BH side and the shot is played using the FH rubber. This is also true for the traditional Japanese penhold grip, in which the thumb and index finger rest on the lip of a bulky and rectangular handle, while the remaining fingers are stretched on the BH-side (e.g., Ryu Seung-Min). 

      The advent of the reverse penhold BH style in large mitigated the shortcomings of the traditional FH-only style and is now used by essentially all Chinese penhold players. It is harder to “jam” penhold players in the crossover point as they enjoy an unparalleled ability to transition between FH and BH (unlike shakehand grip players, which are vulnerable in the crossover point). The key disadvantage of the penhold grip is a more limited reach relative to shakehand players. 

Final Thoughts

      So, there you have it. There is a wide variety of handles to choose from: flared, straight, anatomic, conical, Dotec, Tenaly, Chinese or Japanese penhold played in FH-only traditional style, or the modern Chinese penhold which additionally uses a reverse penhold backhand. I have attempted to outline the advantages and disadvantages of each grip type. What will further complicate your handle decision, is that there are no standardized dimensions (length, width, height etc) for a particular handle type, even from the same manufacturer. For example, while many conventional handles (FL/ST/AN/CO) will have lengths around 100 mm, some are shorter or – more commonly - longer (e.g., 102 mm). Moreover, the shape of the neck, i.e., the area connecting the handle to the playing surface, is almost as important as the handle itself in my opinion. The neck can be wide or narrow, low- or high-cut, and all of these nuances can influence the way you hold your paddle. Lastly, it is possible to use grip tape (see these products from DHS, Nittaku, and Tibhar) which will result in a thickening of the handle and ensure a secure grip. This approach was, for example, used by Vladimir Samsonov, during his career. In the end, while articles like these can provide general guidelines, you have to figure out what works out for your hands and your playing style.