Stellan Bengtsson discusses on his experience coaching Truls Möregårdh to the 2021 World Table Tennis Championship Men’s Singles Finals. Some of Bengtsson’s other achievments include coaching Jörgen Persson to the 1991 World Championship Men’s Singles gold medal and winning the 1971 World Championship Men’s Singles gold medal. Bengtsson now lives in San Diego, California, where he is the head coach at After School Learning Tree (ASLT) Table Tennis.
When did you find out you were going to the World Championships, and how did you prepare?
I found out about three months before [the World Championships] when Jörgen Persson called me. We have contact every week almost to talk about table tennis. He’s my best friend actually, and we talk almost every week since he became the coach of the Swedish National Team. And I try to support him and help him, and three months before he called me and asked me if I wanted to come to Houston to be the assistant coach. I thought about it for maybe one second, and said yes.
And I’ve been preparing, because I work in table tennis, I’ve been professional in table tennis for 50 years, and now you can see almost any match on the web. I’ve been seeing all these Swedish boys playing for the last ten years, and when we had our first meeting in Houston, I said, “You may not know me personally, but I feel like I know you, and I know your game. I’ve seen you play,” and we went from there.
So when did you decide to take Truls duty?
It wasn’t really spoken out a lot. Jörgen wanted someone, because we think table tennis is pretty much [all] alike, and he wanted a new voice, and it wasn’t really said who was going to coach who. When we came to Houston three days ahead [of the tournament], we had three days of [training] camp. And I tried to not take too much space in the beginning when you come from outside, and the third day was interesting, because Truls wanted to do multi-ball training. I told Jörgen maybe I shouldn’t do it, he has to play tomorrow in the World Championships. And Jörgen said maybe just do a little bit, don’t work him too hard so he gets too tired. So we started to talk, and from there it was decided that I would coach him.
So the World Championships was the first time you met Truls?
Did you watch a lot of film of him before that, or did you need to?
Quite a lot. I saw quite a lot of his matches, and I was really impressed with him in the training in the three days we had before, because he was very focused in the training, he worked well, he had a good preparation, a good warm-up, a good cool down, and he did what a professional player has to do to prepare for the Championships.
Moving on to his finals run, I was curious psychologically what it was like. Do you expect to reach the finals? When do you start thinking about the finals?
As a player and as a coach, we never think that way really. We think about what we have to do to beat the guy ahead of you. We never say that I’m going to lose to that guy, because he’s better than me. And we also never say that I’m going to beat that guy, because I’m better than him. So he started with Ahmed Saleh, and he just went in and did a good job, won 4-0, and then you move onto the next match. And one of my roles in the run was [saying] that he shouldn’t be happy, he shouldn’t be satisfied after every match. There’s a new match [next]. You play in the present and enjoy every moment of it.
So did you pay any attention to the draw then?
Yeah you look at the draw, and you know who you can face, and you know he has to play Chuang Chih-Yuan in the second round if he wins. And on the evening before [the second round], he played after Truls was done, and I stayed and watched him play. And of course, I’ve coached Jörgen against him one time, and he’s been around for a long time, so he’s a guy that we all know very well.
So on his side of the draw, some of the top seeds, namely Lin Yun-Ju and Tomokazu Harimoto, they lose pretty early. Is that hard to keep out of the back of your mind, where it’s like, “oh the draw is open now?”
Yeah, I don’t think about that. I don’t know if Truls did. But you know that the four strongest Chinese players [Fan Zhendong, Liang Jingkun, Lin Gaoyuan, Wang Chuqin] are on the first half of the draw, just because they didn’t have the number two seed, because Harimoto got it there, and then it was a coincidence that all those [Chinese players] came there [on the top half of the draw], but it’s not something you pay a lot of attention to. You can’t do that. You have to focus on what you have to do.
So starting from the Lim Jonghoon match, can you talk a bit about the comeback? What were you telling Truls when he went down 3-0? And did you talk about the yellow card?
Yeah some of the strategies I have to keep between Truls and me, because I’m like his shrink or a doctor a little bit, you don’t talk about your patients. But I didn’t mention anything when he threw his racquet, because I’ve been playing enough to know that you can get disappointed and angry. After the match, when he sat down at dinner, he apologized for doing it, so that was okay with me, so I told him, “if you want to let out steam, you need to let out steam instead of having it inside of you and not playing very well.”
So in that match, it is a mixture of psychology, strategy, and also being really positive the whole time, because I felt there was something in it. I mean he lost the first game 11-9, having 9-all. He had two game points in the second game. And he comes to me and says, “I’m no so good against lefties.” And I say, “you play very well against left-handed players, because you had two set points. You don’t have to change anything. You just have to be aware of what he’s doing.” And for me, I was very aware that Lim played a lot of balls cross-court. I told him, you may need react a little bit more on the cross-court. Even if the ball is hard, if you wait a little bit for it, you can probably get some balls back.”
And then of course, when the match started to reverse, that was when he started to serve with the backhand serve from the forehand corner, and the first one there, Lim just popped it straight up, and suddenly the momentum of the game changed [unfortunately, this point does not appear to be on Youtube].
And Truls had one good thing that I really liked. Before that matches, he warms up 45 minutes to one hour on the table, and he has maybe 30-40 minutes gymnastics-style warm-ups here and there. Meanwhile, Lim had a very very long training. He played a long time before, and then he had multi-ball training for about 30 minutes. So I told Truls, “as the match gets longer and longer, you’re going to get fresher and fresher, and he’s going to get tired.” And that was what actually what happened as well. Mentally tired and physically tired.
I heard warm-up got a little hard for you guys as the tournament went on.
Yeah that was funny. Especially before the finals. So it was very expensive to stay there. The [national team] association has to pay $320 per person per night. So when Anton Källberg and Jon Persson lost, they had to go home. So Mattias Falck and Kristian Karlsson were still in the doubles, so they were still there, but they cannot warm Truls up, so it was only Jörgen and me with Truls. And it was funny, before the finals, when Fan Zhendong warmed up next to us, there were him and his sparring partner and eight more people with him.
But I said, “look at all those guys.” And Jörgen said, “we have two world champions here. They only have one.” Because they only had Wang Hao there.
So back to the Lim Jonghoon match, how much of your coaching do you think ended up being psychological as opposed to tactical?
You don’t really talk technique in the matches. You can maybe say get up a little higher with your paddle, you’re not in enough on that short serve there, you need to come in more. But apart from that, it’s mainly strategy. I have to see what he [Truls] wants to do, what the opponent wants to do, what types of serves is he doing, where is he placing them, what should Truls be aware of when he’s receiving the serve or when he serves, where are his attacks supposed to come. So there was a lot of that stuff. And of course in table tennis I think on the higher level, when everyone can play well, I think it’s 70 percent psychological.
So psychologically speaking, how much does the score influence what you’re looking for as a coach and what you’re saying to the player?
Yeah, the score influences things. It’s hard to say how much, but of course it influences things. I tried to keep him positive in that match, so he didn’t go down and feel I already lost now, but once he got the fourth game, I felt that then it’s totally an open game. Then he wins the fifth game 11-2, and then 11-4 and then 11-6. So after he got to 3-1, I think it was fairly easy for Truls. Although he doesn’t feel easy until the last point is won, you know, there’s always a worry.
I’ve also heard that the psychological pressure starts mattering more as you go deeper into the tournament and people start getting nervous, especially during the finals. Is that a thing?
No I don’t think Truls lost the finals because he was nervous. He just lost to a really really good player. And I mean Fan Zhendong has already lost two finals [including the Olympics], of course those were to Ma Long, so he had experience. He’s five years older than Truls. He’s only 19 years old, and it was the first time he came so deep into a tournament. He had won one WTT event before, but they were not so strong opponents like here. But no, the finals had nothing to do with nerves.
Of course, you feel it a little bit. I know Fan Zhendong said afterwards that he was really nervous before the match. But if you don’t have those nerves, you won’t perform well. You have to have those butterflies when you go in, and that gives you the adrenaline to play well, to be smart, and to move well when the match starts.
Maybe if you want to talk about the finals now, I feel like he played a little bit too difficult. He missed quite a few opportunities where he missed a ball outside the edge with maybe a millimeter here and there. I wanted him to go a little less for the margins, but he felt that he had to take those shots to win the match.
I feel like one of the challenges with Fan Zhendong is that he gets into those rallies where he gets everything back and then wins the point and it’s super demoralizing for the opponent. I felt like Truls did a good job of avoiding that and ending the point quickly no?
Yeah we talked about that. We had a nice chat on January 1, 2022 with Truls and his brother, who is coaching him in Sweden. We had a nice talk about the Worlds, and about his game and stuff. I told him, “I felt you had a better chance than you felt during the match”, because he was with him a couple of times, and one game he was down 7-8 or 7-9, and he had lost seven of his own serves. So of course Fan Zhendong is a really good receiver, but I thought Truls would have much more trouble on Fan Zhendong’s serve, which he didn’t have that much of.
The thing is where you have to place the ball, it’s hard to find the middle, because he has good footwork. And his backhand defense, like on the last point [of the match] he just punches back Truls’ best shot, you know. So it takes some experience to keep the cool and to be able to challenge these guys.
In terms of serve return, when I was watching it I felt like Truls poorly handled several key serve returns at important moments in the game (e.g. 9-9 and game point in the first couple games).
It’s not only the return. When a player has so much power, you have to play a little bit risk on the receive. Because you can’t just put the ball back. Then you get attacked right away. And then you’re in a deficit in the point. So there has to be a certain risk in the receive.
I remember when Jörg Roßkopf was the coach for Germany, one time when the the Germans didn’t play really well at the German Open, he said that Asian players risk more in the receiving, which is better, because if I can play 2-0 on my serve a couple of times, if I take risks [on the serve return], maybe I can play 1-1 a couple of times. And then I’m with him, you know. So it wasn’t really spoken how much risk Truls should take in that match.
In terms of missing serves at 9-9 in particular, do you think the score plays a role in that?
No. Of course, you know if it’s 9-9, then you are two balls away and he is two balls away from winning the game, so you just try to focus. And in a long match, you try to remember how I scored points, how did he score points, what serve do you think he will do. You have to be a little bit prepared. And if you’re smart when you serve, you know what serves your opponent has problems with during the game, and maybe you can save a couple of those until the end of the game.
So on this return, what is he trying to do?
He is trying to give the spin back. He serves side-spin and he just wants to return the side-spin there. That’s actually what won him the match against Lim. When he did that twice in the fifth game. You just give all the spin back.
And what’s the advantage in doing it with the backhand like in the first three points as opposed to the forehand like on the last one?
Yeah he did it with the backhand in the forehand corner, because Lim is left handed. So here he has to also do it with the forehand slide. That was Waldner’s main really really big return that he did a lot. We call it the fake flick. You pretend to go in for the flick, and you slide it down to the backhand instead or you can slide it to the middle. And it’s not that easy to know what type of spin that you get back if you haven’t gotten that ball a lot.
So why doesn’t he do that more often?
Yeah I don’t know. I mean Truls is very creative in his game. I mean I coached Waldner a couple times, because he was in the Bundesliga one year, and I coached down in Germany. And sometimes you don’t really know what he’s going to do.
But many times, even though I’ve been professional for 50 years, when Truls was playing, I didn’t know what to expect, what he was going to do. And it is one way for me to let him have his creativity during the match, but also don’t go out of the limit where it becomes too difficult that he starts missing. Sometimes he wants to do a little bit too much creativity. Because when he plays normal, he’s more creative than most guys are.
And what does that discussion (balancing creativity versus risk) look like when you’re coaching?
Yeah it’s a balance. He’s the player you know, and when you coach a player, you can only recommend stuff. You cannot demand them to do it. The better they are, the more they usually try to do the stuff you say, so you have to be very very focused when you coach matches like that. You can’t just say come on and move your feet. You have to have something that they can chew on during the match.
And when it comes to the breaks between sets, I usually let the player talk. They know a lot of table tennis themselves, and they are good coaches to themselves. But they are not sitting on the side, which can sometimes be an advantage. So let him say what he wants to say and what he thought about the game. And I come up with one, two, maximum three things that he could think about when the game goes on.
And do you think that is something all good coaches should do? Or is that just your style?
I don’t know. I think every coach has their own style. But I know when we are working as coaches in Sweden, we coach side-by-side. Some countries, they coach from the top, and the players really don’t have anything to say. But we feel we are better when we incorporate each other’s knowledge in the game like that.
So regarding this serve, he serves a particular serve a couple times in Game 2 and gets a desirable result. But he stops doing this later in the match. Could you give some insight into his service choices?
Well, I cannot go inside his brain or know how he chooses, but I think sometimes you need to vary and do something new. And oftentimes it is when you are in a little bit of trouble. I suggested during the match that he might have to change his serve, but you can’t really tell him what serve to do. He has to feel what feels good.
And I know he has one serve where he actually takes a step as well, where he tosses the ball and goes in towards the table. And that was new for me to see from almost any player. He has a lot of variations like that.
So in-game, you’re not really talking about what specific serves to do?
No, maybe we know that China or many people who play with the stickier rubbers have problems with the forehand flick. And there are a lot of players who don’t have a really good technique compared to how I see forehand flick. So we tried to serve a lot to that side maybe.
I see. And another shot I thought was fun was the these slap shots that he likes to do. First of all, what’s the advantage of that over a normal counter?
I mean he does it a lot with his backhand too, where he plays the ball clean. And now everyone is doing the roll, and everyone is doing the counter-loop. When he has the smash, hitting the ball flat, it makes a variation that makes it harder for the opponent, and it becomes unpredictable.
We’ve been talking with other coaches and players that the smash has actually disappeared from the game. When I played in the 70s up to the 80s, the forehand smash was a big shot. And of course, the Chinese pen-hold players, they use it a lot. Even after ’89 when they lost to Sweden, when they took away most of the pips players.
But I think it’s a good shot. There’s maybe one that I’m not so fond of when he’s far away from the table and he feels like he has no other option but to smash it, but I think it’s a good variation. And the ball comes faster than it does with the loop.
I thought a big reason the smash went away was because they changed the size of the ball twice, no?
Yeah, a bigger ball and when the speed glue came about, it was hard to smash. Because when you smash, you have to be really clean at the impact. If you have a little bit of spin in your smash, the ball will spin a little bit, and then it goes out. So it’s important that this ball is clean. Like everyone who plays pips with the forehand. Same for like Mattias Falck. When he’s hitting, that ball has to be clean.
Do you think it’s something that kids should train more?
I think it’s up to everyone to try to incorporate that into the game. I mean it’s not an easy shot to do. And Truls has an amazing touch. I don’t know if you realize how nice and soft his arm is when he’s picking up the balls, and when he’s holding the racquet with his right hand there. He’s very very loose.
Also you [your elbow and paddle] have to be in front of you when you hit that ball and hit the top of the bounce and sometimes maybe a little bit earlier. Also you hit through the spin. And he does it a lot with his backhand. Maybe some periods I’d say he’s a little too open on the angle of the backhand. Because then you get a total dead ball if you make it, but it’s also risking a little that the ball is arcing the other way. So you need to be straight and a little bit closed when you do it.
If a player does it, you have to calculate that you’re going to miss a few, but when you make them, it’s spectacular.
And another thing is that he doesn’t really turn his body on these shots, no? It’s all arm.
The body-turn is a question of how much time you have. The less time you have, you know on that point [3-1, 6-2], it comes so fast, and his paddle was a little to the right from the backhand side, so you just have to react. And the amount of backswing you can have is also determined by the speed of the ball.
It’s also faster than the loop if you hit it with the same amount of pace.
So is the main challenge in pulling off this shot the timing or the touch?
It’s just a matter of getting the timing right and reading the spin of the opponent. And to be able to be relaxed to be hitting through the ball. It’s almost like you have a nail in your paddle. You’re hitting the ball and you have to hit through it. If you don’t hit through it, the spin will take over, and it will go out if there’s a lot of topspin.
So the ball that comes back. It’s not really spinning right?
It’s probably spinning a little bit, but not that much. I haven’t seen it on one of those super slow-mo cameras where you have a couple hundred frames per second to see how much spin there is.
So there’s really no time for a body turn?
Yeah there’s no time. Especially for the women, when they play close to the table, they have a really good elbow position. They don’t have a lot of body turn either when it comes that fast, because they don’t go away and play spin-spin like the men do.
But I was also impressed with Truls’ body movement when he was looping there. He played faster with his forehand than he felt like he had ever done in his life. He worked really really hard. He also had that advantage where he can wait a little bit, and then he can choose whether he wants to hook it across or if he wants to go down the line, which is a big advantage. But that’s only when he has time.
I think that’s one thing where he looked at Waldner, who was really really good at waiting. And then often he hooked it anyway. And it’s almost like you’re waiting for the opponent to move his paddle. If he moves one way, you go the other. If he goes the other way, he goes there. But it’s also nano-seconds you know. It’s a matter of instinct and to try to look where your opponent is going.
Speaking of guessing your opponent’s position, I feel like Truls likes stepping around early more than most of his opponents do. How does he know his opponent will go to his backhand on this point. Because I feel like this reaction is way too fast.
The thing is if you have a good ball to the backhand, well Fan is this point [the first one] is more in the middle, so if he had just waited a little bit [he could have gone elsewhere].
Truls step-around here [the second point] wasn’t that great. It was only half-hearted I thought. You see he’s leaning a little bit. So that is not a good step-around at all. He’s way too close to the table and his impact is way too late.
But people, younger players these days, generally play a lot of lot of cross-court. And if they have a very decisive ball to the wide corner, for them to play down the line is not easy. So sometimes you can step around a little early, but then if they make it down the line, you have to take that you know. There’s nothing you can do about it, and that’s a great shot. But many players play a lot of cross court.
Then from Fan’s perspective, does he want to wait more before he pushes on these balls?
Well, I cannot say. Fan is doing well. I don’t want to say anything about his game. But I know, one final he played with Ma Long [it was actually the 2015 World Championship semi-finals] and lost at the World Championships, I felt almost that the game was over after two points, which is weird. The first ball 0-0, Ma Long, I don’t know which year it was, Ma Long does really good backhand down the line, and he aced him. And the second ball, the same thing. Ma Long went down the line right away. Then he goes up 7-0 in that first game, and then it seems like Fan Zhendong didn’t really recuperate after that start.
So when you can do that ball down-the-line, it prevents your opponent from stepping around. And I think that match maybe Ma Long had a better backhand than Fan, so he didn’t dare to step around. It was a World Championships one year, I don’t remember which year, but that’s something I have in my head that I talk to players about. You have to be good, strong, and do something unexpected in the very beginning, and that can set the tone for the whole match.
So how should you react if someone does do something unexpected to you early in the match?
Well you have to adjust. If you want to step around, it’s a little bit of a problem, because you know any time that you step around even a little little bit early, then he can always go down the line. Of course, normally when you step around you want to wait until the ball has left the racquet of the opponent, then he cannot hit it twice. So if you wait a little little bit longer, then it’s better for you of course.
But you can also say about Truls’ physical state in this tournament, one year ago he had a very severe knee surgery. He was out for about three months, and I think that in this tournament his physical ability was maybe at a maximum of 70 percent. So now that he’s getting healthy on the knee and starting to work more on the physical aspect, I think he can get even stronger.
I see. Did you have any other fun stories or insights that you wanted to share.
Yeah, I mean that match with Patrick Franziska [round of 32], it shows a little bit of how small a margin of error there is in table tennis. Because the games that he won with Franziska, he played really really well, and he still was down 10-8 in the seventh. Franziska plays a short return, and Truls flicks on the edge, 10-9. And then he win three points and wins 12-10 in the seventh game. So I mean, he was maybe a millimeter from being out against Patrick Franziska. So it’s a really small margin of error there.
For me personally at the worlds, there was a tough day on the second round. I had Truls with Chuang Chih-Yuan 4-3, and then I coached Kristian Karlsson against Ho Kwan Kit 4-3. And Persson was locked up in the other room on Table 1, Anton Källberg playing Lin Gaoyuan in seven games. So in the sixth game [between Lin and Källberg], Mattias Falck is supposed to start the second round, his first match of the tournament, and Jörgen is supposed to coach Mattias, and I say to Mattias, “What are you supposed to do?” Because I really hadn’t talked much coaching with Mattias. And he said, “I’m going to sit and wait for Jörgen.”
So Anton had game point and Lin Gaoyuan had match point in the sixth game, but suddenly Anton wins, and then Mattias Falck is starting. So I say, “you better sit there, because Jörgen might take a long time.” And then I had to do it, and it also went seven games. So it was 21 games straight for me, which was really really hard. So it was almost three hours of back-to-back-to-back games.
The tournament was run so-so, I have to say. I want to be a little critical, because they only had 40 minutes per seven-game match in the beginning. So many many times it got very very delayed. And it’s very hard for the players to know when to warm up, and then you have to give your racquet to the control desk 30 minutes before the match. And then you don’t have your own racquet if you want to play some more. You have to play with your spare, and then it drags out and out. It was a little bit challenging there for the players. Later for the best players, they extended it to 45 minutes. But it’s still not enough for seven games, it would take much longer than 40 of course.
Well also, in the match against Timo Boll, it was pretty spectacular. Truls did very well to stay cool and be motivated to win the semi-finals against such an experienced guy. It was a nice experience for me 50 years after I won the World Championships, I can coach at the World Championships. And 30 years before, I had coached Jörgen Persson when he won the World Championships in Japan . I coached him in six of his seven matches. In the seventh, he played Waldner, where nobody is allowed to coach, so it was three good tournaments.
So how would you say this one is different from the other two?
Well it was different, because I wasn’t really with the team. I was received really well. I didn’t know what to expect from the guys, but there was no problem at all, the Swedish guys received me very well. You try not to go so much into technical details so close [to the tournament], just pep them up. And the atmosphere was very good in the team, so we felt that we could have a very good tournament.