Funny Rubbers

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

What is happening

Understand spin and its importance

Tactics to use and to expect

Advanced research areas

1. WHAT IS HAPPENING

When you play with a normal reverse rubber and topspin you get just that, topspin. You get what you execute and the opponent gets what he sees. Equally if you push or chop you get backspin. Of course the amount of spin will vary depending on how you play the stroke, how fast the forearm moves, how much power input, the fineness of touch etc. A great many players get into the habit of watching the opponent’s racket and come to understand that if it goes up then there is topspin, if it goes down there is backspin. Over a number of years of playing the habit becomes ingrained in the mind. What was a considered response becomes automatic, an involuntary reaction. It’s very like when you put your hand on a hot stove by accident — there is no conscious, considered thought, the nerve ends send a message to the brain and in a fraction of a second the hand is snatched away.

However what happens when your opponent pushes (you see the racket go down and the mind reacts instantaneously — backspin) and the ball comes over the net without spin or even with topspin! All the ingrained habits, all the automatic reactions are of no value and often the more experienced the player, the bigger the problem. The new beginner can be taught to look at things in a different way and quite quickly, here the coach has a blank sheet and can write what he wants on it. However with the player who has some ten years experience for example it’s rather more difficult to change thinking and attitudes reinforced countless times every day of his or her training life.

The problem is compounded in Sweden in that there are relatively few players who use the more extreme rubbers such as long pimple or anti-loop and there is no in-depth tradition of using such equipment or knowing how to play against it. In many countries in Europe especially those with large numbers of veteran players, youngsters come into contact very early in their careers with a considerable variety of rubber combinations both in league and tournaments and quickly learn how to cope with them. Many players in Sweden also use combination rackets without really understanding in any depth how they should gain advantage from them. A good example is the number of girls who play with short pimple then just use it exactly like a normal reverse rubber, playing the same range of strokes they would have used if they had never changed! Most also fail to realize and understand that there are a vast number of short pimple rubbers, some of which impart next to no spin while others are almost as spinny as a normal rubber (in experienced hands). Which should they be using and why? Again in most cases they don’t know!

The first priority in understanding how to play against different rubbers is to know the spin on the incoming ball and which stroke you should play if you were to play with the spin — for example if the opponent loops you would chop, if the opponent chops you would loop.

The second priority is to understand that anti-loop and pimple rubbers vary considerably from those which cannot reverse the existing spin to those which can easily reverse the spin on the ball. For example if you serve with very much backspin and your opponent pushes back just after the bounce you could very well get considerable topspin on the return ball, especially if he or she is using a hard anti-loop or a non-frictional long pimple without sponge. This happens because the opponent’s rubber doesn’t grip the ball so in effect you get your own spin back. When you serve backspin the ball is spinning back towards you — if this spin remains unchanged it must come back as topspin. The equation is further complicated because most players don’t serve just backspin, they serve sidespin too. The ball therefore then is returned as topspin with a sidespin kick, even though the opponent has pushed it back!

If on the other hand your opponent returns your backspin serve with a high-friction short pimple rubber you could very well have much backspin on the return ball. Your opponent has the capability of reversing the spin and imposing his or her own spin. Equally the experienced player depending on how he or she decides to play the stroke, can return the ball with very much spin or totally without!

As you begin to see there is much to be said for training young players to watch the ball and not the action of the other player’s racket. The Chinese train receive for example with the opponent serving through a narrow gap between two curtains so that the receiver has no visual clues as to which spin the server is applying — the only help he or she has is by watching the ball and the bounce.

Just what should we be looking for when we face players with combination rackets? Firstly those players are most dangerous who twiddle and play with both rubbers on both wings, perhaps sometimes blocking on the forehand with anti or pimples and looping the next ball with the normal rubber on the backhand, then changing.

Probably the single most important point to consider is whether the opponent can easily reverse the spin or not — because this will affect your tactics and how you play against him or her. For example if your opponent uses a hard anti-loop or a long pimple without sponge and you force him back so that he is defending, you know that he must continue defending and cannot counter-hit (with any effect or penetration) from this deeper position. (Of course he can always twiddle and hit or loop with the normal rubber). Because of the nature of the rubber the ball comes off the racket quickly and there is limited dwell-time, the ball is not held by the rubber long enough to reverse spin, so you know that the opponent must play with the spin. (With the spin you put on the ball.)

However the game becomes rather more complicated when the opponent is able to get in and block. You loop, he or she blocks, what spin do you get back? It can be just float if the opponent’s rubber is slow or it can be some backspin. But the return is further complicated by the fact that you don’t just loop with topspin, very few players do, you loop with topspin and sidespin. So you get back a float or backspin ball with a wobble and a sidespin kick after the bounce. The same for example when you serve your super-spinny chop and sidespin serve and the receiver pushes back with anti or long pimple — you get a topspin return with a sidespin kick (own spin back). There is in fact much to be said for serving and playing without spin against ‘funny’ rubbers.

The amount of effect achieved will vary from one long pimple rubber to another.

Generally speaking the most return spin will be achieved by long pimple without sponge and on a fast blade — because the ‘surface’ is hard, the ball rebounds very quickly and is not gripped by the rubber, therefore the spin already on it is returned without alteration. Where there is sponge, especially if this is a bit thicker 1.0mm. or above some of the return spin will be lost as there will be a slower rebound off the blade and the ball will come back more often as ‘float’ (without spin). After the bounce on your side of the table of course, the ball will ‘acquire’ a little topspin.

But what about players who can get immense spin with pimpled rubber? Usually these are the high-friction pimples, short, slightly bigger, with a rough surface to each pimple and if you want very good effect and control usually we are talking about a thinner sponge say 1.6 – 1.9 mm and very soft. Soft is the key to effect with control. Haven’t you sometimes wondered why almost all of the top Asian women rarely if ever use the standard sponge provided by the manufacturer? Instead they put their own sponge under the rubber. For years they have known something that the rubber manufacturers didn’t know. It is only very recently that manufacturers have started producing sponges in a number of differing hardnesses so that players can match up sponges and rubbers to their own individual requirements. There has for example over the last twenty-five years been much dialogue between the world’s top men and the rubber manufacturers as to what qualities they require from a rubber, but next to nothing with the top women. Of course it’s the women who play with the different rubber combinations but almost all the top players are from Asia and perhaps not so high a profile in the considerations of the companies who manufacture primarily for the western world.

Just what sort of game and tactics can you expect if you play top Asian short-pimple, pen-hold attackers? Hard flat-hitting from the forehand but used over almost all the table, often a low, fast, flat ball with little topspin, certainly they will kill through your loop and at an early timing point — because many of them come down on the ball at the moment of impact you can quite regularly get a hard hit with some backspin! Not easy to take! On the pushes you will face great variety, stop blocks both with and without spin and many sidespin balls almost always early timed. Much change of pace short/long, hard/soft and good use of the angles. Also devastating short play – pen-hold players are very good at flicking short balls, dropping short and early-pushing long and fast. This is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to get any advantage from the receive situation when they serve very short.

Against the long pimple players you face rather different problems more associated with lack of speed. Often you get a low return but one which slows very rapidly. What you should always remember against long pimples is that your opponent can usually only use what you give him and his capability to initiate is limited. Playing against such a player is more often a question of tactics and not of the problems posed by the rubber. If you play the wrong tactics, yes, you will make life extremely difficult for yourself! Invariably in Sweden players try to use power and spin and usually continuous power and spin against such rubbers. With long pimples you get back what you put in. If you feed in very much power and spin you get back very much effect and encounter problems with unusual spins and bounces on your own side. On the other hand if you give the long pimple player nothing, then he has nothing to use and nothing to send back to you. Why not play a slow roll game with little pace or spin and wait for the ball to hit hard, or change the pace more often, hit one, push one for example? In this way you avoid the build-up of spin and effect which is what causes the problems. More often than not it is lack of spin or speed that makes life more difficult for the player using a long pimpled rubber.

2. UNDERSTAND SPIN AND ITS IMPORTANCE

Let us look a little at spin, what it is and how it affects the ball, because we need to know a little about the basics before we can cope with playing against different rubber combinations. Most players and coaches in Sweden will be aware of what is known in physics as the Magnus effect. In many countries in Europe it is taught in the first coaching stage on trainers’ courses. The important point is that both backspin and topspin cause the ball to deviate in flight. Test this for yourself. In your own training hall loop the ball hard and long with much topspin — it will dip quickly to the floor during flight then after bouncing will spin forward and run on to the end of the hall. The backspin ball will veer upwards before dropping down, will run forward only a little, then will spin back towards you and can end up spinning back past you. Not only does the type of spin affect the ball in the air but it also affects the way the ball behaves after the bounce.

  • No spin — same angle in and out, (physics, angle of incidence = angle of reflection.) This rarely happens in table tennis, test for yourself by throwing a no-spin ball forward, the ball acquires topspin after bouncing because the bottom of the ball is held momentarily by the floor and the top moves forward. (If a topspin ball hits the net, the bottom of the ball is held and even more topspin is created.)
  • Topspin has a smaller angle after the bounce and the ball shoots forward low and fast. However if you have a high, very slow loop with much spin, because the main impetus is down the ball will often kick up a little, then drop down very quickly. This is why this type of loop is very useful against defence players.
  • Backspin has the bigger angle after the bounce, the ball slows and kicks up sometimes quite sharply. Why many players have problems against backspin is that they don’t understand this slowing-down effect, that the ball doesn’t come to them. They must move forward, lower the centre of gravity and get under the ball.

Topspin is of vital importance in modern table tennis. Without topspin it would be quite impossible to hit the ball as hard as we would like to. When we for example hit a ball which is below net height gravity is not enough to bring the ball down on the other side of the table, especially if it is travelling fast. Another force is required and this is provided by topspin which causes the ball to dip sharply downwards. Thus the harder we hit, the more topspin we need to bring the ball down on the other side of the table. Our modern reverse rubbers give us great help in hitting the ball very hard from below net height, because they are capable of imparting very much topspin and this has an additional advantage that the ball shoots off the table very fast after the bounce.

 Magnus Effect

But why does spin cause the ball to deviate in flight and why do we sometimes have unusual, unpredictable effects after the bounce? This is in fact to do with the interaction of the spinning ball as it moves through the air against the flow of air molecules. (We have all felt air, when we stick our hand out of a car window moving at speed we can feel that air is rather more solid than we thought). As the ball moves through the air different areas of the surface are subject to lesser or greater resistance, the Magnus effect. Topspin forces the ball down, backspin conversely forces it up. If we take a topspin ball for example, the fast moving area at the top of the ball opposes the air flow and we get resistance or high pressure. However at the bottom, the fast moving area of the surface moves with the air flow, the air molecules speed up and you get low pressure. As a result the ball is forced downwards. At the bounce the bottom of the heavily spinning ball is held, topspin increases and the ball shoots forwards very quickly.

Sometimes the ball behaves in a different way and not as the laws tell us it should. In fact at times it can behave exactly the opposite to what we are led to believe — a topspin can jump up and a chop can skid low under certain circumstances. This is because of what occurs in the last 20 – 25 centimetres of flight, just before the ball actually strikes the table, (this is also a time when few if any players watch the ball.) A skidding chop occurs when a ball comes through low with very much backspin, (often for example when a defender takes the ball early when it is still rising) — the spin tries to make the ball rise during the last few centimetres of its travel and hit the table later with a shallower angle than usual, but also the faster speed gives a lower trajectory. What ends up happening is that the ball skids through quite fast and low after bouncing. Equally a slow loop with a great deal of topspin and a high arc, will dip sharply at the end of its flight and hit the table at a steeper angle than normal. Its downward velocity is increased and it has a higher impact speed so often the ball will kick sharply upwards after bouncing before dropping down quite quickly.

3. TACTICS TO USE AND EXPECT

Now we have looked at spin and have a little better understanding of what is happening, how can we use the Magnus effect against pimple players and how do they use it against us? A common tactic for example of many ‘funny’ bat players is to use their service spin or speed against us on the third ball. They serve (with the reverse rubber) short chop for instance with very much sidespin, then block/push fast or short on the third ball from a very early timing point with the pimples — we receive a fourth ball with varying degrees of topspin and a pronounced sidespin kick (sidespin is one of the most effective spins to use with pimpled rubber, especially long pimple). Short pimple players often serve very fast and flat with the pimples and then just kill the third ball.

We should of course be thinking how to frustrate their attempts to use spin or speed against us and not to play the type of return they want us to play. If we for example play back a ‘nothing’ ball, roll slowly from a later timing point, we take away much of their advantage and they have not so much spin or speed to use against us. Also if we ‘stop’ or chop block against the fast serve then we give the opponent back a different spin/speed return and not the simple fast ball he or she expects.

Another area where many of us encounter problems is that pimple players hit the ball much flatter without topspin, so that it’s very easy to play into the net. Pimple players too have more options which changes how the ball is returned to us — it’s very easy with pimples to take the ball extremely early after the bounce with both push and block. A pimple player may for example block early and soft (throwing back our own spin), force block early and hard (imposing his own spin) or drive at the top of the bounce giving us a fast flat ball. These returns will behave very differently on our side of the table. It’s also often much harder to gain a real advantage when serving against the pimples.

Lack of speed is a very effective weapon against pimple (or anti) players. Speed and power or fast spin they usually handle well and they train much against this type of game. The slow roll ball however without much spin or speed, which doesn’t come through very fast, often causes big problems to such players. For the same reason the slow spin loop with the high arc is a difficult ball for the pimple player — again it doesn’t come through like the fast loop on to the racket and it drops low very quickly.

Equally the constant stop/start, change of speed/spin game, is not liked by ‘funny’ bat players. The spin doesn’t have a chance to build up on the ball and as a result we don’t encounter so many severe problems with effect and bounce. If we hit one, push one and keep doing this, sooner or later we will get a high ball to kill.

Of course one of the first areas we should consider when playing against ‘funny’ rubbers is our own service. There is little point in serving with immense spin only to have severe problems when we get all our own spin back. Often it is in fact a good tactic to serve with very little spin, short or very long and fast. In most cases we know we will only have little spin back (unless the opponent is using a high-friction short pimple rubber). However some pimple players have difficulty against short, heavy backspin serves or the blockers against long, fast topspin or flat serves. Of course serving and playing to the normal rubber is always an option we should explore, but quite many pimple players are strong on this wing and often play very positively here. Footwork however can often be underdeveloped with pimple players, especially those who prefer to play much backhand from the middle of the table — a long ball to the crossover point and the next wide to the wings can often pay dividends.

Playing defence players who use pimples is a slightly different ball game, especially those with high–friction short pimple — such players can chop with very heavy backspin, float or even hit hard from both close and back. Defence players in general are a type of player against whom the Magnus effect is a very useful tool as is variation in all aspects — slow, high loop (very short or very long), where we may get an unpredictable bounce but which will certainly drop very quickly after bouncing, is never easy for defenders. There are also the options of topspinning, using sidespin, hitting hard and a little flatter or dropping short. Here we have a tactical difference between the men’s and women’s game. Often the men chop so heavily and to such a good length that the only options are to attack in one form or another or to push long. In the women’s game the spin is usually rather less and the length not so good — also women loop with less power and as a result get a less hard return ball, so the option to drop very short is an excellent tactic.

In both men’s and women’s play we must be on the alert for the topspin ball — the defender who chops with very much backspin then after one or two, loops with very much topspin causes problems to players of the highest level. The difference between the two extremes (much backspin and much topspin) on successive balls is great and too many in Sweden try to smash the topspin with a predictable result — out! Perhaps rather better to block short at an early timing point and back to the pimples where we may well get an advantage on the next ball.

One fact is certain — when we play against the various rubber combinations we must think a little more than usual and think in the context of the type of rubber we are playing against and the type of playing style we face. It is not always possible to play our own game or in the way we normally do. The more fixed we are in our thinking as to the effectiveness of our own game and the lack of necessity of changing anything, the more problems we can face. Flexibility of mind is a vital priority when dealing with factors we don’t fully understand.

What we have looked at so far is a rather simplistic view of coping with ‘funny’ rubbers and there are many things we have not examined in any detail. A chop block for example can come back very fast and flat, without spin if the opponent plays down and forward through the ball, or come quite slow, short and with quite much backspin if he or she just plays down at a timing point close after the bounce.

4. ADVANCED RESEARCH AREAS

If we wish to increase our knowledge of what happens and understand the differing properties of the varying rubbers we play against, we must be prepared to research and examine in detail the individual factors which have weight in determining how much or how little spin a ‘funny’ rubber is capable of initiating.

Rubber Factors.

  • The ‘pitch’ ratio of the pimples (how many to a square centimetre).
  • The ‘line’ of the pimples (down or across the racket).
  • The length of the pimples.
  • The size of the pimples (how broad).
  • The air ratio (how much air between the pimples).T
  • The grip of the pimples (smooth or rough).
  • The thickness of the base sheet of rubber (under the pimples).
  • The softness or hardness of the rubber sheet.
  • The thickness of the sponge layer.
  • The softness or hardness of the sponge layer.
  • The amount of glue used.

An assessment of the above rubber factors taken in joint consideration with the following areas relative to the racket qualities as a whole will help you to arrive at a decision as to the behavioural characteristics of a rubber.

Racket Qualities.

Dwell time — How long the ball stays on the racket during the stroke, depends on the thickness and softness of the sponge and the rubber, whether the ball sinks in and is held for a fraction of a second or kicks off immediately (can also be adjusted by the blade one uses).

Resilience — The energy stored in the rubber during the contact phase of a stroke, some rubber and sponge combinations are much more elastic than others and the ball will be held longer on the surface. This stored energy is thus converted to produce spin. While elasticity levels will certainly increase we must bear in mind that the sponge cannot create energy, but only minimize energy loss. Compared to a hard bat a ‘sponge’ bat can be swung in a much flatter plane so giving the ball more forward speed. The sponge helps to ‘lift’ the ball over the net.

Impact behaviour — A rubber and sponge can have differing performance at different impact speeds. At a slow speed there may be very little elasticity but you may get very good spin and speed when the ball comes into the racket with more pace. When you achieve maximum impact speed you can swing the racket harder but you will get little or no more effect. Some rubbers are said to have good gearing for spin and speed, which means they produce and maintain good effect over a wide range of impact speeds.

Throw-angle — The angle of the flight of the ball as it comes off the racket surface in the direction the bat is travelling. Differing blades and rubbers affect the throw-angle considerably (the angle would be very different if you were looping for example with very tacky rubber or with anti-loop). The throw-angle will also vary depending on whether the contact is on the outside of the racket or in the middle (or whether the racket is more closed or open), or whether it is low, in the middle or high on the ball surface.

Stall-angle — The contact angle at which the speed/spin of a rubber is dramatically reduced — at certain angles all rubbers will stall and will not grab the ball (it will just drop off the racket, as it sometimes does when it contacts the outside edge).

Friction — The grip of the rubber. Sometimes super-grippy rubbers have less spin at high speed — there is a critical level above which little or nothing is gained. Some very tacky rubbers have the characteristic of slowing the ball dramatically at low impact speeds which can be very useful in certain strokes.