Table Tennis and other Racket Sports

Rowden Fullen (2005)

No two players play the same — there is a product however for every variation of style and this makes the choice of the right combination just for you an extremely difficult decision. Of all racket sports table tennis is the one which has by far the biggest variety of racket coverings. This of course creates a bigger variety of playing styles and tactics, especially amongst the women, who in most cases lack the power of the men. In tennis for example one may have over-sized racket heads or higher and lower tension in the strings, but basically one racket does not vary radically from the next — the same applies to badminton and to squash.

However it is not only the racket which is very different in table tennis with its many permutations of spin, speed, control and effect, but also the ball which makes the game rather more difficult to master. This is because the ball is so light, takes much more spin than the balls used in other racket sports and slows so much more rapidly in the air. Not only must the developing player be aware of what his own weapon can do, but also of the characteristics of the opponent’s weapon and what his opponent is likely to be able to achieve with it. But equally, to be effective the player must be aware of what the ball will do after contact with the racket, both in the air and after the bounce. In other words to be proficient at our sport the player requires to be rather more aware of the mechanics and science of table tennis and especially as we have the least time of all ball sports to react, recover and play our next shot.

What we also have to bear in mind is that to reach full potential we have to select the weapon which most suits our style of play and which will enable us to develop in the right way. It would be of little use for a strong topspin player to use 1.0mm sponge as the ball would not be held long enough on the racket. But such a thickness might well benefit a defender who wishes to initiate heavy backspin. The beauty of table tennis is that you can tailor the equipment you use to be of maximum benefit to your long-term development – the main stumbling block however is that there are such an immense number of sponges and rubbers on the market, that it can be difficult if not impossible to find the right combination to suit you. However if you are a player who is always looking to develop and to move on, then more often than not such evolution will involve experimentation with differing materials. We must also bear in mind that there will be changes in players’ styles and tactics over the years which will require research into different playing materials.

Above all what we must be able to do before we select ‘the weapon’ is to analyse our own game in detail and decide just what characteristics the racket of our choice should possess and what we should be able to do with it. Do we need speed, spin, control, feeling or effect and in what quantities and combinations? If we ourselves are not capable of doing this then we will need to call in outside help in the form of trainers or coaches who know how we play and how we win points.

Once we have our style analysis the first step is to research the blade. The choosing of a blade is a rather more personal matter than the rest of the equipment and it should feel right both in terms of speed and especially of weight. Blades usually vary from about 65 grams up to about 100 grams – very few players would want to use a blade heavier than this. Tests in a number of countries appear to indicate that there is an ideal racket weight for the player at differing stages in his or her development and variation by even a few grams can cause a drastic loss of form. We must also bear in mind that the thicker sponge and rubber sheets (2.2 and maximum) and particularly those with harder sponges can add considerably to the overall racket weight (Both Western and Chinese reverse can weigh around 40 – 45 grams, pimples out between 28 – 38 grams and long pimples without sponge as low as 14 – 20 grams). Handles are also important and players often have a preference for one shape or another. In the case of ‘twiddlers’ the type of handle and the width of the blade shoulder too may assume more importance.

The second stage is to decide on the sponge, both thickness and softness/hardness. Thicker sponges are more effective for topspin play and have better control and feeling for blocking. Medium sponges (1.7 – 2.0) are good for close-to-the-table play and drive/counter-hitting, while the thin sponges are best for defence, especially where heavy backspin is needed. The softness of the sponge is of particular importance in the areas of control and effect – soft sponges are better for blocking, attacking from an early timing point and for achieving different effects when using pimples. Harder sponges give more speed and a faster and lower ball after the bounce when combined with topspin.

Finally we come to the selection of the rubber topsheet. Here we are concerned with softness, thickness and the ‘tackiness’, the friction of the rubber. Softness and thickness are important because these characteristics allow the full influence of the blade and the sponge to come into play. For example the combined thickness of ‘sandwich’ rubber (the rubber and sponge layers) must legally be no more than 4.0 millimetres and the rubber itself is not allowed to be more than 2.0mm. There is however no legal requirement as to the thickness of the sponge. What has happened over the last 5 – 8 years is that with modern manufacturing techniques, the rubber layer can be produced in much thinner sheets (as low as 1.1 – 1.2mm) and as a result sponge layers have been able to grow in thickness up to around 2.8mm. This obviously is very good for the loop players.

‘Tackiness’ is also important to many players, both in the service game and in the rallies. Under certain conditions however and with certain techniques some super high friction rubbers can give less spin/speed than ones with much lower friction characteristics. 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, a function which is very useful in certain strokes. A low friction rubber will have difficulty generating speed at closed racket angles. Remember too that the friction of many rubbers is impact dependent, they are more effective when the ball is coming at speed.