Ping pong is bouncing back

Major sports such as football, tennis and rugby get extensive media coverage. Less ubiquitous sports such as swimming and cycling usually have to wait until the Olympics or major event to get significant coverage. Table tennis rarely sees much coverage outside of the Olympics, even during a major event. However, this month, table tennis is a hot topic.

Having started off as a parlour game using a round cork ball and cigar box lids, table tennis has become a game played worldwide, and for elite players a very serious matter. The sport  has been no stranger to advances in technology, in the same way as sports such as tennis and cycling. Modern paddles are covered in a spongy layer under a high-friction surface. This design is responsible for imparting spin rates of up to 3,000 rpm in high speed games.

 (at 2:30 we are dubious about the relative size of the table to the court)

The high-friction surface increases the sidewards force between paddle and ball. the spongy sub-layer increases contact time and contact area. The combination of higher forces and longer times means that ball spin is greatly increased. The ball’s large volume-to-mass ratio means it is far more susceptible to aerodynamic forces than most other sports balls; it is very susceptible to spin and drag. This sensitivity to aerodynamic forces has been put to good use by players who can make the ball perform some amazing feats of aerial acrobatics.

The ability to add high amounts of topspin (to make the ball dip) allows the players to hit the ball harder without it going beyond the table edge, dramatically speeding up the game.

Technology has changed the game of table tennis, but some critics argue that the changes hasn’t benefited audiences. With higher speeds and higher spins rallies tend to be shorter and there isn’t as much opportunity for deft touches – power and spin dominate. As a response the International Table Tennis Federation made the ball bigger in 2000 to slow the game down. Increasing the ball’s diameter increases its frontal area and thus the drag forces acting on it.

This wasn’t enough for some who thought the game should be made even slower. Sport make-over man Barry Hearn, not content with his efforts to popularise snooker, fishing and darts, has turned his attention to table tennis – well, not exactly. This January saw the World Championship of Ping Pong at Alexandra Palace in London, days after the World Darts Championships concluded. Ping Pong, subtly different to table tennis, provides a more spectator friendly sport by virtue of its slower game pace. So what’s different about Ping Pong? Whilst the ball and table stay the same the real change happens with the paddle, or as a Ping Pong player would say, ‘bat’.

Ping Pong takes table tennis back in time to an era without fancy sponges and sticky rubber. The larger wooden bat has only a thin, fine-grade sandpaper cover that allows for little friction with the ball. This means that spin is much reduced and the player must play a completely different style of game. Without elaborate ball acrobatics, rallies are commonly longer and the ball speed lower, with players relying on strategy and tactics before they can strike that perfect straight-line shot right past their opponent. Many consider this a more spectator friendly experience.


This isn’t the first time a sport has taken a U-turn on technology, though. In the realm of Formula 1, rule changes restricting the use of technology such as driver aids (traction control and ABS) and high downforce bodywork design are common. In cycling, riding positions are restricted and checked. However the spectators of these speed sports probably wouldn’t appreciate a backward step of 30 or 40 years – it would not add to the spectator experience. A more suitable candidate for such a backward step may be tennis. Many argue that the game has changed and lost aspects such as the ‘serve and volley’ strategy because of the technological advancements in the rackets. However, the elite players and the manufacturers in tennis have a lot of influence so may be much harder to convince to try such a change.