How sponge rackets changed table tennis foreverby Guido Mina di Sospiro / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Asian players began to dominate table tennis after the introduction of the foam racket in the early 1950s. (© AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Four years ago, I had a routine check-up at the doctor’s and the diagnosis was high blood pressure. Not uncommon in men of my age, but still something that needed attention. Physical exercise was prescribed. What to do?
Apart from skiing, the only sport I’d enjoyed in my youth was ping-pong, so I went along to the nearest club. Clustered around three tables were half a dozen Chinese men in their thirties and forties. When I played them, I couldn’t “read” their strokes because I’d never played against someone using the typical Chinese penhold (with the racket held as a pen). The amount of spin they placed on the ball was shocking; never had I experienced anything like it. When I played with them, the ball bounced off the table and off my racket, if I managed to reach it, in the most incredible ways. I spent more time collecting balls off the floor than playing. Extreme spin didn’t only alter the trajectory and the bounce, it also increased the speed. This was not the ping-pong I knew.
Table tennis began as a diversion for the upper class in Victorian England to mimic lawn tennis. At this stage it was hardly a sport. But 1900 was a seminal year, as the hollow celluloid ball was introduced. Hardbats became the typical racket and the game remained virtually unaltered for over half a century, dominated by European and American players.
Then, at the 1952 World Championship in Bombay, Asia entered the scene. After training behind closed doors, Japan’s least talented player, the bespectacled and unassuming Hiroji Satoh, unveiled his secret weapon: the sponge racket—a wooden blade covered on both sides in thick foam. It produced unprecedented amounts of spin and speed: the ball would sink into the foam and be catapulted back. No conventional hardbat player could cope with this, and Satoh won the championship.
Two years later, in London, Ichiro Ogimura won both the men’s singles and team titles at the World Championship, ushering in a long period of dominance by Asian players. During his career, Ogimura captured 12 world titles. By then all Japanese team members were playing with foam-covered rackets. Until the early 1950s, the game had consisted of low parabolas with the ball just clearing the net and landing on the deep end of the table. Speed and placement were of the essence. The topspin movement was already utilised, but mainly to make the stroke more precise and consistent. The new racket revolutionised all this. Topspin would no longer be a stroke stabiliser, so to speak. It instantly became the chief ingredient of the offensive game. Table tennis had changed forever.
In 1959, the International Table Tennis Federation banned the sponge racket, and standardised the thickness of a “sandwich” composed of ordinary pimpled rubber and a thinner sponge. The sandwich was a compromise between the old hardbat and new sponge rackets, but it was also very effective in imparting spin, and table tennis has not looked back since.
The sandwich revolution quickly brought about the king of all modern table tennis strokes: a codified form of topspin, the forehand loop. The ball isn’t just hit, it is brushed upward with a very fast stroke. An extremely heavy topspin is placed on it, which, owing to what is called the “Magnus effect,” causes the ball to descend rapidly towards the opponent’s side of the table. When it touches the table it accelerates and kicks or dips; a devastating shot. Spin—massive loads of it—is what determines the difference between the basement king and the advanced player. And I realised that the basement was exactly where I belonged. In blissful ignorance, I’d considered myself a good player. The Chinese players, by resorting to previously unimaginable amounts of spin on their every ball, gave me a reality check.
Guido Mino di Sospiro is the author of “The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong” (Yellow Jersey Press, £12.99)
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