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…