Background

Topspin and Backspin

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

With the many varying rubbers on the market it is not always possible to rely on the stroke action. (e.g. a push against backspin may be backspin, float or topspin!).

Try to read the spin by:

  1. sound
  2. flight (the trademark on the ball). Watch the ball 5 to 8 centimetres before it hits the table on your side.
  3. bounce (what the ball does after hitting the table).

Topspin

Explain with diagrams, the turbulence and high pressure on the top side of the ball, the low pressure on the bottom side. Air pressure forces the ball downwards. The topspin ball is faster through the air and dips and shoots forward after bouncing. The incoming angle is greater than the outgoing angle.

Backspin

The backspin ball has low pressure on the top side, turbulence and high pressure below. Air pressure forces the ball upwards. The backspin ball is slower through the air, carries a little longer in flight and kicks up after bouncing. The incoming angle is less than the outgoing.

Points to consider — Your opponent’s topspin spins towards you, his backspin away from you. When your opponent plays with your topspin the ball is returned with backspin, when he plays against your topspin he returns the ball with his topspin, (the opponent reverses the spin). However this may not apply if he or she is using long pimple or anti-loop where he or she cannot or can only partially reverse the spin.

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 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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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. This has an additional advantage in that the ball shoots off the table very fast after the bounce.

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 we 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 and kick up during the last few centimetres of its travel and after the bounce, but it hits the table with a shallower angle than usual and also at a faster speed and 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 steeply upwards after bouncing before dropping down sharply. Tactically this can be extremely useful if you can loop either very short or very long on the opponent’s side of the table.

Bats and Rubbers

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

Much of the advertising material which is written in the various brochures on materials is of very little use to the ordinary player and often misleading. The hardness of the wood and the make-up of the ply, how it is bonded and whether you have carbon fibre or titanium mesh layers will all affect the speed and control. Generally one ply will be more rigid and the ball will kick off the blade quicker, multi-ply will be more flexible with more control and stability. The choosing of a blade is a rather more personal matter than the rest of the equipment and it should feel right to the player. Tests in one or two 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.

Most rubber manufacturers use speed, spin and control ratings which are at best misleading — many of the tests they use are very simplistic and bear little or no relation to how a rubber is used in a match. Players also use the same rubber in different ways and with different feeling.

Let us examine the characteristics of the rubber as it is this which contacts the ball.

Dwell time — This is how long the ball stays on the racket during the contact phase of a stroke, (bear in mind this is a mere fraction of a second, if you have ever chalked a ball and thrown it to a player who slow loops and tries to maintain a long contact you find that the mark on the ball is never more than one centimetre). Rubbers have different dwell times for different strokes. The ball will be held longer for a slow loop as opposed to a kill. Some players also ‘carry the ball’ longer than others even for the same stroke. A long dwell time will often benefit spinners and blockers while a short dwell time will suit defenders and hitters. The dwell time is also affected by the blade you use and how the ball comes off the racket depends much on the rubber and sponge and how quickly it penetrates through these to reach the wood layer underneath.

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

Impact behaviour — A rubber and sponge can have differing performances 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 as will different strokes (the angles 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 low, in the middle or high on the ball. High throw-angle rubber generally has a higher ratio of spin than speed, compared to low throw-angle rubber. (Flexible, slower blades typically increase the angle).

Stall-angle — The contact angle at which speed/spin of a rubber is dramatically reduced — at certain angles all rubbers will stall and not store energy (the ball will just drop off the racket, as it sometimes does when it contacts the outside edge). The stall-angle can be used effectively for dummy loops or short serves. A rubber with a wide range of stall-angles (or used with a badly matching blade) will have little or no control. A stall can also occur when the racket contact speed is too fast at a particular contact angle.

Friction — The grip of the rubber. Under certain conditions 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 has difficulty generating speed at closed racket angles. Remember always the friction of many rubbers is impact-dependent, they are more effective when the ball is coming at speed.

Sponge — Sponge can vary from soft to hard and from about 0.4 mm to 2.5 mm and the density of the sponge contributes to the weight of the racket. The amount of spin generated by a rubber is closely related to the elasticity of the sponge (irrespective of the top sheet of rubber), below a certain critical level for a given sponge, the spin of the rubber will be considerably reduced. This can be improved through the correct use of speed glues/optimisers which will increase the resilience by up to 30%. Players who glue usually prefer soft or medium sponges.

Glue — Adhesives and glue sheets are used to put the rubbers on the blade. Speed-glues/optimisers are used to increase the performance of the rubber in respect of spin, speed, control, throw and stall-angles. It is always recommended that you allow each coat of glue/optimiser to thoroughly dry before applying the next coat — otherwise you can get a ‘mushy’ effect which seriously affects performance when the glue is a little wet.

Properly applied speed-glues/optimisers can increase the spin and speed capabilities of the rubber by up to 30% (remember however that some glues/optimisers do not work well with certain sponges, especially most hard and more dense sponges). Also the glue must be regularly ‘removed’ from the rubber sheet and the build-up must not be allowed to become too thick. All rubbers (where speed-glue is used) should be taken off the blade as soon as possible after play so that the tension in the rubber is released.

One interesting characteristic of speed-glued/optimised rubber is that it has a very predictable effect over a wide range of strokes. Its ability to store energy is nearly constant over a large range of impact speeds, (in normal rubber the storage of energy bottoms out at higher speeds).

Just what makes a Young Player ‘The exceptional prospect’

Rowden Fullen (1990’s)

In the words of Deng Yaping’s father — ‘There are 3 things required of an accomplished table tennis player, strong fortés, all-round skills and no obvious chinks in his or her armour. But how are these to be applied to a child? Of all the three requirements, it seems obvious that the first one is primary while the other two are only secondary. If a child is able to develop very strong fortés at an early age, he or she can easily cultivate all-round skills and overcome his or her weak points at a later stage. But if you start out trying to be good all around so that you become something like a jack of all trades, you can hardly expect to develop any strong fortés later on.’

Den Dasong put his ideas into practice when coaching his daughter in the early years. She started at the age of five and learned in the first year to play with the ‘shakehands’ grip. Because she was so small her father had her change to a tennis grip to increase her reach and bat-swing. Every day Yaping played one or two exercises, forehand attack against block or forehand to forehand duels with her father. For a period of two years or more Deng Yaping confined her training to only forehand attacking strokes and never practised backhand play. In later years all her opponents were afraid of her fearsome forehand. She developed one strong forté as a young player which stood her in good stead throughout the rest of her career. When a little later she started to work much on serve and third ball too, then this forté came very much into its own.

The early work done on her forehand also made it quite an easy task for her coach Zhang Xielin when it came to the time to decide what to do with her backhand wing. It was a simple choice to give her a long pimple rubber which was both slower and a little tricky, but which above all give her time to use her strong forehand side and bring her forté into play. This is an ideal example of marrying equipment and playing style in a profitable way. In Dortmund in 1989, when she was only 16 and in her debut in the World Championships, Deng Yaping took her first gold medal in the women’s doubles.

Deng’s success provides much food for thought concerning the methods to be used for training young players. Perhaps the conventional route of all-round technical development is out-dated, certainly a new trail has been blazed by Den Dasong who started his player out by specializing in a particular department before building an all-round game at a more advanced stage.

Of course Den Dasong had the right idea — a player will only ever reach full potential by cultivating his or her strengths and developing what he/she does best, not by working on his/her weak areas, until these are passable or adequate! That is why with young players it is important to isolate their strengths in the early years and to put in a fair amount of training time to make these as formidable as possible. Strengths should above all be used and used to win games. The player even at a relatively young age should know how to get his or her strengths in during the match. This is why too it is very important to work on serve and receive with young players. Unless they develop an understanding of these areas of the game they are often restricted with what they can do with the next one, two or three balls and they never get the chance to play their winning strokes.

Even when a young player has a very good winning weapon it is vital that he or she knows how to use it in the right way. To be predictable at the highest level for example is not a winning tactic. You must have the tactics to be able to impose your game on the opponent and to get your strengths in and use them to full effect. To be able to think tactics while you play also requires you to be calm enough mentally and to have the right ‘arousal’ level and attitude.

In fact this is an aspect which it is important to emphasize in the case of all promising young players and especially with girls — their own approach and attitude to the game. Stress and concentration levels are very closely connected and it is difficult to retain focus if emotions take over. The ability to relax and to be calm enough to extract profit from one’s own mental resources is a priority.

Also central to a player’s development are self-confidence and the capacity to be positive. It is rarely if ever at the higher levels that players win by containing or waiting for the opponents to ‘do their thing’ first. At the top you need to think and play positively, you need to win the points and it is exceptional to get a second chance, if you don’t take advantage of the first when it is offered.

Young players must be encouraged to be positive in their play but also in their mind. They should take the attitude that to let an attacking opportunity go by is in fact failure! At times you may lose games by being over-positive but what both player and coach should be looking at is the overall, long-term development. Playing in ‘the right way’ is vital to the growth of the player. Many players have limitations in technique, they develop strokes in such a way that further progress is restricted. But many more are limited in the mind and develop the wrong attitudes — often winning or playing safe take priority over development and instead in the long run we get stagnation. The player’s game stops progressing and becomes set in a pattern.

Always bear in mind too that the concept of the player having his or her own idiosyncrasies, the idea of individual techniques but within the underlying principles is vital if the player is to cultivate his or her own personal style of play. Six players executing a forehand topspin will do so in six differing ways, with varied pace, varied spin, varied placement, a little element of sidespin etc. None of these is ‘wrong’. What we are looking at here is the concept of individual ‘flair’, but within the underlying principles, the critical features of the stroke.

What the coach should be looking at is how such unique characteristics can be turned to advantage. Does the player have a ‘specialty’, something a little different which causes problems to opponents — or are there aspects of his or her game which can be accentuated to fashion such a specialty.

The prime skill of table tennis is to be able to adapt to an ever changing situation. Each player tries to adapt to the technique, tactics and playing style of the opponent and to avoid being ‘controlled’ by the way the opponent plays. Table tennis is largely a sport of conditioned reflex patterns where players train to react automatically. This is why new techniques, tactics and ‘specialties’ or unusual styles of play are difficult to cope with. The ‘automatic pilot’ doesn’t work as well any more and the player’s reactions are unstable, inaccurate, lacking smoothness and coordination. In fact the player who can keep one step ahead of the competitors in the innovation of technique, tactics or playing style, will have a big advantage (especially now we are playing to eleven up) because the opponent will have difficulty in adapting in time.

Why use Pimples

Rowden Fullen (2004)

Many coaches and players seem to think that it’s some form of legalized cheating to use pimples or at best that that it’s only to win matches cheaply or to cover a weakness. Of course at top-level pimples are rarely used in the men’s game but are quite normal in the women’s game even at the very highest levels. Many coaches unfortunately have little understanding of the real differences between men’s and women’s play and why pimples are a necessary tool in the women’s game. The players themselves however begin to understand when they get a little older.

For example in girls’ 13 classes in Sweden you have hardly any girls playing with material, not because they don’t want to or wouldn’t benefit by using pimples, but solely because their clubs or trainers totally reject this alternative. If however you look at the National Swedish Rankings for girls’ 20 a large number of our girls are by this age using material – from nothing the percentage has leapt to around 50%. Why? Either because the players have come into contact with more enlightened coaching or because as they have become older and more experienced they have also become aware that without material they are not going to reach the higher levels in women’s table tennis. Women begin to understand that there are many more paths to the top level in the women’s game than there are in the men’s. By not allowing our younger girls to explore the various alternatives in the women’s game at an early age we often deny them the opportunity of reaching their full potential.

Take a look at the SOC in Malmö — at the very best women in the world rankings — players from Asian countries with material, from Europe and the Americas with pimples. Most countries competing had pimpled players in their teams. A girl from Hongkong only ranked 5 in her country and 46 in the world, reaching the final – pimples. Shouldn’t we perhaps be learning something from this? Many top women play with material for a good reason – quite simply because such rubbers complement the women’s game and tactics. And over the years we have had a considerable number of female world champions playing with pimples. All this makes the total rejection of material by many coaches in Swedish clubs rather ludicrous.

What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more. Even those women who topspin can’t be compared to the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man for example.

Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.

Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play their next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke path and are unable to change this. When you compare Asian loop players they usually have a much shorter stroke and don’t therefore suffer so much against material (also of course they train against all different playing styles and from an early age).

Of course there are so many different pimples on the market that the whole area is now something of a minefield – should you play with short pimples with no friction, a little or much friction or should you play with medium or long? Which would suit your style of play? Don’t despair if you don’t know. Up to a couple of years ago the rubber manufacturers didn’t know either. Generations of Asian women players have used a variety of sponges under the rubber for the last 30 years because they knew something the manufacturers didn’t. That the softness of the sponge is of vital importance in getting maximum effect particularly in the case of short and medium pimples – there’s little point in using 45 or 50, you really want at least a 35 or even a 30. It’s only recently in Sweden that we have started to get the full range of sponge sheets in different thicknesses and hardness and have had access to the same advantages as the Asians (for further information contact Lars Borg at Japsko).

Neubauer of course has done his own exhaustive testing on long pimpled rubbers and the effect of rubber colour and blade weight and speed on return spin. As a result his long pimpled rubbers were originally only manufactured in red because the same rubber in black produces considerably less effect. He has also proved that pimples have most effect when used on a fast and even heavier blade. Of course it is now possible to have double-sided blades, fast on one side and slower on the other to suit the style of the individual player, so having just one fast side is no longer a problem.

From a young age it is vital that girl players learn to cope with all types of playing styles. There is little point in getting up to the level of the National team at 18 – 20 years only for the trainers to discover that you can’t play against defence players or pimples. Your further development is going to be severely restricted. However if you have played with and against material at a young age your long-term development is liable to be much more comprehensive.

And let us remember too that playing with pimples can be a stage in the development of a young player, it doesn’t have to be permanent. Using material can even be a way of refining technique as with many pimples, short and medium for example, you have to play the ball rather than just placing the racket in the way. Quite a number of players turn to pimples in their early teens only to go back to normal rubbers later, but almost always with a much better understanding of how to play against material.

As we said earlier in this article in the women’s game there are many more ways to the top than there are in the men’s. I would appeal to coaches and trainers at club level to understand this and to give their girl players a fair chance of success from the start. You have a big responsibility to do the very best for your players and to put them on the right road for them.

The Chinese have a saying – ‘When a fool sees himself as he is, he is a fool no longer. When the wise man becomes sure of his wisdom, then he is a fool.’ — If you as a coach have stopped listening, then you are no longer prepared to look at other possibilities. Perhaps it is true to say — only in absolute certainty is there danger. Certainty is the enemy of progress, we stop thinking and further development is not possible.

The Guide to Long Pimples

Lars Borg (2005)

What is a long pimpled rubber?

On the ITTF list of approved rubber sheets, long pimpled rubbers are categorized as those where the aspect ratio of the pimples is more than 0.9. The aspect ratio is arrived at by dividing the length of the pimples by the breadth — a sheet with pimples of 1.8mm length and 1.7mm diameter will have an aspect ratio of 1.06. To be approved the aspect ratio is not allowed to exceed 1.1. This in effect means that very long and thin pimples are not permitted. Most pimpled rubbers today have a length of between 1.5mm and 1.8mm. On the 2005 ITTF list of Authorised Racket Coverings there are 79 different long pimpled rubbers listed.

The playing characteristics of long pimpled rubbers.

The most deceptive long pimple rubber and the one with most effect is red, hard, without sponge and on a fast blade, so that the ball springs off the blade very quickly. Many players don’t understand that what is happening is that they are in effect getting their own spin back. If they for example put heavy backspin on the ball and the opponent pushes the ball back with the pimples, the return will not have backspin (even though his or her stroke is down and forward) but an element of topspin. A long pimpled rubber with a thicker sponge will usually return the backspin ball as ‘float’, while the rubber without sponge can send back a ball with considerable topspin.

Once you understand the above then all the rest of the ‘hype’ about long pimples is very much simplified. So-called spin reversal becomes obvious, you play topspin you get back backspin, you push you get back topspin. Whatever the opponent does with his or her racket is largely immaterial. Even the ‘wobbling’ balls are easily explained — these occur when you play with a none-pure spin, when for example you loop with topspin and sidespin (as most of us do) and you get back a backspin ball with a sidespin ‘kick’, simply because there are two different axes both trying to assert themselves at the same time. The most important consideration when playing against long pimples is not what the opponent is doing with his or her racket, but what you did with your last stroke.

Another factor that many players and coaches overlook is that power also affects the return ball. The harder you hit the ball with a closed racket, the more spin you create. Thus the harder you hit the ball against long pimples, the more backspin you get back on the return ball. It is often a better tactic to play slower balls or balls without spin to this type of rubber.

Of course there are one or two other aspects to consider – with some long pimples it’s easier to play short or low returns or even initiate some spin. Certain players are able to get much more effect from their pimples than others. The sponge (if used) will also have a considerable impact on what you can do with the rubber. A rubber without sponge will have maximum return effect, thin sponge will often have more control (but less effect) and it’s much easier to hit with thicker sponge.

Spin Reversal.

The long pimpled rubbers with the most pronounced anti-spin (or spin reversal) effect are quite hard and the individual pimples feel more like ‘plastic’ rather than rubber.

Wobbling effect.

The most pronounced effect is usually where the pimples are more widely spaced and less ‘rubber’ comes into contact with the ball. The flexibility of the pimples can also give unusual reactions but of course very soft pimples are easily broken.

Control.

Where long pimples are shorter, wider and more densely packed the control and spin elements will usually be higher. These are of course the reverse characteristics to the more ‘anti-spin’ types of long pimple. A thicker rubber base will also give a slower rebound speed and more control as will a thin layer of sponge. Softer pimples which are more flexible can help in returning balls short on the opponent’s half of the table.

Speed.

We must really define what we are talking about in terms of speed off the racket. Pimples with no sponge will give very quick recoil from the wood of the racket and at times it may be difficult to control hard loops. Pimples with medium or thick sponge will have a slower rebound from the racket and it can be easier to control topspin.

Spin.

Some pimples have a ribbed or rough surface and therefore have the capability to produce spin. This is still relatively small when compared to the spin created by reverse or some short pimpled rubbers. Often too the softness of the pimples or sponge or the thickness of the sponge will play a much larger roll in creating spin than the actual surface of the pimples.

The Journey from Reverse to Material

Rowden Fullen (2006)

The job of any coach is to help his players to reach their maximum potential – but the coach must bear in mind that all players are individuals and different and will only achieve the maximum if they allow their own special talents to develop and to flower. There are many different ways to the top especially in the women’s game and it is up to the coach to make available a number of alternatives to the player and to suggest the right direction for him or her.

On some occasions the coach can readily see that the player should use pimples by the way he or she executes the stroke (perhaps a ‘punching’ action on the backhand side). Often however it will come down to what the player can or cannot do with the ball in a match situation. First has the player good technique in both slow and fast loop and drive play and smash on FH and BH sides. Does the player have difficulty in creating strong topspin? In the case of many girls for example, rarely can more than one or two out of every ten create real topspin. If players have difficulty in creating or in controlling spin there can be a good case for material of one kind or another.

There are basically seven differing types of rubber surfaces on the market and we will look at these in some detail –

  1. Reverse (normal rubbers Butterfly, Donic, Stiga, Yasaka, etc.) usually with soft rubber sheets and softish sponge around 35 – 40. Used by top men and women in Europe and by the top men in China on the BH side. Very good for looping and the best control for blocking.
  2. Tacky reverse (Chinese rubbers DHS, Double Fish, Friendship, Globe, etc.) with sticky rubber sheets and usually a harder sponge (around 39 – 45) than that used by top European players. Mostly used in Asia as a FH rubber for the top men and women. Very few players in Europe use this type of surface, except former Asian players. (Used successfully by Drinkall and Knight in the European Youths).
  3. Anti-spin (Made mostly in Europe, Butterfly, Donic, Stiga, T.Hold, Yasaka but the odd Chinese such as RITC 804). Anti can come in two types, almost no spin or a with a little friction. Usually the rubbers are very slow with good control and the ball is slow off the racket.
  4. Short pimples are between 0.6 – 1.0 in length (rubber sheet only) and made by both European and Chinese companies, Butterfly, Donic, Friendship, Globe, Neubauer, Stiga, TSP, Yasaka, etc. Short pimples vary very much nowadays and some sheets are capable of creating much spin while others have much less friction. Generally shorter, broader, grippy pimples will create more spin. For maximum effect very soft sponge is a must (30 – 35 but no harder) and top women normally use a thickness of 1.6 –1.8mm sponge while the men tend to go a little thicker, between 2.0 and 2.3 mm. Men of course hit the ball much harder.
  5. Medium or half-long pimples vary between 1.1 – 1.4 mm. and are made by both Chinese and European companies, Butterfly, RITC, TSP etc. These pimples too vary in grip (some have a more anti-spin surface). The characteristic of half-long pimples is the ease with which players can open against backspin and yet still play a good counter-hitting game with effect.
  6. Long Pimples (with friction) are between 1.5 – 1.8 mm. and are made by both Chinese and European companies, Butterfly, DHS, Donic, Prasidha, RITC, TSP, Yasaka, etc. There is an element of friction with these pimples and they are used by many defensive players the world over usually with a thin sponge varying between 0.6 – 1.2.
  7. Long pimples with an anti-loop effect (between 1.5 – 1.8 mm. too) are made primarily by two companies, Neubauer and Hallmark. These pimples are hard and feel more like plastic than rubber. They have absolutely no friction and all the opponent’s spin is returned. Maximum spin reversal is achieved by using the rubber sheets without sponge although often a very thin sponge (0.4 – 0.6 for example) can be helpful in controlling hard hit balls when in blocking mode.

NB. In the case of all pimple rubbers there must be no less than 10 pimples to a square centimetre and no more than 30 to a square centimetre. In the case of all long pimple rubbers the aspect ratio (ie. The pimple length divided by the pimple diameter) must be larger than 0.9 but not more than 1.10).

If we look at these seven categories in the light of their ability to affect or change the spin on the incoming ball we get results somewhat as follows –

Reverse normal =100%
Reverse tacky =100%
Anti-spin =5 – 12%
Short pimples =75 – 95%
Half-long pimples =65 – 75%
Long pimples with friction =30 — 35%
Anti-loop long pimples =0%

Clubs and Material

Rowden Fullen (2005)

One or two clubs in Sweden have a number of players especially girls playing with material combinations. Clubs which have coaches ‘sympathetic’ to the pimple cause and which have had considerable success with material combinations are for example Lyckeby, Lindome and Tyresö. Unfortunately a great many other clubs are strongly resistant to any form of material especially for their younger players and appear too in many cases even strongly resistant to new ideas. This unfortunately often means that young players, especially girls do not have the advantage of having the opportunity to become proficient with and against such rubbers from an early age when they would pick up the relative techniques and tactics rather easily. Even National trainers complain that established junior and senior players often struggle in Europe against material combinations while performing more than adequately against normal rubbers.

This restrictive attitude at club level also means that quite often girl players only start using pimples when in their late teens, in other words when they are old enough to think for themselves and have cast off the shackles of the club environment. It is somewhat strange when you look at the National rankings in women’s 20 even in Sweden to find that over 50% play with pimples of one kind or another – they know what works for them and what works in the women’s game. The percentages however in girls’ 13 or 15 playing with material are almost negligible and this appears to be in almost every case due to lack of opportunity or informed guidance.

When you talk to coaches you understand immediately that there is little in-depth understanding of how players are effective with varying types of material and of how to play effectively against them. There appears too to be the attitude that to play with pimples is somehow a weakness, that the player is not good enough to use normal rubbers, or even that playing with such rubbers is a form of cheating (however within the rules). Such coaches seem to ignore the fact that some of the best women World Champions of all time have played with material (Deng Yaping).

Such thinking also begs the question as to why so many women players use pimples of one kind or another – many more for example than we have in the men’s game. A survey less than ten years ago showed that at that time around 60% of the world’s top women used a different rubber on one side of their racket. Even though at the moment the current crop of top Chinese women use reverse rubber there are still many high profile players in Asia who use pimples – Fukuhara from Japan and Fan Ying from China for example, plus many of the older Chinese women playing in Asia, Europe or elsewhere. The top Chinese coaches openly admit that they have many pimple players in the top provincial centres and that the next phase in the development of the women’s game may well be another material explosion.

Women use pimples quite simple for one main reason — because they complement the women’s game and tactics. What do we mean by ‘complement the women’s game and tactics’? Just what is the difference between the sexes in the way they play? If we compare top men and women we immediately notice the contrast in power. Quite simply men hit the ball harder. Usually too they give themselves more time and room to use their strength and play from further back and with much more topspin. Women on the other hand play closer to the table and block and counter much more and even those women who topspin can’t be compared with the men. A strong woman such as Boros just doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as hard as a man for example.

Power and spin are important in the men’s game, placement and change of and control of speed in the women’s. You rarely if ever see the loop-to-loop rallies of the men’s game in women’s play — almost always the return is a block, counter or defence stroke. Not only does the ability to loop several balls in a row against topspin require strength that most women don’t have (and in the long term often leads to injury) but also tactically it’s not a prime requirement in women’s play. Because women loop with less spin and power than men their topspin is much easier to control and contain and there are far more good blockers and counter-hitters in the ranks of the women than in those of the men.

Pimples are ideal for changing spin and speed and for returning unpredictable balls to the opponent. They are particularly good for controlling topspin, especially the lesser level of spin and power you get in the women’s game. With pimples you also have the capability of taking the ball very early and denying the opponent time to play their next stroke so this material is in fact ideal for controlling the opponent’s speed and allowing you to be on level terms with much faster players. The higher level of unpredictability in ball behaviour especially after the bounce means that it is very difficult for topspin players (and particularly those with a long stroke) to adapt. They are often committed too early to a certain stroke path and are unable to change this. When you compare women Asian loop players they usually have a much shorter stroke and don’t therefore suffer so much against material (also of course they train against all different playing styles and from an early age).

If coaches also do not realise the importance of this other factor, then their own coaching development is to say the least woefully inadequate – this of course is the importance of creating a good adaptive capability from a young age with all their players. If players develop to a high level without being able to play against left-handers, penholders, defenders or long pimples, then their chances of being a real force internationally are extremely limited. The fault is every time in the early coaching development – the players have just not been exposed to the right environment in the early years, when it really matters. To try and change automatic responses when players are in their late teens or early twenties is, as most coaches are well aware, pretty much an impossibility.

Modern Women Defenders: The Way Forward

Rowden Fullen (2010)

Over the last few years it has been obvious to most coaches that, with the bigger ball and games to only eleven-up, the pure defender is not just a dying breed but no longer a force in the modern game. Good women defenders will still be in the lower world ranking positions but it will be harder and harder for them to reach the top 15 to 20 in the world. Many of the older choppers are still around, the Koreans and Russians for example, but as they age they will drop down through the rankings and they will find it difficult if not impossible to upgrade their game to cope with today’s play. Most younger defenders now attack more.

The bigger ball loses spin rapidly through the air and gives the attacker more advantages. The maximum revolutions with the 38mm ball as tested by the Chinese National Team were 150 revs per second. With the 40mm ball this drops to about 133 revs per second, but the bigger ball loses spin much more rapidly through the air because of its larger surface area. If the chopper stays back her opponent has time and a more predictable ball to deal with: it is also very easy to hit one and drop one and wear down even the really fit defender over a period of time. In the old days up to twenty-one and with the small ball, it was in fact often the other way round and the stubborn defender who wore down the attacker. But now we have come full circle.

We must also bear in mind the differences between the men’s and women’s defence game. Because male attackers hit the ball much harder, there is much more return spin on the ball, especially off a long pimple rubber and even with the big ball. Choppers like Chen Weixing have so much spin off the long-pimple backhand, that it’s difficult for even the top men to maintain a topspin attack. Also the men chop with much better length on the ball and usually in the last six inches of the table. As a result there are more long balls in attack versus defence in the men’s game and less short play.

Women choppers on the other hand face less power and less spin and most top women, especially the Asians, adopt a different tactical approach to playing defenders. They will often play not with power but with a high, slow loop to the backhand side, interspersed with short drop-shots, until they get a ball they can flat hit. Because of the lesser power and spin and the slower balls, short play comes much more into the women’s defensive game and close-to-table tactics are therefore much more important to the female defender.

In the final analysis of course women defenders now have to attack, but when, from where and how are the crucial questions. Basically it is necessary to be able to ‘change the form of the rally’ both close to the table and at a distance and to be able to assess the various possibilities and ways of doing this, then to evaluate which are the best alternatives for your individual game. What you are aiming to do by ‘changing the form of the rally’ is to give the opponent an unpredictable and different ball, something she doesn’t expect and doesn’t train against. This will often turn the rally round and create an advantage or an attacking opportunity for the defender.

So just what alternatives are available close-to-table as the defensive player comes in to deal with the shorter ball? If you are late and meet a falling ball then obviously topspin or slow roll would be viable possibilities, at the top of the bounce drive/topspin with pimples or reverse could be easily executed, while an early ball position would bring in all the block or push options with either rubber but from an early timing point.

From a deeper position (which would not entail much movement) the defender should also look at which alternatives are available. Many defenders do counter-hit, especially on the forehand side and this is particularly effective when changing defence into attack. What you should be looking at is taking a step in to take the ball at an earlier timing point and try to drive flat and hard. This gives the opponent a return, which is fast and flat through the air and slower after the bounce, very different from the chop and float balls. Players using a slightly thicker sponge under the pimples (1.2 to 1.5) should look to hitting hard from back with the pimples too as this is usually a winning stroke.

The fast topspin is not such a viable alternative as this is something most attackers face every day and are quite used to handling. They will probably block you soft and short and this may well place you at a disadvantage. Slower topspin and slow roll shots as well as ‘fishing’ strokes are all useful options when back from the table. Players should really work at least with two alternatives most suitable to their style (say hard drive and ‘fishing’), until they are quite proficient with both.

This of course does not mean that you should neglect your chopping skills. It is important that defenders can both chop heavy and ‘float’ to confuse the opponent. Players should really work more at float with the reverse on the forehand, most don’t use this enough. ‘Twiddling’ is also another crucial skill: if defenders chop with reverse against the fast topspin shots and then use the pimples against the really heavy, slower spin balls, they will more often than not cause real problems for the opposition.

It is essential too that the defensive player is consistent and safe and does not make too many ‘unforced’ errors. This particularly applies when pushing over the table even with the pimples and even when varying the timing and spin to try and catch out the opponent. Many choppers in fact use the reverse rubber when pushing over the table, thus keeping more control in the rally and by creating more backspin making it harder for the opponent to attack.

It is crucial too for the defensive player to have differing options to deal with the serve, especially the longer, faster serves which will often be a prelude to the ‘big attack’. The defender should not only be able to step back and chop or float but also have the capability to take the fast serve early and play it back slow, with either a soft, short return or chop-block. This will give the server the type of return she would not normally expect, particularly from what she sees as a back-from-the-table player.

Serve and third ball attack is of course nowadays a vital weapon in any defender’s armoury and one which should be used at vital points in the game, when the opponent least expects a change of tactics. I consider most defenders’ serves inadequate and ineffective and think they can do much more in this area. I would like to see them work much more on long, very fast serves, with heavy chop/sidespin and topspin/sidespin (with both backhand and forehand). Recent research at the Worlds shows that even the top women miss or make mistakes against 20 to 25% of long serves. Defensive players often tend to serve short or half-long most of the time and don’t really get much advantage from this.

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.

How Innovation in Equipment and Techniques has changed the Game

Rowden Fullen (2001)

The dominant racket covering in the early years from 1902 till the 1950’s was the hard-bat pimpled rubber. It was the celluloid ball and the rubber faced racket that changed the face of table tennis and allowed a new range of shots and variety of spins. The hard-bat rubber meant a rather different stance and method of play than we have today. The path of the strokes was largely up or down and not forward and balance was not the priority it is now. The ball kicked off the racket quite quickly and was not held a long time by the rubber (the surface was not so elastic as it is now), but it did not necessarily reach the other end of the table quicker because there was less topspin through the air. It was not impossible but it was difficult and not effective to try and reverse the spin on the ball. Because of the hard surface the ball wasn’t held long enough and if you hit too hard it would just float off the other end of the table when you played against the spin. Usually if one player attacked the other chopped and waited for the drop shot to come in and attack. You could hit hard when playing with the spin and many players did, taking the ball at quite an early timing point. There was also often good blocking play as with this type of racket it is very easy to play good angles and some players used strokes sometimes thought to be only recently ‘discovered’ like the chop-block! (M. Mednyanszky) (R. Bergmann: half –-volley play).

From the early 1950’s till it was banned in 1959 the thick sponge, especially wielded by the Japanese players, was a major factor in changing the game and in introducing new tactics. Players would topspin with a high trajectory particularly when playing from back and there were many requests for higher light fittings! Conventional defence went out of the window and if pushed back players would lob with such strong topspin that it was not easy to put the ball away and win the point (especially with a hard bat). In the counter hitting rallies the ball was gripped by the sponge surface, creating topspin, and travelled much faster. With a strong element of topspin the speed build-up off the opponent’s side of the table was much faster and the ball bounced much lower after the bounce than the hard bat players were used to (the Magnus effect). But above all for the first time in table tennis history players found they had the possibility to easily reverse existing spin on the ball. They could topspin a topspin ball back, they didn’t need to chop!

In 1960 Stan Jacobson came back to England after training in Japan with a ‘new’ stroke, the loop, which was to revolutionize table tennis. By this time we were using the ‘sandwich’ rubber rackets which had good speed and spin and were tailor-made for the loop. The original concept of the loop was as a high trajectory, very spinny ball (often taken quite late), to be used mainly for prying open the defences of the good choppers. Because the ball dropped very low, very quickly after the bounce, it was difficult for the defender to keep it down and the attacker was always ready to smash at the first opportunity. During the 1960’s and 70’s the loop developed in many different directions as players experimented with using it in differing situations and against differing balls. It was found that it was possible at top level to feed in a very high amount of power and still keep the ball on the table because of the topspin element. However because the path of the stroke now was very much more forward particularly in fast play, balance became much more important. Probably the culmination of looping with spin was the win by a margin of 5 – 1 by Hungary over China in Pyongyang in 1979, (using spin on both forehand and backhand).

In the early 1960’s also a new style of service play had emerged. Gone were the slow tactical build-up and the eventual kill, because the lightning fast drive play of the Asians, especially the Chinese, gave no time for this. The structure of the rally was altered completely and whereas previously the serve more or less put the ball into play, now it was employed so that a definite advantage was gained. The pattern was therefore a short, backspin serve inviting a push return, which was immediately looped, then killed. Rallies were a thing of the past, sudden death had taken over.

In the early 1970’s we had the ‘funny rubbers’ explosion, the combination rackets, led by China (both long-pimple and anti-loop). These were to enjoy a considerable measure of success even against the world’s best players right through the 70’s and into the 80’s (J.Hilton Europeans 1980) until the ‘black and red’ rule of 1986. Because rubbers were the same colour during this period it was most difficult to read the spin and no-spin ball and one could not always rely on sound in a noisy hall. It was for example only in 1983 that ‘foot stamping’ during service was banned. Also in the 70’s we had the high throw serve again introduced by the Chinese, with the downward speed being converted to spin or speed and often with a different bounce characteristic. This caused problems for many players.

Around about 1982 the use of glue became commonplace and loop speed and spin were further accentuated. The young Swedish players were in the forefront of the glue revolution but also there had been going on quietly behind the scenes in Sweden a number of developmental and coaching changes, which were to rock the table tennis world. As long ago as 1980 M. Appelgren had been in Sweden’s European gold medal winning team but even before that he had been influencing the establishment away from the hard-hitting K. (the hammer) Johansson’s type of game and towards topspin — topspin, the on-the-table ball. Other important factors had occurred — Waldner and Lindh being invited to China in the summer of 1980 and bringing back the multi-ball method of training — coaches such as G. Östh and Bo Persson working to produce a Swedish model to counter the Chinese. But above all talent, Sweden had perhaps the most incredibly talented group of players ever gathered together in one country, at one time. Throughout the 80’s the Swedish model slowly took shape and emerged, moving away from the traditional kill and counter — topspin was to succeed hit as a means to achieve victory. But a topspin somewhere between the long-arm spin strokes of the Hungarians and the short-arm speed strokes of the Chinese players. This was in fact a topspin which would utilize a shorter stroke and from an earlier timing point, nearer to the peak with more emphasis on speed and spin rather than pure spin. A topspin which because of the glue would have even more speed and penetration and would give the Chinese less time to use their speed. A topspin which would take away their speed advantage and reduce them to a more passive containing game.

Much time was also spent in building up the backhand strength so that a two winged attack could be maintained at all times. There were other aspects also to the Swedish model, much emphasis on serve and receive in practice, much block training under pressure and many irregular exercises. There was too an emphasis on individual development, the players were encouraged to do what they did best and to build on their own strengths. Indeed if you examine the styles of Appelgren, Waldner, Persson, Lindh and Karlsson they are all very different.

Throughout the 80’s the work continued with the players developing and becoming more experienced and confident (and training much in China too). From 1983 – 1987 they took silver in the world team event, from1989 – 1993 the gold and again in 1995 silver. Seven years in a row they were in the final and in 2000 still strong enough to win again with two of their players in the mid-thirties! What had beaten the Chinese was glue, the strong topspin, better backhands, better blocking and the ability to take the high-throw serve. When the Chinese had lost to the Hungarians in 1979 they had immediately come back with even greater speed, mixed with short, well-placed blocks — the Hungarians needed both room and time for their long strokes, the Chinese denied them these aspects. With the Swedes at their best the Chinese never really found the antidote! What must also be remembered is that some of the great Chinese players were coming to the end of their careers by the mid-80’s, Guo Yuehua for example who was in 4 single finals from 1977 – 83.

During the 1990’s we see that table tennis at world level is much more integrated and athletic with differing styles and techniques flowing one into the other. The serve assumes great importance and the ability to serve well and cope with the opponent’s serve is critical. We have the big ball now too which means a little less spin especially back from the table and the flight path and bounce characteristics are different too — the ball drops more quickly after coming off the table, especially if there is less power input. We have moved into the 2000’s with the shorter game up to 11, which means higher concentration levels and little room for error and soon we will have new service limitations. What does the future hold for our sport? One thing we can guarantee is that however the administrators try to limit how we play, they will never stop new innovative equipment, techniques and tactics coming into our sport. Coaches and players are as we have found over the years inventive and always ready to adapt to new situations.