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.