Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Game Of Speed, Precision & Grace

When I first learnt the term 'Ping Pong', it sounded strange to me. It still does.

The term Ping Pong is equally well-known as its alternative, 'Table Tennis'. The two terms co-exist and it is difficult to tell which is a better known name. To me, Ping Pong carries a rather juvenile accent which I initially thought was a simplified name meant for the tots.

I had been wrong.

I assume you know that I am talking about a sport played with a racket, also known as bat or paddle. So, I shall move on with the lesser known facts about this well-known game.

Let's begin with its birthplace.

The game was born in England in the 1880s, thanks to some bored British officers who carved a ball from champagne cork and used cigar box covers to bat it back and forth across a barrier of books dividing a table. It was initially nothing more than some after-dinner amusement for upper-class Victorians who was mimicking the game of lawn tennis, indoor.

That was it. Table Tennis was just a fun game at parties. It was not taken seriously as a competitive game until the 1930s. London hosted the first official world championship in 1927 and the game was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1988 Olympics.

Today, Table Tennis is a staple dish at most sports events. In case you have been away for too long, the game stirred a national euphoria in Aug 08 when Singapore won the Silver Medal in the recent Olympics in Beijing. It will also be played in the first Youth Olympic Games when Singapore hosts the inaugural game next year.

Now, let's come back to the kiddish name Ping Pong - Where did that come from?

The first use of the name Table Tennis actually came from a board-and-dice game in 1887 (above). It had a board laid out like a lawn tennis and was played with the same set of rules. I supposed it was so named by the board-game maker because it was the 'lawn tennis' meant to be played on a table.

It soon became an action game known as the Parlour Table Game (above). The game was set up as a table version of lawn tennis. It was played with rackets and cloth-covered rubber balls. Features not found today such as the wooden fence around the table and large side nets were also included.

An attempt was made to modify the game shortly and Gossima was born (above). The idea was similar except that the a cork ball and a much higher net were used.

These initial versions were not successful due to their ineffective ball: the rubber ball had too wild a bounce, while the cork ball had too poor a bounce. The celluloid balls which give the perfect bounce came to the rescue in 1900. The maker of Gossima revived the game and changed the name to 'Ping Pong' due to the sound made by the bouncing ball.

The game quickly became popular and was marketed under many different names: Ping Pong, Gossima, Table Tennis, Whiff Waff. Parlour Tennis, Indoor Tennis, Pom-Pom, Pim-Pam, Netto, Royal Game and Tennis de Salon (above).

Gradually the two most popular names prevailed: Ping Pong, and Table Tennis.

Initially, there were problems between 'Ping Pong' and 'Table Tennis'. Ping Pong was trademarked commercially and the owners insisted on their own rules and the more expensive line of equipment. Meanwhile, the other manufacturers called theirs Table Tennis. This had caused some confusion until the commercial ties were removed.

Today, Ping Pong = Table Tennis.

The rackets evolved too. The crude cigar box lids were replaced by rackets made from cloth stretched around a wooden frame. Strung rackets similar to those in badminton games were also used.

In 1901, the modern version of the racket made from a sheet of pimpled rubber glued to a wooden blade was invented. That had added much speed to the game.

In the 1950s, foam rubber rackets were introduced by the Japanese and that enhanced the speed even further. Today, the improved racket can send the equally improved ball across the table at a top speed of about 100 km/hr.

Table Tennis was initially dominated by players from the European countries especially Hungary. From the early 1960s, thanks to the invented-in-Japan foam rubber paddle, Japan became the main winner in the game. China later took over the rein from the mid 1960s till now. Korea is also gaining prominence in the game.

The Chinese players have since developed several new techniques in the game. They came up with the "penholder" grip which is now used by many international players. Traditionally, penholders use only one side of the racket to hit the ball. The Chinese developed a new technique in which a penholder utilizes both sides of the racket and thus eliminated the strategical weakness of the traditional penhold backhand.

Just like any other games played in this modern era, players quibble over minute technical specifications of games instruments. After the 2000 Olympic Games, the 40mm ball was introduced as the standard competition ball. The Chinese players were upset as they argued that the change from the previous faster 38mm ball to the bigger one was merely giving non-Chinese players an advantage over speed.

My personal history of this game is totally nondescript. I was introduced to the game during my secondary school days as a social game. It was more of a game where I (and my equally lousy playmates) constantly attempted to send the ball across the table gingerly. A good hit was one that did not miss the table, never mind how it was achieved. Much of my energy was spent on retrieving balls which did not land on the table but went in all directions. Honestly, I would not have described it as fun.

A few years ago, I started playing the game again and this time round with a little more progress. Now, I can keep the ball on the table for a fairly long time and my energy is spent on sending the ball across the table via more varied strokes. Do not imagine me with fanciful chops or spins but I definitely won't mind learning those.

Now I can finally understand why this babyish sounding game can mesmerise so many players all over the world. It is a lovely game of speed, precision and grace.

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