The origins of table tennis are clouded in uncertainty, however it is generally accepted that the sport began as a parlour game in
England near the end of the 19th century. As its name suggests, it started out as tennis played on a table - usually a large dining room
table with improvised net and bats, and one of the small rubber balls that were common children's toys.
In the late 1880s, an American sporting goods manufacturer by the name of Parker Brothers tried their hands at making "official" equipment. At that time, Parker Brothers was already exporting "Indoor Tennis" equipment to England. Equipment was still very primitive and balls were then solid rubber or cork and usually covered with material to prevent damage to furniture.
Plastic balls were introduced to the game after an Englishman named James Gibb visited America and discovered children playing with small plastic toy balls. He brought some back to England and used the plastic balls for table tennis. To his surprise, it gave an unexpected, overwhelming boost to this already popular game. After years of being called Gossamer, Flim-Flam and Whiff-Whaff, the name "Ping Pong" was finally adopted as a trade name by Parker Brothers because of the new sound these plastic balls made when they hit the table and the bat. From England the craze spread across Europe, to America, Asia and other English colonies - including Australia.
The first world championships were held in London in 1926, and a mere seven countries competed. Paris will host the 47th World Championships in 2003. By the early thirties, the English had lost their world pre-eminence (Fred Perry, the last Englishman to win the Wimbledon tennis singles title, also won the world table tennis crown in 1928-29). Success passed to emigrants from Eastern Europe with Hungarian Viktor Barna and Austrian Richard Bergmann becoming living legends.
By the Second World War, table tennis had captured the imagination of half of Europe. In particular, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were producing world-class players and new techniques. The Hungarians, Czechs and English continued to dominate the game in the immediate post-war era. By the early 'fifties, tournaments were drawing up to fifteen thousand people, even in Britain. Then an unlikely challenge arose. In 1952, the Japanese erupted on the international scene and the game was never the same again.
For almost a decade, the agile Japanese, fierce, aggressive and immensely quick, dominated world table tennis. They revived the old-fashioned penhold grip dating from the days of ping- pong and revolutionised the game with their kamikaze tactics. They also revolutionised table tennis equipment with the introduction of sponge bats.
The original table tennis bat could scarcely have been simpler. It was made of vellum - the material you find stretched on a drum. This was replaced by wood, which in turn gave way to a plywood bat with cork facings. Then some genius discovered that he could hit much faster if he substituted rubber for cork. With the arrival of synthetic rubber we got the bat; a middle blade of plywood, covered each side with dimple-rubber, with the dimples facing out. This not only speeded up the game but also allowed the best players to develop a sophisticated style full of subtleties and wide-ranging techniques. The ball could be made to spin in a bewildering fashion and at top speed. Strokes such as the chop became an integral part of the technical skills of any first-class player.
In the season 1951-52 all this was changed when the Japanese turned up - or more particularly when Satoh turned up. At this time there was no really standardised table tennis bat; a player could use anything he fancied. The same is still true in that many first-class players continue to experiment with new technologies. But with the arrival of Satoh it became clear that there had to be limits as to what kind of bat was used for Satoh's was one of the most extraordinary ever seen in the game. It was an enormous sponge bat - it looked like an ordinary bath sponge, consisting of a middle of wood with outer facings of pure sponge, two inches thick, on each side.
It almost destroyed table tennis.
Satoh was not a great player, but with that bat, he was like a 2000 Formula One Grand Prix racing car taking on a 1932 Austin Seven. No one had ever seen such speed. When he hit a ball, nobody could return it. He did not have to develop superlative skills; he simply stuck his bat out, touched the ball - and sheer blinding pace beat everyone in sight. Games became farcical. In the end, the Table Tennis Association was compelled to ban it. Bats became standardised and we had the development of the sandwich bat - a plywood blade with a thin layer of sponge covered by dimpled rubber on either side. A variation on this is the reversed sandwich bat, with the dimples facing the sponge to leave a face of smooth rubber. This has become the most popular style of bat today.
The result was a much faster game than had been usual before Satoh - but not so outrageous that play became impossible. In general, the addition of the thin layer of sponge gave the bat more bounce, more speed. At the start, there were no restrictions on width - but it soon became apparent that if players' abilities were to mean anything, the bats used had to be as nearly alike as possible. To this end, it was decreed that no table tennis bat could be more than two millimetres thick on either side. Nothing ever stands still, however, and a new type of bat covering was developed around 1970 by the French as a method of tackling the loop (very heavy topspin) - the shot that really dominates table tennis today. This bat covering has become known as anti-spin.
It consists of a layer of natural rubber superimposed on the thin skin of sponge covering the plywood centre. It was developed at a time when the whole style of the game had changed. In the old days, a game of table tennis could continue for hours with those who had perfected defensive play generally coming out on top. Barna, Bergmann, Leach were all great defensive players. With the advent of sponge, however, attack and aggression became the norm and instead of long rallies, players went for a quick kill. Rallies became shorter and shorter and the technical skills involved more profound. Fitness, dedication, concentration, agility - all the attributes of a natural athlete - counted for more and more. Shots became, increasingly spectacular. Players were forced to move further and further away from the table.
These stylistic developments can be seen as paralleling, to some extent, developments taking place in lawn tennis. Watch an old film of Fred Perry in action when he was winning Wimbledon; his game was essentially one of long and arduous rallies with the ball constantly hitting the baseline. Then in the post-war era, the tactics became those of the smash and grab - the big serve followed by the attack from the net. The new reversed sandwich bat as it called, produced an entirely new style of play which was faster and more aggressive than the traditional defensive style. Good players could get more topspin on; indeed there was more spin all round, but not at the expense of speed although it was inevitable that in a game increasingly dominated by speed, attack, aggression and spin that someone should take refuge in a slightly more defensive role.
The French, then, came up with this outer covering of natural rubber. The effect was at first sensational. Almost as great as with sponge. The plain natural rubber deadened or neutralised the spin already on the ball. In effect, the spin did not affect the receiver. It either caused the ball to lose pace and spin or simply returned the spin the hitter had sent over. An attacker sending over a smashing loop or producing a shot with terrific side spin would find the effect on the receiver negligible; more often than not, the attacker's own strength and skill became the weapons of his own defeat. Suddenly the relatively indifferent French were winning titles from nations which, technically at least, had been considered their superiors.
This however, did not stop the French from come up with another minor development for the rubber they were using on the bat. This time they combined the use of natural rubber with a plain face on the outside and a dimpled face on the inside, next to the sponge. The combination of the two different surface and its benefit prompted some of the top players to vary the facings of their bats - the front having a different facing to the rear - so that they can break up the rhythm of a game by abruptly hitting with the other side. Today, the trick is to buy the deadest rubber available, most of it imported from Japan, which usually looks like somebody's cast-off radial tyre. You can test the effect if you lay two bats on the floor and drop a table tennis ball from a height of 3 metres. With the ordinary reversed sandwich bat, a ball dropped from 3 metres should bounce back at least 300 millimetres. The same ball dropped from the same height on to a natural rubber bat would almost certainly bounce less than a 20 millimetres.
Today both European and Asian nations vie for dominance in the men's competition, however the Chinese still reign supreme in the women's competition.
Table tennis was included in the Olympic Games for the first time in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. It made its debut at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, in 2002.
South Australia was the first state to create a formal association in 1923, and the Australian Board of Control (now Table Tennis Australia), comprising Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales was formed in 1933. The Darwin Table Tennis Association (DTTA) was formed in 1969 and affiliated with the national body in 1987.