Formerly known as "whiff whaff", "gossima" and, of course, "ping pong", the game of table tennis has grown from an after-dinner pastime into an Olympic sport. It is believed to have emerged in the early 1880s, when British army officers in India and South Africa began using cigar-box lids to hit rounded corks across tables, with stacks of books forming makeshift nets. By the turn of the century, hollow celluloid balls, miniature bats and portable nets were on the market. After a struggle for power between the Table Tennis Association and the Ping Pong Association, the former emerged victorious – the modern game was born.
It spread rapidly across Europe, with Hungary emerging as the dominant force in the years leading up to the Second World War. During the 1950s, Asian countries began to take it up, swiftly eclipsing the eastern European supremacy. Foam-rubber bats were first introduced in Japan, allowing players to impart much more spin on the ball and making the game faster.
This year saw the most radical set of rule changes to the sport in decades. In a bid to create more "crisis points" and make table tennis more appealing to TV audiences, it was announced in April that games would be played to 11 points instead of 21, with service changing every two points rather than five. The ball has also been increased in size from 38mm to 40mm, which to the naked eye seems virtually imperceptible, but reduces the spin quotient by 25 per cent. Each game still has to be won by two clear points, with a match consisting of five or seven games.
Despite having over two million active players, including 40,000 in competitive leagues, the UK has not been a major international presence for nearly 20 years. In the Seventies and early Eighties, Desmond Douglas rose to the heady world ranking of No 7 – no one has since emulated him. After producing world table-tennis champions – including a pre-Wimbledon Fred Perry – the UK now has no players ranked in the world's top 50.
For details of UK clubs and competitions, contact the English Table Tennis Association (01424 722 525, www.etta.co.uk), Scottish Table Tennis Association (0131 317 8077, www.tabletennisscotland.com) or the Table Tennis Association of Wales (01495 756 112).
The International Table Tennis Federation (www.ittf.com) govern the sport worldwide. Another useful website which features the rules in detail, tournament news, product information and exercise tips is www.tabletennis.gr
For equipment, contact Tees Sport (0800 458 4141, www.tees-sport.co.uk) or Jarvis Sports (01634 670 580, www.jarvissports.co.uk). Both have a mail order catalogue.
Bat & Ball
Bats consist of a wood or carbon blade covered with sponge and rubber, attached to a 3in (76mm) handle. Prices start from as little as £3, but those of better quality – with a sponge layer beneath inverted pimple rubber – cost between £10and £20, while top players will spend up to £100 on custom-made bats assembled with vulcanising 'speed glue'. At club level and above, bats must have one side black and the other red. Basic practice balls cost around 30p each, rising to £1 for a top-quality, three-star ball.
Full-size tables are 9ft by 5ft (2.74m x 1.52m), standing 30in (76cm) from the ground. Their quality is determined primarily by the thickness of the playing surface and the type of undercarriage. Most popular are the foldaway indoor tables, starting at £150. Outdoor versions with melamine tops are also available from around £300. The net, which should be 6in high, is often supplied with the table, but if bought separately should cost under £10 complete with posts and clamps.