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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Olympic glossary: Pimpled rubber, acne of the table tennis kind

When the rubber comes in contact with the ball, the pips bend and put the opposite effect on the spin the ball came with.

Written by Shahid Judge |
Updated: July 18, 2021 7:57:05 am
Indian paddler Manika Batra in action. (Source: TTFI)

Pimpled rubbers in table tennis, according to former national champion S Raman, have been used since “time immemorial.” That’s one way of putting it. Radivoj Hudetz, a former player from Croatia now in his mid-70s, gave it a date – 1902, when Englishman EC Goode added rubber onto a table tennis racquet, bat or paddle for the first time.

The type of pimpled rubber – a short-pimpled rubber – Hudetz describes was popular until the 1950s before sponge started to become the material of choice to use on top of the wooden base of a racquet. Sponge added power and didn’t emit any sound on contact. But it took away the element of rallies from the game and was banned in 1959 – although players were allowed to use a sponge ‘sandwiched’ between rubber and wood.

Fast-forward to the World Championships in Calcutta in 1975, when the dominant Europeans were introduced to a new rubber, the long-pimpled rubber. The Chinese team was armed with this new rubber that saw them win both the men’s and women’s team events. It was a rubber that defied any logic the topspin-wielding Europeans had seen on a table tennis court before.

And it’s a rubber that is still used today, though not as prominently.

The surface of a long-pimpled rubber is covered with thin and tall ‘pips’ or conical-shaped bumps. When the rubber comes in contact with the ball, the pips bend and put the opposite effect on the spin the ball came with. For example, if an incoming shot is played with topspin, the return will be backspin. If it comes with backspin, it’ll go back with topspin.

The trickery comes into play when one considers that the opposite spinning effect is brought regardless of the returner’s style of play. It is irrelevant if the returner plays with a topspin motion (brushing the ball with a down-to-up motion), or a chop (up-to-down backspin motion with an open racquet face). The shot simply goes back with the opposite spin regardless of whether it’s played with a topspin or backspin motion – essentially, it all depends on what spin the ball comes with.

Players would often switch racquet-sides mid-rally to confuse opponents as well. That ploy worked till the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) introduced a rule in July 1986 that made it mandatory for racquets to have differently coloured rubber on both sides – black and red. This helped opponents distinguish which colour had the long-pimpled rubber.

This type of rubber was thereafter more popular among players with weaker backhands.

Yet the accolades didn’t stop coming in. Former World No. 1 Deng Yaping of China used the long-pimple rubber to win nine World Championship titles and four Olympic gold medals (in singles and doubles) in the 1992 and 1996 Games.

Indian paddler Manika Batra also uses this rubber. It’s helped her provide trickery to her deception-based game, which is also fuelled by a big forehand. It’s a style that helped her win the 2018 Commonwealth Games singles and team titles, and bronze in mixed doubles at the Asian Games that year.

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