Archive for March 2nd, 2013

I used to be a keen table tennis player in my youth and , even then, the term ” ping pong” was used in a derisory  way as if it was an inferior game , not worthy of being considered the equivalent of table tennis.

So when and where did the term originate ? The answers are interesting .

It is widely agreed that ping-pong was an improvised after dinner activity enjoyed by upper class youth in the Victorian era . It originated around 1880 and early games used a line of books as the ” net , a cigar box lid as a “paddle” and a champagne cork or a knotted ball of string as the ” ball”. In about 1900 , the game was standardized with the introduction of rackets made of parchment stretched between frames and a celluloid ball, The sound of the ball hitting the frame gave birth to the name ” ping-pong” , a word that was trademarked by Parker Bros in 1901. The  formal name “table tennis “has always been used to describe the competitive form of the sport ( as opposed to the after dinner activity) and there have been World Table Tennis championships held since 1926. The early years were dominated by Europeans , particularly Hungarians , but beginning in 1952 the sport has been dominated by Asians  first by Japanese  and then by the Chinese .

When the Europeans were on top , the standard way of gripping the racket was the “Shake hand” grip  and the racket had pimpled rubber surfaces on both sides . In 1952 , the world of table tennis underwent a major upheaval with the introduction of sponge rackets held in what was quickly termed the “penholder” grip. That year , Japan’s Hiroji Satoh won the World Championships which were held in Bombay and his success ushered in a new era as the game became much faster and the players more athletic. To my mind , the game also became less stylish , more brutal but then I’m one of the old guard who was weaned on rubber rackets and the shakehand grip.

I hadn’t thought about ping-pong or table tennis in years . It was an article by Pico Iyer in the NYT times Sunday Review ( Ping Pong : Head Games ” / Feb 23, 2013) that brought back the memories. Iyer who lives in Nara, Japan writes about how he walks to the local health club each afternoon for games of table tennis with retired Japanese men and women , mostly in their seventies and eighties . They play the game partly because it keeps reflexes and limbs sharp and because it is fun . Games are very competitive and they play for up to four hours each afternoon . What surprised me is that not all the Japanese players use the penholder grip which I had thought was well-nigh universal in Japan .Many of them still use the antiquated shakehand grip . On reflection , it seems to me that it is because using the penholder grip means having to move around more ; the shakehand grip allows them to be more or less stationary , an important consideration when one is pushing eighty.

Iyer makes this  statement about the game ,” It is a sport of intelligence , of course, which is why eight of the first nine world table tennis championships were won by Hungary.” He is referring ,of course, to the perception of Hungarians as being the brainiest people in the world . ( Hungarians have won more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other nationality  in the world ).

It is an intriguing statement but it doesn’t hold water.

If Hungarians dominated the pre-1950 world of table tennis , it is NOT because they are brainy. The strategy of table tennis is like that of tennis and , to a lesser extent, badminton. It is a game of angles and tactics , running your opponent from side to side and back to front before catching him off guard with a well placed drop shot or finishing off the rally with a hard smash. Hungarian successes can be traced to the fact that the game was very popular in Eastern Europe and the Hungarians had two of the greatest players of their time . Victor Barna won the men’s world title a record five times ( including four in a row from 1932-35)  and Maria Mednyanskzy won five consecutive  women’s singles titles ( 1926-1931 ) . No Hungarian has figured prominently in the world table tennis scene since 1950. The Japanese and Chinese who took over have won on the strength of athleticism and a fanatical work ethic , not because of their brains .

What is more interesting to me is how the game jumped from England to Eastern Europe and then to Asia . I think it has to do with the climates in these countries and with economics. Like England , Eastern Europe has very cold winters and , table tennis being an indoor game , can be played year round . It also doesn’t demand much in the way of equipment or space thus making it very affordable. This might explain why Hungary ,Romania, England  and  Czechoslovakia were such powers in the years before 1950 and why Sweden is the only European country to mount any challenge to the Asians afterwards.  But this is all speculation . It would be interesting to hear other explanations .

P.S I was amazed to read that the tennis player Fred Perry who won three Wimbledon titles and a total of eight Grand Slams in the nineteen thirties also won the World table tennis championship in 1929 at the age of twenty. He is the only one ever to win world titles in two different sports .

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