expert table tennis ping pong advice
Switching From Hardbat to Sponge Rubber

By Larry Thoman

This column will consist of questions that have been asked of the staff at Newgy or our replies to questions posed on the table tennis (ping pong) newsgroup, rec.sport.table-tennis. Bhaskar Sarkar asked this month’s questions in a series of emails. We encourage readers to send in your own questions. You may email, fax, or write us. All questions cannot be answered, but we will pick out one of them to answer in this column.

Bhaskar

Short question: What kind of blade & rubber would you suggest for a ex-hardbat (orthodox pips-out, no sponge) player who wants to move on to more modern equipment? Long question: I've (re) started playing table tennis recently (recreational) after a 10+ year gap since high school, and having trouble choosing equipment.

I used to play with cheap hardbats and my game resembled a "pips-out attacker/hitter" style, i.e., I stood within a couple of feet from the table, played an attacking forehand game from both sides of the table, and used backhand (defense/keep ball in play) only when I had to. The hardbats were, as you'd expect, all control with not much speed or spin—I had to hit real hard to generate pace.

Since I'm starting afresh, I thought I'd move on from hardbats to more modern equipment, so I got myself a pre-assembled high control, medium speed/spin inverted 1.8mm rubber racket. Although I enjoyed practice rallies, during games it turned out to be too fast (had to check my shots to keep them on the table) & spinny (trouble returning opponent's spin) for my game.

Should I change to even slower inverted rubber with thinner sponge or try tricky combos like anti-spin/inverted or long-pips/inverted or short-pips/long-pips? I'm not aiming at tournaments—just a few hours per week recreational play. What I need is equipment that will enable me to enjoy my time and win a few games at the club.

Expert

Your situation is similar to the situation of a friend of mine who recently started playing again after not playing for 15 years or so. He has always used hard rubber, but was primarily a chopper. He had good pick hits from both sides but it was hard for him to sustain an attack. When he started playing again about a month ago, he tried playing hardrubber at first but soon found he was completely outgunned by the heavy spin and fast speed of modern equipment. So he decided to "modernize".

What he chose was a medium speed blade with 1.5mm pips-out sponge rubber on both sides (specifically Butterfly Rein rubber). He also decided to stay up closer to the table and hit more. This seems to have worked out for him as he keeps telling me he feels comfortable with his new paddle. However, he does have trouble controlling very spinny serves and he wants to attack heavy topspin too hard. So he's working on those two aspects.

As far as your situation, I would advise the following path:

1.         Get a medium speed, flexible blade and cover it on both sides with 1.5mm  pips-out sponge rubber. You will want large, short pips like Butterfly Rein or Challenger. This paddle will let you get used to the feeling of sponge and the greater potential for spin that sponge promises. It will not react as severely to spin, however, so you have a better chance of returning serves and loops.

At this stage of your training, concentrate on using fluid, but lower speed strokes. Go only for hard drives and attacks when you have a slow speed "sitter" or similar easy ball. When stroking softly, you want to develop a feel for how to return a particular spin—what paddle angle are you using, what "paddle path" your stroke takes, etc.

Work on soft touch shots like drop shots, blocks, and placements. Also practice learning how to execute spinny serves, first long and fast and later, short and slow. Serves are a great way for you to become acclimated to the different feel of sponge rubber and are something you can practice with or without a partner.

As you get better at returning spins softly, then start adding speed back into your game. A wonderful drill for doing this is the soft-hard drill. Have your coach, training partner or robot give you some medium pace topspin shots. Hit your first shot with a firm but slow stroke to a predetermined spot. Your partner will return the ball back to the same spot that you had just hit your soft shot from. Your next shot will be a much harder shot (80-85% maximum power) to the same spot. Keep alternating slow with fast shots and keep the rally going for as long as possible.

You will need to be aware of the changing rhythm of this drill and the necessity of a longer preparatory period (because of the longer backswing and larger weight shift) and shorter recovery period (because the more speed you apply to the ball the faster and quicker it can be returned back to you) when you hit the ball harder. You can do this drill either forehand or backhand.

2.         Once you develop some confidence at returning spins and you have a feeling for the sponge, your next step will be to try an All-Round inverted rubber (like Newgy Mercury or Butterfly Flextra) on your forehand. You should immediately begin to learn how to loop with your forehand, first against pushes and long serves and later against blocked returns. The loop is a great way to initiate your attack, particularly when your opponent serves long or pushes.

On your backhand, learn how to be more aggressive with your blocks and service returns. A backhand "roll" with your pips-out is a tried and true technique for returning short or long serves, particularly if you can add a little outside sidespin. If you like this combination, you may want to try out faster, spinnier inverted rubbers once you have an initial feel for how to loop with inverted.

There are lots of different inverted sheets that produce varying amounts of speed and spin. You may want to try out a variety of them to find the one that best suits your strokes. If you belong to a TT club, you can often ask other players for their old sheets when they change rubbers as a way to try out other rubbers without risking any money.

One note of caution at this stage. Some players may advise you to use "speed glue" to increase the effectiveness of your loop. Please stay away from this type of glue until you feel like you can consistently generate good spin with your loop. Speed glue is best used to "enhance" your loop; it cannot make up for any deficiencies in your stroke.

The other danger to using speed glue is its variableness. It is hard to apply it exactly the same each time, and unless you do, your rubber will feel differently each time, making it harder to learn your strokes and stay consistent. However, once you learn your loop well without speed glue and someone teaches you a method for applying speed glue uniformly, this glue can take your looping game to the next level.

3.         If your game keeps progressing, you may eventually want to experiment with using inverted on your backhand. Again, start with an all-round inverted until you get a feel for the spinnier surface, then switch to more advanced surface once you feel comfortable with the all-round surface. This is where you can learn the backhand loop in the same fashion that you learned the forehand loop.

Past this stage, you can pretty much experiment with just about anything to find the exact equipment that is ideally suited to your game. I would stay away from long-pips and/or anti-topspin rubbers unless you want to develop a control or defensive style of play. These rubbers are severely limited in their offensive capabilities and prevent you from developing many strokes like loops, spin serves, lobs, etc.. Since you started off by telling me that you were an offensive-minded player, I would forego these defensive rubbers.

Bhaskar

I've thought long and hard about your excellent suggestions, and here's what I finally decided to write to you: I'd love to follow exactly what you suggested, but I'm sorry that I'm not in a position to commit the time & money required to follow it. On the time side, I can only play approx 2 hours a week at the club. On the money side, I don't think I have the resources to commit to a paddle upgrade path, or afford a coach.

What I can afford is to allocate about a hundred bucks one-time towards a new paddle, and keep playing with it. I do have a partner to practice the drills you suggested with—his skill level is very similar to mine. For coaching, I think I have to rely on the tips from the better players at the club—or perhaps read a book if you would suggest one.

Given these constraints, the first biggest decision is to choose the one right racket that I can live with for a long time and try developing my game with. Since I'm returning the "Butterfly Kyoshi" that I didn't like, I guess I'm stuck with getting only Butterfly equipment in exchange. If I'm ready to suffer defeats at first in order to develop a better game in the long run, do you think I could go with an allround racket with thin inverted sponge on both sides?

I was thinking about a Grubba Pro ALL- blade and some good 1.5mm allround rubber on both sides like Sriver, Tackifire Drive, or Tackiness Chop. Do you think this will be a big mistake? I'm sorry if I have disappointed you with my constraints, but with a full-time day job in a struggling economy and a family, there's only so much we can devote towards our hobbies.

Expert

Experimenting with equipment can be a very expensive obsession and there are so many choices available, it's hard to know where to start. You are facing three big adjustments: (1) transitioning to the rebounding effects of the sponge, (2) learning to control your racket angle more precisely because of the grippiness of the inverted topsheet, and (3) altering your strokes to take advantage of your new paddle's spin and speed producing capabilities.

You've already described the first two problems to me in your original message. When you stroked the ball with your regular hard rubber stroke, the ball went flying off the end of the table. This was primarily a result of the rebounding effects of the sponge. The sponge comes into play mostly on firmly stroked returns.

For the sponge to affect the ball, either the incoming ball needs a lot of speed or your stroke must generate the force to drive the ball past the top sheet and depress the sponge. So the rebounding effects of the sponge will usually only affect you when returning hard hit shots or you are attacking the ball with speed.

Sponge comes in many qualities but can generally be categorized by degree of softness and the amount of speed the sponge generates when it rebounds. Nowadays, many rubbers will give a softness rating with a rating of 30 being soft, 40 being medium and 50 being hard. The softness will determine how much force is required to drive a ball through the topsheet to depress the sponge.

Soft sponges are typically slow in speed, but this can be changed drastically by using "speed glue" to increase rebounding speed. Also, soft sponges typically give the best "touch" because even slower stroked shots can often drive the ball into the sponge enough that the ball's impact vibrations are transmitted to the blade.

Hard sponges, on the other hand, require very forceful strokes to drive the ball into the sponge. And the sponge will snap back very forcefully, adding still more speed to the stroke. Softer shots are primarily returned with the topsheet and typically feel "mushy" because so little of the ball impact is transmitted to the blade.

The problem you were having with returning serves is, in my opinion, due mostly to the grippiness of the topsheet. You can test the grip of the topsheet by rubbing a ball across the surface. With decent quality inverted's, the rubbed ball will practically stop on the surface; whereas, a pips out rubber will create a little amount of resistance and an anti-topspin sheet will offer very little resistance. Some of the "super-tacky" sheets, like Tackiness, are so grippy that a ball can literally "stick" to the topsheet even with the paddle turned upside down.

This grip is what causes the problem on softer shots like serve returns and pushes. The grippier the topsheet, the more precise you will need to be with your racket angle to return spins effectively. That is why I believe Tackiness or Tackifire would be poor choices. On the other hand, you do want adequate grip if you want to learn inverted strokes and how to apply high amounts of spin. So you don't want to go with anti or a very low grade of inverted (many low cost, pre-assembled inverted rackets come with such low-grip inverted rubbers attached).

Inverted strokes are quite different from hardrubber or anti strokes, so you will need a decent amount of grippiness on your racket to learn proper inverted strokes. For this reason, it is important to keep your inverted surface clean, because even a small amount of dirt or grime can alter a rubber's grip.

Likewise, keep the surface covered, out of direct sunlight, and at room temperature to preserve the grip as long as possible. Age will eventually destroy the inverted's characteristics, so you will need to replace the rubber when you notice a substantial difference between the grip at the center (where you strike the ball the most) as opposed to the grip at the edges of the rubber (where you seldom hit the ball).

Ideally, considering your background as you have described it to me, your new racket should have a fairly soft sponge to reduce the rebounding speed and transmit more vibrations into the blade (which would be more similar to hard rubber than hard sponge would offer). And the topsheet should be medium tacky at best. Butterfly's Flextra fits the bill perfectly.

Do not use speed glue at this stage of development. Regular rubber cement should be used to attach the rubbers to the blade. If you only want to buy a single racket, then I would stay with my recommendation of an all-round type of blade covered in 1.5mm high control style inverted rubber (Flextra would be best, Sriver FX would be acceptable but not ideal). Please be aware that regardless of the type of inverted you choose, you will be much more susceptible to the effects of spin on your rubber than you were with hard rubber. I would stay away from "tacky" inverted rubbers like Tackifire and Tackiness. Their grippiness will only make the transition more difficult.

The last problem you have to deal with is altering your strokes from hard rubber to inverted. This is where the real work begins. It would help tremendously to have a knowledgeable coach to guide the transition process and demonstrate correct form. In addition to a coach, studying instructional books and tapes or learning from online coaching resources will help tremendously. (Our Coaching Forum contains many good articles.) Shadow stroking at home is a time-proven, low-cost method to speed up the learning process.

If you want to buy an instructional book or tape, be sure they were published at least after 1990 to make sure you get instruction that is not outdated. Some more recent publications include:

Table Tennis From A to Z by Dimosthenis E. Messinis

Table Tennis, Steps to Success by Larry Hodges

Table Tennis 2000: Technique With Vladimir Samsonov by Radivoj Hudetz

But even with a coach, you must spend as much time practicing as possible. I would forget about playing games entirely at this stage. I recommend you concentrate fully on perfecting your form and "grooving" your new strokes. Worrying about winning or losing will only slow your progress; worry about that after you have gotten through this initial transition stage. Regular robot and/or multi-ball drills will help speed up your progress because of the large number of balls you get to return in a short period of time. If playing with a human practice partner, work on consistency first and keep the ball in play with fluid, firm strokes. Power is always developed after your medium strokes become consistent.

Bhaskar

I am trying to locate a coach or clinic or something—but it is proving difficult in my city (Pittsburgh). A friend has loaned me Scott Priess' training video. I'm trying to learn about footwork and returning to "ready" position after a shot. I chose this as my first task because I figure I can do it while playing with my current recreational paddle. Your reply was extremely helpful—especially your explanations of different types of rubbers and why I should use a less tacky soft rubber for my transition to inverted.

I had the pleasure to meet Dan Seemiller yesterday at my local club (before I read your reply) and asked him the same questions. He suggested I use plain Sriver 1.7mm on both sides on ANY blade I feel comfortable holding—his opinion was that blade is not as important as rubber and that I would get used to the extra speed & tackiness of Sriver pretty fast. I have received similar advice from several other people at the club.

However, I felt that this advice, though well meaning, is very generic and does not take my particular problems into account. After reading your email, I am now feeling much more comfortable about why I should use Flextra and not Sriver. I have received the exact same advice (using Flextra) from Scott Gordon of hardbat.com. More over, since rubber inevitably needs to be changed with time, I can upgrade to Sriver for my next rubber if I need to.

There is a problem though. I looked around for 1.5mm Flextra, but it seems Butterfly doesn't sell any thing in 1.5mm anymore. The thinnest Flextra is 1.7mm. I tried to look around for other low speed/spin rubber and it seems Juic Dany III sells in 1.5mm, but I don't know whether it has similar characteristics as Flextra. Should I stay with Flextra and play 1.7mm or would you recommend something similar from another brand in 1.5mm?

Regarding  the blade, I have three all round Butterfly blades in mind—please suggest which one will suit me best:

Grubba Pro (ALL-). It has the most control of all Butterfly blades, relatively slower, oversized and the product description fits my mostly-close-to-table style—"Excellent for touch blocks, high-spin loops at the table, consistent mid-range play and the chop game from long distances". Cons: is it too slow?

2)        Andrzej Grubba (ALL+). Allround blade described as good for everything. Lightest/thinnest Butterfly wood—I liked the lightness of thin hardbats, and generally have always preferred lighter equipment in all sports I played.

3)        Primorac (OFF-). Supposedly the most popular Butterfly beginner wood, considered all-round by most even though rated OFF- by Butterfly. Some people suggested that since this is a tad faster than the Grubbas, I would probably like playing with it for a much longer time. Cons: Heaviest & least control among the three. Too fast for me?

Expert

I believe you have assessed everything correctly. Your plan for starting with a Flextra type rubber and progressing to Sriver as a next step is "right on", in my opinion.

In regards to the thinnest Flextra being in 1.7mm thickness, instead of the recommended 1.5, I do not think that would affect you very much. 1.7 Flextra should be OK. The difference would be minimal. I cannot comment about Dany III because I've never played with it, so therefore do not know its characteristics. My guess is that it would be OK because of its ratings, but I don't know for sure. I would only recommend Flextra 1.7 over Dany III 1.5 because it is a known commodity.

As far as the blade is concerned, I think that perhaps the Andrezj Grubba would be the best choice, although any of the 3 would suffice. As Danny stated, the blade is less important than the rubber. Since weight is an issue, the Andrezj Grubba gets the nod over the Grubba Pro (also I'm not a fan of the "oversize" design, except for defensive style players), and because it is more flexible with more feeling and less speedy than the Primorac, it becomes the best choice of the 3, IMO.