by Wade Townsend
A common phrase you will hear in sport is “we have to make the women play like men”. For a lot of disciplines this old adage may be true. But take a step back and look at the progress of the men’s table tennis game over the past twenty years. Perhaps we better start saying that the men should be playing like the women.
Unlike most sports, table tennis has been designed in a way that doesn’t greatly favour one sex over the other. This isn’t basketball where you need to be a seven something foot giant. In such a high skilled sport as table tennis the physical differences subside. With the ball weighing less than three grams, the superior muscle mass of men probably isn’t the be all and end all of whether or not you win the match. This is why Koki Niwa can compete in table tennis but no matter how hard he tried he would never be an Olympic swimmer for Japan.
It should come as no surprise then that men have started adopting many of the techniques and tactics of the women’s game. Standing close to the table, favouring the backhand more and more, and making counter attacking plays have all found their way in to the men’s repertoire. Ma Long even made the transition to a tacky top sheet on his backhand side. This was once only an equipment setup you would see in the women’s game. But times change and we change with the times.
It’s been a two way street however. Women are using more spin on the forehand, and are looking to get in to loop to loop rallies back off the table. As the game progresses towards maximum efficiency the styles are slowly converging. The steady decline of the pengrip player, the disappearance of pimples out rubber, the extinction of the defensive style, all signs the game is becoming homogenised through the optimisation of every stroke and shot selection. As aspects of the game decrease in variation, it opens the game up to be inclusive to all makes and models of people.
Have a look back at the the Marvellous 12 tournament in China. When watching the highlights for that event you would be hard pressed to differentiate between the men’s and women’s rallies just by watching the ball. And in three weeks the Liebherr World Championships in Dusseldorf will be another small move towards the narrowing between men and women in table tennis. Maybe even one day they will be competing together.