by Kabir Nagpal
Time is the biggest threat to any athlete across any sport. When it comes to table tennis, the one man who no one wants to see stop playing is the German legend, Timo Boll. The evergreen 38-year-old claimed the gold medal at the 2019 European Games on Wednesday in Minsk, defeating Jonathan Groth (DEN) 4-2 which earned him a place at the Tokyo Olympics next year. Showing no signs of slowing down even after 20 years in the sport, today we look at how exactly Boll has managed to stay at the top of table tennis.
Adapting with time: Timo’s remarkable choice
For someone who was all about the ‘push, push, push’ in his youth, time caught up with Timo in the late 2000’s when this technique no longer worked against the Chinese elite. A ban on speed glue in the racquets meant that Timo had to switch to the Tenergy 05 rubber, which benefits from a high sensitivity to incoming spin shots and providing him with the same amount of speed as before, while also giving him the edge over his younger and faster opponents from Asia.
In 2008, the table tennis equipment company, Butterfly, released a namesake racquet for Timo called the “Boll ALC” after the Olympic Games. With the prospect of his dreaded 30’s now closer than ever, his next blade needed to be something special. Since his early days, Timo had always been an athlete who worked out his opponents with his technique, panache, and quick counter play to assert his dominance. He had exploited the speed glue in his previous “Boll Spirit” blade to the maximum in his unmistakable style of play, but now, with his switch to the Boll ALC racquet, combined with the new Tenergy 05 rubber, there would be a momentous change to his approach.
The main peculiarity about Timo’s choice was the fact that he had to sacrifice his superior speed shots for precision and control. The Boll ALC provided him with this option, with a huge side benefit no one saw coming. The Arylate-Carbon (ALC) based blade has a thicker grip than its predecessors, while having a slightly wider wingspan. This gives it a large, crisp sweet spot with a medium to high flow angle when playing top spin shots. In the man’s own words,
“The ALC helps increase the spin and power in my shots.”
And help it did. Whether it was the ease with which he dispatched Chen Weixing at the 2009 German Open, earning applause from his opponent in the process, or his persistence against Jun Mizutani at the Qatar Open in the same year, Timo had now learnt to change his game to his newest weapon’s best features, for which the crowning moment came at the 2018 China Open, where he defied physics against Liang Jingkun with a forehand from the backhand side of his body.
A Mage’s wisdom: Boll’s use of huge experience
How Timo avoided any obvious ‘decline’ in his game was the timing of his decision to switch to the ALC. He has used this blade to reinvent his shots into a perfect blend of spin and speed, made for quick receives on the spin, landing the ball deep on the table and to come out attacking on the counter: a key ingredient for success against the Chinese. His regular defeats of China’s elite at the top stage since his youth have earned him enormous respect by fellow players and a growing fan following across the country, almost as if he were one of their own.
Timo has efficiently used what time has brought him over the decade. Instead of fighting it, he has made time his ally and rightfully earned the nickname “Timo ‘Magic’ Boll” after the reverse spin shot against Andrej Gacina at London 2012, which made his opponent tumble onto the table. He has adapted his gameplay from 2008 into one that is effortless and quick to end games early. This has been key to his revival in recent years, after being plagued by injury around 2015-16, and enabled his longevity in the sport.
What next for Timo?
At the age of 38, the now eight-time European Champion Boll will have his sights on the biggest prize at Tokyo 2020. For a man who has mastered the dragon of time that only bends for a rightful king, who can begrudge him that? The Chinese will stand in his way, and we as spectators will have our collective eyes locked on the never-ending adventures of this magician.