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Olympics Guide: Table Tennis

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After a rally of seven we were ready to start autographing people’s paddles. After discovering the longest rally was over eight hours, we were playing solitaire. How to guide below, if you have the commitment.

Athletes: 172

Golds up for grabs: 4

Olympic presence: Became an Olympic sport in 1988.

Olympic Format: Straight knock-out tournaments for men’s and women’s singles and teams, seeded according to ITTF World Rankings. In the team competitions (which replaced the doubles event after Athens 1988) teams of three players play between them four singles matches and one doubles match per round.

Contenders: The Chinese will consider anything less than a clean sweep of the gold medals a failure. The ranking tables show why: the top five women and four of the five top men are Chinese. The one exception is Germany’s Timo Boll, currently the second ranked male.

Past Champions: China: 20 | South Korea: 3 | Sweden: 1

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THE BASICS

Format

Olympic table tennis is a knock-out tournament, with each nation permitted to enter up to three men and three women, with a maximum of two in each of the singles events. Singles matches are the best of seven games, team matches followed by a doubles match, followed if necessary by up to two more singles matches until one team has chalked up three victories.

Rules

Each point begins with a service and ends when a player fails to make a legitimate return. When a player serves, the ball must bounce once on each side of the net; all other shots during a rally must land on the opponent’s side only. As in lawn tennis, if a service clips the net but lands in play it is counted as a ‘let’ and the point is replayed, whereas if a shot clips the net during a rally play continues regardless. There is also a deuce system, which kicks in when both players are one point away from what would normally be a winning score. Thereafter, the first player to draw two points ahead wins the game.

Unlike in lawn tennis, volleys are not allowed and servers get only one attempt per point (barring 'lets'). For most of the history of the sport 21 points were required to win a game but in 2001 the ITTF made the seismic decision to reduce the figure to 11, with service to alternate every 2 rather than 5 points.

The consensus is that the changes have heightened the tension and drama in a sport which already had plenty of both. A less well known aspect of the scoring system is the so called expedite’ rule. If a game is unfinished after ten minutes and both players have fewer than 9 points, service alternates for the remainder of the match and a receiver who makes thirteen good returns in a rally automatically wins the point.

Equipment

Americans know them as ‘paddles’, in europe the word is ‘bat’ and the official ITTF terminology is ‘racket’. Whatever they are called, in the quest for more spin (see the guide to spin below) and speed the devices used to hit table tennis balls have evolved dramatically since Hiroji Satoh first used his sponge-filled instrument in 1952.

The modern table tennis bat is rather like a sandwich. The core structure, known as the blade, must be 85 per cent wood, but the remaining 15 per cent gives plenty of scope for the use of other materials: carbon fibre, for example, stiffens a blade and gives it a bigger ‘sweet spot’. The ‘filling’ consists of a layer of sponge on either side of the blade, which can be thick, thin, hard or soft according to player preference. The outer layers of the sandwich are formed by two thin pimpled sheets of rubber.

Depending on the precise petrochemical formula used in their manufacture, rubbers can impart varying degrees of spin and speed. They are usually adhered to the sponge layers with their smooth sides outward but ‘pimples-out’ rubbers are sometimes employed by players who specialise in neutralising their opponent’s spin or turning it against them. It is perfectly legitimate, indeed normal, for players to use bats with completely different characteristics on each side.

To help players ‘read’ their opponents’ shots, however, one of a bat’s surfaces must be black and the other red. One aspect of bat technology which competitors in London will have to do without is speed glue, a volatile adhesive previously applied by many players to the underside of their top-sheets to make them springier and faster. Following a couple of incidents in which spectators were rendered unconscious by toxic vapours emanating from recently treated bats, the IOC outlawed its use after the Beijing Games. The balls used in table tennis are made of celluloid and filled with gas.

They must bounce at least 23cm when dropped on to the table from a height of precisely 30.5cm. After the Sydney Games in 2000, the ITTF increased the diameter of regulation balls from 38 to 40mm, partly to make them more visible to television audiences and partly to slow the action down a notch. Other key pieces of equipment include the table, which must be 2.74m (9ft) long, 1.525 m (5ft) wide and topped by a smooth, low-friction coating; the net is 15.25cm (6in) high; and players’ clothing must not be white, as this would make the ball difficult to see.

(Image: Rex Features)

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