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The Evolution of the Table Tennis Ball and How Plastic Balls Will Change the Scene

20 July 2017  | Posted in: Table Tennis Tips

About the author

Radivoj Hudetz

Radivoj Hudetz is a 70-year veteran of table tennis and the Chairman of the ETTHoF board. 

He's the coach of Bayern, the German junior team, the Yugoslavian national women team, and the Yugoslavian champion women team HASTK Mladost Zagreb. He's an author of several books on table tennis techniques, tactics and history. He's also the chief editor of table tennis periodicals “Tischtennis aktuell” and “SPIN”, and an author of several films and DVD’s on table tennis. He's also the former president of Yugoslav Table Tennis Association and the former General secretary of Croatian TT Association. He was the tournament director of World Championships 2007. 

Currently he's a honorary member of ETTU and a member of ITTF President Advisory Council. He's been honored with ITTF award of merit, with the Croatian Table Tennis Association’s Trophy and with the Sport Award of Croatian Republic.

Balls1

From its very beginning, table tennis has evolved through many different phases, helping it to become the sport it is today. While alterations such as rule changes and equipment development have mostly offered improvements, some have also been obstacles on the road to the sport’s development. Not so long ago, another big step was taken. 

The recent 2014-2015 table tennis season brought a radical new change to the sport: plastic balls began to replace celluloid balls at the most important events under the tutorage of ITTF – including the World Championships, World Tour Tournaments, and other major competitions. The shift progressed in a manner to phase out the old celluloid balls, keeping them in parallel use with plastic balls for a certain period before completely disappearing.  

Surprisingly, the introduction of plastic balls did not require any change of rules, as the rules do not specify which material the ball must be made of; only the weight, diameter, and rebound are specified. 

Table Tennis Balls: Then to Now 

This change in material can be understood in better context if we look at its evolution over time. The first celluloid ball was introduced in England in 1900, at a time when table tennis had traditionally been more of a parlor game than a sport, using balls made from cork or other materials. 

So in 1900, the 38mm celluloid ball became the new standard, and remained this way until the year 2000 when it was replaced by a larger, 40mm ball.  

Even before that date, however, a plastic ball produced by the company Barna Dunlop was used for a short time in the 1980’s, even making an appearance at some big, international events. But most players ended up rejecting these plastic balls as unplayable, because they were as hard as stone, and until now, no further attempts were made to improve upon this type of ball.  

Meanwhile, celluloid was rapidly becoming an obsolete material, replaced by plastic for all of its purposes except for the production of table tennis balls! Strict safety regulations for celluloid production in Europe make its production expensive, and demand for the material has dramatically decreased to the point that there is no more celluloid production in Europe.  

At this point, only two factories in the world produce celluloid, both located in China. These factories produce the material solely for table tennis balls, and Europe has shut down all of its celluloid ball factories completely, as the production has become too costly.  

On top of this, celluloid is an extremely flammable material, making it difficult and rather expensive to transport and store the balls. The development of plastic materials and their widespread use in everyday life has made it quite natural to exchange such an obsolete material as celluloid with contemporary plastics.

From Celluloid to Plastic 

Some years ago, China began to investigate how to produce plastic balls, an initiative which came from the ITTF Equipment Committee. In cooperation with ITTF, one of the Chinese ball factories began to produce its first samples of plastic balls. This proved to be a major innovation, as these new balls were produced in one piece, unlike celluloid balls which have a seam down the middle where their two hemispheres connect. 

China’s plastic ball production required totally new technology and machinery. A problem arose immediately: because these plastic balls have no seam, the existing testing procedures and equipment weren’t able to precisely measure whether the ball suited the ITTF approval demands. It wasn’t necessary to change the sport’s rules because of the change in material, but it did become necessary to develop new measuring devices. As a result, the new plastic balls were not immediately ITTF approved.  

In the meantime, two other Chinese factories started to produce plastic balls in the traditional way with a seam, while one was producing them without. So today, we have two Chinese factories producing plastic balls with a seam, one Chinese factory producing plastic balls without a seam, and one Japanese and one German factory producing plastic balls. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Plastic Balls 

From the moment that plastic balls were introduced, all ITTF events from 2014-2015 and onward were required to use the new material. It was only logical that continental events and most national events immediately followed, as celluloid remained in use only in lower categories and hobby matches. 

Plastic balls produce a different sound than celluloid balls, but the most important difference between the two is the harder surface of plastic which makes it impossible to give the ball as much spin as with celluloid balls.  

Also, the durability and quality of plastic balls was initially quite poor. It was expected that seamless balls would produce a homogenous high quality out of production, solving one of the problems of celluloid, but this wasn’t the case – the balls still needed to be divided after production into four categories, from the best quality balls for competitions down to lowest quality balls for practicing. Unexpected differences in production quality were a disappointing result from the new plastic ball production.  

Recently, factories have changed the original plastic used for the production of the balls with a new type of plastic that should solve these existing problems, as well as making the balls less expensive. The fact is that plastic balls have already significantly changed the game, evolving it to be played with less spin and more speed. 

The Impact of Plastic Balls on Table Tennis 

Table tennis balls 2The introduction of plastic balls to table tennis has definitely changed the game in massive ways. In a rally, a plastic ball bounces higher than a celluloid ball, flies faster, and is more difficult for the player to produce spin than with a celluloid ball. 

Plastic balls as they are today are an advantage for players playing a fast attack game without much spin. These players are hitting the ball as soon as possible after the bounce, before the ball reaches the highest point of its trajectory. The new European champion from Budapest 2017 Lebesson (France) is one player who profited from these characteristics of plastic balls. He won a gold medal with his fast attack style, the plastic ball enabling him to dominate using hard and fast strokes without much spin. 

Another example of a player who has used this new material to their advantage is the new Japanese star Harimoto Tomokazu, who in the 2017 World Championships marched into the quarterfinals at only 14 years of age! He profited massively from the plastic ball using his fast strokes devoid of spin, hitting the ball immediately after the bounce on the table. It is possible that this type of gameplay will bring pimpled rubbers back into the scene. 

But not everyone benefits from the new plastic balls and the changes they bring to gameplay. Defensive players playing backspin defense are even in more trouble than they've already been, and topspin players playing attack from half-distance have difficulties with the new ball as well. The ball comes at them faster, they have less time to react, and they cannot produce as much spin as before. 

Overall, the changes brought to the game have been significant, and have caused players to alter their strategies and techniques to keep up. Table tennis has become faster, and rallies shorter. And with shorter stroke movements comes the need for adequate physical preparation to avoid injuries. 

What Are Your Thoughts?  

So what are your thoughts on the evolution of the table tennis ball from traditional celluloid to plastic? Has the game experienced a decline due to the massive changes in gameplay and speed? Or are these changes a positive thing, causing players to uplevel their skills and techniques while keeping things interesting for viewers? Let us know in the comments below.

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