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Table tennis: a sport for everyone with a history stretching back more than a century

Are there democratic sports in the broadest sense of the term? Disciplines that can be practiced by everyone, regardless of age, gender or social class? Activities to be carried out in summer and winter, indoors and outdoors? Table tennis, also known as ping pong, is a sport that does not require significant investment in terms of equipment and does not require strong athletic qualities or spaces.

All you need is a racket, a ball and a playing table on one side, and nothing but the desire to try your hand at a sport, a lot of concentration and a fair amount of coordination.

All you need is a racket, a ball and a game table on one side, and nothing but the desire to try your hand at a sport, a lot of concentration and a fair amount of coordination on the other, and the magic of table tennis is done. After all, it is said that ping pong is like "playing chess running a hundred meters": you need the cunning and intelligence of a chess player but also an unparalleled readiness; you have to think about the moves in the split second that passes between a service and an answer, trying to guess the action of the opponent and predicting the movement of the ball.

The rules of table tennis

Slow motion of a shot at a ball
Table tennis can be played in one against one or in two, just like tennis, from which table tennis also takes the main rule, that of rebounding in the field of both players during the tap and answer. A point is scored when the opponent does not perform a valid service if he misses or lacks a response, or when he makes a shot on the fly, i.e. without waiting for the ball received has bounced once on their court.
A table tennis match consists of five sets (or matches) and the winner is the one who wins three sets (or matches). Each set ends when the 11 points are reached, but when the difference between the contenders is less than 2 points, it is proceeded to the bitter end, until one of the two has not overtaken of two points the other. In short, a few clear rules to make room for a game that keeps the body and minds busy, making it the ideal activity for every type of player: a sport that tests joint mobility, speed in movement and balance in gestures.
Ball, racket and table: the elements of table tennis
Suitable for children, because it helps to improve coordination and concentration, but also for adults, because, in addition to allowing an excellent aerobic exercise, thanks to the mental commitment that involves table tennis can be a good remedy against brain cells degenerations. It is no coincidence that ping-pong tables have been appearing in retirement and nursing homes for the elderly in the United States for some years now; the  Sport and Art Educational Foundation - SAEF, in fact, have studied a ping-pong therapy programmes for patients at the earliest stages of Alzheimer's or suffering from dementia.

The history of table tennis

Among its strengths, this sport also has a fascinating history and more than a hundred years that deserves to be retracted, from its appearance at the end of the nineteenth century, the consecration as an Olympic discipline in 1988, up to the present day. More than a century of history has made table tennis one of the most popular sports in the world (an estimated 40 million players).
Table tennis table for playing table tennis
It all began in the 1880s when table tennis appeared as a pastime for the English nobility. The "younger brother" of tennis first took on the name of "table tennis" in 1884, when the two rackets and the ball were included in the catalogue of games of the international seller F.H. Eyres. However, the official birth of the discipline is fixed the following year, when the Englishman James Devonshire patents the "table tennis".

The origins of table tennis

Initially, table tennis was not an easy sport to play and light years away from the speed it reaches today: the rackets could be like tambourines or equipped with a string, and the balls were made of rubber or cork. In any case, the rebounds were unpredictable, and the game was affected in terms of fluidity. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the arrival of the first plastic balls did table tennis acquire a clearer identity and greater appeal.
Shot under the net
From that moment on, the discipline - which, precisely because of the noise generated by the touch of the new balls on the table, also takes on the popular name of "ping-pong" - will no longer experience moments of decline, spreading to Europe and taking root in Asia, with China, Japan and Korea playing the part of the pioneers.

Table tennis grips

In 1926 the International Tennis Table Federation - ITTF was founded and, in the same year, in London, the first world championship in the history of table tennis was held, which saw the success of Hungarian pong players, both in individual and doubles matches. Over the years, two schools of thought and two different interpretations of table tennis were born, distinguishable above all by the respective way of holding the rackets.
Table tennis ball
The western one, with the grip of the racket with three fingers, the thumb on one side and the index finger stretched out, low, on the other; the eastern one, with the technique called "pen" because it recalls the posture of the fingers during writing. Two antithetical ways of experiencing sport, but also two distant worlds that each finds in ping-pong its own way of expression.

The evolution of table tennis

But the evolution of table tennis was not over: in 1951 a new type of racket, called a sandwich, was introduced to speed up the game even further. In practice, a layer of foam is inserted between the racquet's wood and the rubber coating. The 1950s also marked another turning point in the history of this sport: in 1954 Mao Zedong declared table tennis a Chinese national sport and supported its spread throughout the People's Republic, making Chinese athletes the strongest in the world in just a few years.
Red racket, blue table and yellow ball
Even table tennis became a symbol of thaw in relations between two powers such as China and the United States: the famous diplomacy of table tennis reached its emotional and narrative peak with the visit of American table tennis players to China in 1971, acting, in fact, as a forerunner for the official meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in the Asian country.

Table tennis today

Today table tennis is a sport played in every corner of the world, so much so that all continents are represented within the ITTF, which originally brought together only Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Wales, Germany, Hungary, India, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The European Table Tennis Union - ETTU, with 58 affiliated federations, is the most represented, followed by the African Table Tennis Federation - ATTF with 51 and the Asian Table Tennis Union - ATTU with 45.
Movement of a shot at table tennis
The latter, however, thanks to Chinese athletes, occupies the entire podium in the individual male ranking. The number one is Fan Zhendong, born in 1997, which has been leading internationally for years: its rise has been unstoppable. In 2012, when he was only 15 years old, he joined the national team and in 2013 he became the youngest winner of two consecutive open races in the ITTF World Tour, winning the stages in Germany and Poland. The following year, in Tokyo, he wins with the Chinese team the first of his three world titles for teams.
Yellow ball and black table
In the middle, he adds to the collection two individual and one double World Cups, plus a long series of victories in the international circuit that took him, at 21, to the top of the world ranking of tennis table player. China also dominates on the women's side with Ding Ning, who, between single and team competitions, was able to win three Olympic gold medals - at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games - and four world championships, becoming, in the last decade, one of the reference points for this sport.

Fan Zhendong, born in 1997, has been an international leader for years: his rise has been unstoppable.

If you're taking an interest in table tennis for the first time, it's unlikely that you'll achieve the results of Fan Zhendong or Ding Ning, but surely you're still in time to pick up a racket and put yourself to the test on a table tennis table, perhaps involving some friends in this sport that is the most democratic you can.

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