This section contains answers from a variety of players, ranging from average players to national champions and coaches:
What is the better game, sponge vs sponge, or hardBat vs hardBat? That of course, is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, it is an opinion of which very few of us are in a position to make an educated decision. Sponge has dominated since the 50s, so most of us were not playing when there wasn't sponge. However, we do have the word of players who have lived in both eras, and most of them believe the game was better without sponge. Let me relay my own personal experiences that led to my switching to hardbat:
I played sponge for 20 years, switching one day on a whim (in about 1996). One reason I switched was I had been embarrassed at a barbeque when I was unable to play with the primitive hardbats everyone was using. I wanted to learn how to play with a hardbat so that I wouldn't be embarrassed in that way before.
My rating dropped considerably and I became one of the worst players at the club. But something about the style of play infected me. I found myself playing and practicing more than I had before, getting better, and enjoying the game much more than I ever did playing sponge. It wasn't long before I discovered that games against *other* hardBat players were my favorite games to play.
The sponge game uses an explosive, reactive instrument capable of applying such spin as to fly off the opponent's bat many feet sideways with just a touch. And yet the playing surface is very small. Some have described this as being a game out of proportion with itself, and the effect is dominance by attacking styles. HardBat, by contrast, is a game in which defense is possible, and therefore used and necessary. It is more balanced in terms of offense and defense, the two essential elements in any sport. This yin/yang is missing in the sponge game.
With a hardbat, the player feels the shock of the ball hitting the wood, the energy transmitted directly to the hand. When a player cracks a solid slam, it is through the force of his/her swing, and nothing else. The power is unaided by any catapulting effect; all action by the player produces an equal/opposite reaction on the ball and a commensurate "whack" sound from the wood. The game is thus more immediately coherent and logical, and even a child can understand what is happening to the ball as a result of the actions of the players. By contrast, the sponge game has been described as "cryptic", where it is virtually impossible for a casual observer to relate to the action.
Whereas it is more difficult to apply spin, it is therefore easier to *read* the spin applied by the opponent. One can generally tell what spin has been placed on the ball because the opponent would have had to use a full stroke to apply the spin. By contrast, in the modern game, spin can be applied by very slight movements, or may be affected by differences in the rubber surfaces... sometimes even two different surfaces on the same bat. Since it is easier to read the spin, it is easier to keep the ball in play and rallies are usually longer. Mystery and deception are reduced.
In the sponge game, you are always one loop-kill away from losing the point. There is little room for too much variety, too much personal style, too much relaxation. Death is always at hand. In the HardBat game, there are many ways to play successfully, and with greater chances to return the ball. Styles that would face instant death in the sponge world can survive in the hardbat world. Thus, the notion that the variety of sponge surfaces lead to a greater variety of playing styles is, ironically, not accurate, at least at the top levels.
Since Hardbat rallies are longer, it has been argued that playing a hardbat game is thus a more aerobic experience. Not faster, not more tiring, simply more aerobic. Some believe that the aerobics combined with the reduced nervous tension results in a healthier, more graceful sport.
HardBat is arguably a better spectator sport. While this too is a matter of opinion, most hardbatters believe it. Whenever I bring a newcomer to watch a sponge match, their first response is "wow! this is great!", but within 5 minutes their eyes glaze over and they lose interest. Without balance, without defense, the game is repetitive and lacks sustained drama. Also, the loop-kill is so devastating that rallies are short, and most of the players have similar styles.
10-times U.S. Champion Dick Miles once described to me what executives told him when Wide World of Sports decided to drop table tennis from their programming. There were no rallies; nothing to show. Of course, we can only guess as to whether the situation would have been different if the players were using hardbats... but in the hardbat era, table tennis championships were regularly held in mainstream venues such as Wembley Stadium, in front of huge sellout crowds. Table tennis exhibitions by Ruth Aarons, Sandor Glancz, and others, were nightly attractions at Radio City Music Hall.
Hardbat is more elder-friendly. Not only were the vast majority of veteran players trained with hardbats, many openly state their belief that the game would be better if it switched back. A huge number of senior players have stopped playing because they are uninterested in the sponge game, which is very different than the game they loved for years. Some of our hardbat players are seniors returning to the game because of the return of competitive hardbat play.
HardBat is cheaper. A decent sponge bat starts at about $100. But then there's the cleaner, the glue, the replacement sheets, etc. A $40 hardbat can last years. While we consider this a benefit, some manufacturers are frightened by this possibility. It is our claim that manufacturers would ultimately benefit if a resurgence in hardbat helped fuel a surge in interest in table tennis in general. Many companies such as Escalade, Butterfly, and ZeroPong have thus been supportive of hardbat and have helped to promote hardbat events despite the reduced equipment costs.
HardBat focuses on skill rather than equipment. Nobody wins because their paddle confused the opponent. You don't have to worry so much about whether this is the right combination of blade/rubber/glue for you. Everyone just hits the ball with a simple paddle.
Hardbat connects players with the history of the game. It is amazing how freely today's players will downgrade players in the past, even from just 10 years ago, when they don't really know much about them. Most players today couldn't name the world champions prior to 1990. It is hard to think of another sport in which players so actively distance themselves from their own history. Yet, history is what makes a sporting accomplishment great. Winning a world series puts one in the same company as the great Yankee and Dodger teams... how can anyone know what it means to be a table tennis champion, when there is no awareness of the context? I actually once met a certified USATT state-level coach who had never heard of Victor Barna. That would be like a baseball coach having never heard of Babe Ruth... unfathomable in any other sport but common in table tennis.
Hardbat is more inviting for a newcomer. You can hardly even play the sponge game without training. Worse, a game between a strong player and a weak player is often a waste of time with sponge. With a hardbat, the stronger player may win 21-0, but the game will still be fun and challenging for both players... and still be attractive and coherent to watch.
More people in the U.S. play hardbat than play sponge. "Basement" players generally use simple pimpled rubber or sandpaper paddles, and never play with or against sponge. Some of them have even become surprisinly good at the hardbat game. And yet, if they enter a tournament, there is no outlet for their skills. Many of them consider the sponge bat to be a "trick" bat, and an unfair advantage. Hardbat events could provide a vehicle for first-time players to compete in a game in which they already have some skills. In the current situation, anyone attending a local tournament will find that their simple paddle is not only illegal, it is nothing like what they will be required to purchase. Many players are instantly turned off. While it is easy for tournament players to scoff at such "unenlightened" beginners, the reality is that in America, it is the hardbat game that is truly the mainstream, and sponge the oddity.
HardBat is fun. Hundreds of devoted sponge players have found hardbat events a fun supplement to a day of play in a sponge tournament.
If you can play with a hardbat, you can play with just about anything. I may not be a very good player (~1800), but I'm not a heck of a lot worse if I use, say, a shoe. That is really handy when playing in a bar or a friend's house. Back when I was a sponge player, I couldn't play with recreational paddles, and it sure was unimpressive (even embarrassing) to beat someone with a fancy sponge paddle when they just had a kmart paddle. Tournament players should be able to beat garage players with *anything*.
Hardbat is sometimes described as having no spin. This is NOT true. It just has *less* spin. Look at any book on the game from the 1930s, and the description of spin and its effects are almost the same as today. But, today's sponge paddles have much greater spin intensity, and it is more easily applied. With a hardbat, applying spin requires a full stroke. Therefore, in a hardbat-to-hardbat game, the spin is easier to read and thus easier to control, and there is a reasonable limit to the degree of spin a player has to anticipate. HOWEVER, it is still a game primarily of spin, and thus the essence of the game is pretty much the same.
Other sports have multiple forms. Auto racing is available in a myriad of different divisions; running races are held in every conceivable distance from 100-yards to marathons; there is baseball and softball, volleyball and beach volleyball, archery with varying styles of bows, pool and snooker, etc. Table tennis is under no mandate to have only one division, only one game with only one style of rules. As small as the game is, why not open it up by including more divisions?
Playing with a hardbat forces one to evaluate the game more objectively. For example, I'm 1800 now... maybe I'd be 1900 with sponge. But would that make me a better player? I prefer my 1800 hardbat game, because of the things I do: chopping, flat-hitting, retrieving, using more strategy. In the grand scheme of things, what difference is it whether I am rated 1800 or 1900? I prefer the way I play with a hardbat, win or lose. Ultimately I'm "outgunned" against a stronger sponge player, but it's a small price to pay when I feel as though my play is more satisfying with a hardbat.
Besides, it is generally easy to rope someone into a hardbat-to-hardbat game. The game is naturally infectuous!
I started playing ping pong at 8 years old in 1973. My friend who introduced me to the sport used only hard bat rackets so I thought that these were the normal rackets used by everyone. After a couple of years of playing I played one of my father's tennis friends who used a sponge racket. I had a very difficult time dealing with his strange spins. After this my question for people was to ask them if they used a normal racket. Not knowing I considered a hardbat racket as a normal racket. Years later I realized that sponge rackets were the normal rackets used by tournament players. At 12 I switched to a sponge racket after reading Tim Boggan's book.
Fast forward to March 1998. I was burnt out on sponge table tennis. For years I trained on building fast, powerful loops and tricky spins. Endless gluing and changing rubber every month got to be a pain. The guy who built the biggest gun was usually the winner. There was beauty in this game but it was hidden to the average person. I wanted something simple and straight up. Hardbat table tennis was the answer.
Suddenly everyone was on a much more level playing field. I was closer to players above me and players below me were also much closer to me. I did not have to worry about getting back Jim Butler's serves or Brian Masters anti spin blocks or Derek May's long pips pick hits or Scott Butler's powerful loops. Everyone basically had about the same shots. No more tricks. Longer rallies ensued with players more concerned with out positioning each other than simply overpowering each other. Now this was FUN.
I really enjoyed the feeling of a ball hitting a hardbat racket. I also enjoyed the sound of hardbat rackets. For the first time in 21 years I was enjoying the game instead of training just to be a better player. I still train to be a better player but when I lose to someone in hardbat I don't feel like I just got overpowered or tricked by severe spins. The player just out played me and it was clear and evident what happened.
Now after winning the 1998 US Nationals Hardbat Singles and Doubles I have a new identity in the sport. I am hooked. Although not everyone can win championships I feel like the joy from a long hardbat rally can be experienced by everyone. It is truly a game for the masses. I hope others will discover the beautiful hardbat game.
(photo by John Oros)
There are some who say that the spinning serve and the overpowering fast loop behind it have made the game more exciting than it was in Miles' and Reisman's day when there were those enduring marathons, slower volleys, and endless chances for strategic play. But the last tournament I went to, in Miami, had a bare fifty spectators, whereas I'm told that bleachers were packed thirty years ago under the magic spell of the masters of the game.
Still, Stellan is far superior to the greats of yesteryear. So what has been lost?
Maybe the mystery lies in the hard rubber bat, and the graceful cat-like movements of Marty Reisman. Why else, to use an analogy, would Muhammad Ali be loved over Joe Frazier, the boxing equivalent of the hard-working, technical, and thoroughly efficient modern table tennis player?
When I met them, the Swedish players were not studying the mathematics of the game for nothing, all the while calming their fears of losing with modern rituals, and becoming more predictable with every weight-lifting exercise.The anti-topspin racket, too, devilishly aimed at eliminating the danger of losing while trying not to pay the dues, symbolizes the new logic of table tennis.
The sport has succumbed to the apocalyptic dreams of a Dr. Spock child of suburbia, refusing to suffer the slow, gradual trials and errors of growing up, but wanting instead instant maturity.
The inverted sponge has satisfied this technological need--as real as the need for color TVs and streamlined plastic cars which are dead in a year but "sexy" while they last. It has become almost impossible for a Joe Namath to exist in table tennis with robots spreading their metallic disease like cancer around the globe.
What charisma can survive the dull predictability of the machine? Could it be that one's very being today incorporates the oscillation and senseless, electric hum? Yes, the sensuality of the game has been lost to the silent thud of the sponge--whereas thirty years ago, the crack of confrontation with the rubber bat excited audiences.
Now the battle lines have been blurred, the struggle of an expedite match has been lost to the ferocious whippings of a fast loop, as inevitable and omnipotent as our hi-rise buildings. The essence of the game now is speed--with the third ball attack as its image. The long skillful maneuvers of a hotly contested match have evolved into the rushing impatience and quick movements of an athlete racing the clock of his mind towards the tape, nervously aware that a split second could tell the winner.
No wonder the game has lost its appeal--the fans have already been through the rush hour traffic jam going to and from work, why shouldn't they prefer a good movie at home to those painful reminders that table tennis brings of their fast-paced world?
These thoughts and others entered my mind as I yawned with boredom at watching the world champion play in Lapland. It wasn't that he was any less of a great player than I thought, but that his strategy never varied--the serve, loop, and kill were easily executed with an unbelievable consistency and technique that were anathema to the senses. He has trained his body as seriously as any astronaut, but his title would vanish without his space weapon, the Stellan Bengtsson Mark V bat.
There could be no tragedy in his style resembling the moral suffering of a Marty Reisman who has remained faithful to the sensual style of the game despite technological inventions. Once an anti-Stellan Bengtsson Mark V bat is developed, what will Stellan do then? Will he finally see his own absurdity and revert to rubber, or will he continue his false struggle to combat technology with better technology?
Whatever happens, the personal aura of Marty Reisman remains, and the memory of the game's one-time greatness with the spectators does too. Are they not in the end to judge a player's worth with their thumbs up or down?
On this subject I recall the following statement of one of my colleagues on the French team: 'I have a cold today, and cannot hear well, which is why I cannot play well.' This point is at the heart of many of our problems today. The spectator is the loser also in this matter, for the same reason--he cannot evaluate what is going on. Is it unreasonable for him to lose interest?
In conclusion, despite today's publicity, which we did not have years ago, and despite the devotion of our officials, it must be admitted that table tennis today cannot pretend to have the audience that it had when it was the sport that it used to be.
One can well understand that the spectator, knowing that he might have to sit quite away from the table, and that in that case he will not be able to hear the ball as he used to do, will think of his precious time and not bother to turn out. One benefit, of course, has come out of all this; because of the shortness of the games, the spectator can be certain that he will not miss his last bus home. Before the war, he often had to get home on foot. What a consolation!..."