Table tennis is a sport with a vast history. What began as a simple parlor game is now one of the most complex and compelling Olympic sports.
To this day, the history of our sport continues to grow. Emblematic players such as Ma Long, Jan-Ove Waldner and Viktor Barna have managed to transcend table tennis with incredible sporting feats and became ambassadors of their nations.
We will cover the most important competitive, technological, and even diplomatic milestones in table tennis history, spanning more than 130 years since its inception until this day. Condensing the entire history of table tennis into a single article.
Table of Contents
- The Start of Table Tennis (1890s-1920s)
- European domination (1920s-1950s)
- The professionalization of Table Tennis (1950s-2000s)
- The Chinese Domination of Table Tennis (2000s-today)
The Start of Table Tennis (1890s-1920s)
Table tennis origins go back to the 1890s. It was played throughout England as a parlor game, just for fun.
Who Invented Table Tennis?
The oldest surviving table tennis game to date is an example of Parlor Table Games, created by David Foster, which included tabletop versions of cricket, football, and lawn tennis.
This version was played with stringed rackets, a 30mm rubber ball covered with cloth, and a wooden fence that acted as the net.
After Foster, there were many more attempts to bring lawn tennis to a table, including card games, board games, and even dice games.
In the year 1891, the famous game makers Jacques of London launched their version of table tennis, Gossima. This consisted of drum rackets, a 50mm cork ball, and a 30cm high net.
Neither of these two games was successful. The cork ball bounced too little, while the rubber ball bounced too much.
The First Table Tennis Ball
The history of the sport changed forever when the celluloid ball was introduced. So much so, that it would be used for the next 100 years (see a more detailed history of the table tennis ball).
However, the popularity of the sport stalled in the 1900s. Table tennis grew out of fashion for 2 decades. It was in the 1920s that the sport took off, and in that decade, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was created.
In this period, we also saw the name ‘Table Tennis’ gain popularity over the already trademarked name ‘Ping Pong’ (learn more about the distinction between table tennis and ping pong)
European domination (1920s-1950s)
The first competitive Table Tennis matches were dominated by European players since the sport had not yet spread in Asia.
The Introduction of the World Table Tennis Championships
The first major competitions were, and still are, the World Table Tennis Championships.
Between 1926 and 1951 all the men’s world champions were Europeans, and between 1926 and 1955 all the women’s world champions were from the western world.
Of those female winners, all were European except for the American player Ruth Aarons, who won the women’s singles event twice in 1936 and 1937.
In this period, records were set for the most World Championship winners. On the men’s side, Viktor Barna won a record 5 world championships and 41 medals. In addition, he won the English Open a staggering 20 times.
Records that still, to this day, haven’t been beaten.
On the women’s side, Angelica Rozeanu became the most successful player in the history of the World Championships, having won 6 tournaments in a row, a feat that no one, neither men nor women, has been able to match until this day.
The rackets used in this period consisted in wooden blades with short pimpled rubbers on both sides, without sponge. The technology to make inverted rubbers fast and spinny wasn’t there yet, so the best way to get power on the ball was by using short pips.
The professionalization of Table Tennis (1950s-2000s)
In the ’50s, things began to change. After the championships of Bergmann and Leach on the men’s side, and the incredible run from Angelica Rozeanu, the Japanese started consistently winning world titles.
This decade was possibly the most important decade for the technology of the sport since sponged rubbers began to be used by defensive players.
The First Sponge Rubbers
In the year 1952, Hiroji Satoh won the World Table Tennis Championships with a racket that had sponges up to 10mm thick on each side, with no rubber topsheet.
Satoh’s opponents were confused as his racket made no sound and neutralized all spin and speed the ball carried.
As Satoh was a defensive player, this racket gave him a huge advantage, even more so if we consider that his opponents played with rackets that had no sponge.
It was nearly impossible to beat Satoh with speed, even less so with spin, given that the technology of offensive rackets was lagging behind in comparison with that of defensive rackets.
This was the beginning of the controversies. After Satoh, many defenders entered the world stage as the defensive style was now much more effective than before.
In the year 1954, it was clear that something had to change. In the match between Ichiro Ogimura and Tage Flisberg, Flisberg simply pushed the ball back towards Ogimura, who was trying to play an active and offensive game.
Flisberg’s racket neutralized Ogimura’s attack. Even though Ogimura won, the final was dull and unimpressive, not like in the years before sponged rackets were adopted by defenders.
Ogimura had to play a very boring match to beat Flisberg, and the final was mostly a game of pushing the ball back to each other until Ogimura had a chance to attack.
It was no use for Ogimura to take risks because Flisberg could return his attack easily, and Ogimura knew Flisberg wouldn’t attack with power. Ogimura, an offensive player, just pushed the ball back to Flisberg until he got an easy chance.
Traditionalists vs Technologists
The issue divided nations between pro and anti sponges, traditionalists vs. technologists.
Japan, for example, wanted sponges up to 8mm to be used as their players benefitted from it, while Germany only wanted non-sponge paddles and was unwilling to accept a middle ground.
It seemed impossible to bridge the gap and the situation was going from bad to worse. Players attended world championships with any type of racket as there were no rules to standardize them.
All this was resolved in 1959 in Dortmund. The countries voted and even though some countries voted against the proposition, more than ¾ were in favor of standardization.
China presented its proposal that the rubbers should not be more than 4mm thick, and it was also approved by more than ¾ of the nations. In addition, it was forbidden to use only sponge rubbers, the surface had to be a smooth or pimpled topsheet.
After this rule, the sport began to look more and more like the one we have today.
With the new ‘inverted’ rubbers, the first advanced stroke was adopted, the forehand loop!
In terms of results, the Japanese and the Chinese were the biggest winners in the 50s and 60s.
On the men’s side, from 1950 to 1969, the two most successful nations were Japan, with 7 men’s team events, and China, with 3.
On the women’s side, from 1950 to 1969, the story was somewhat different.
The Japanese players were also the most successful, with 6 championships, and the Romanians, led by Angelica Rozeanu, achieved 5 championships.
The Chinese players won for the only time in 1965 and the Soviet Union won in 1969.
Introduction of Advanced Inverted Rubbers
In 1967 and 1969, two other very important events occurred in the history of the sport. The release of the Butterfly Sriver and the Yasaka Mark V.
Before these landmark products, the rubbers that were used were of very low quality. Both of these new rubbers were a total revolution to the sport since they had consistency and spin to play all types of advanced strokes, both offensive and defensive.
Both of these rubbers were used in top-level competition for over 30 years, and they are still in production to this day.
More than half a century later, these timeless rubbers are still recommended for beginners and allround players.
The 1970s were extremely important for the history of the sport in sporting terms, technological advancements, and even diplomatically.
In the 70s, of the 5 editions of the World Table Tennis Championships, 3 were won by the Chinese team. As for the other 2, the 1973 edition was won by Sweden and the 1979 edition by Hungary.
International competitions were still at the reach of all the nations, but China was starting to establish its historical dominance.
The first edition of the WTTC in this decade, that of 1971, was very important for the sport since the first instance of the famous ping pong diplomacy took place.
Ping Pong Diplomacy
Since the early years of the sport in China, it sought to strengthen international relations with the motto “Friendship First, Competition Second”.
At the height of the cold war, the American table tennis delegation received an invitation from the Chinese team to visit the country.
It all started when the American player Glenn Cowan missed his bus at the 1971 WTTC. Instead, he got on the Chinese bus, where everyone except Zhuang Zedong ignored him.
Zhuang Zedong greeted him and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains.
After the event of Cowan and Zhuang, on April 10, 1971, the men’s table tennis team was the first American delegation to set foot on Chinese soil.
This was the first upturn in Sino-American relations after 1949.
After this meeting, diplomatic relations continued to improve, to the point that US President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and Sino-American relations were normalized in 1979.
The last major event of the 1970s was a huge technological breakthrough.
The 1979 Hungarian team that won the World Championship was led by the player Gábor Gergely. Does the name ring a bell? Let’s watch an incredible match between Gergely and his compatriot Jónyer to analyze some typical characteristics of the game at that time.
First, we can see that the shot quality improved dramatically from the years prior. In the 1970s there was a rapid advance in the technique of the sport.
With the new rubbers, all kinds of shots could be played, which allowed Gergely and Jonyer to play the shots we see in the video.
Around this time there was also a transition from each player having their own improvised technique, to there being similar techniques all over the world. The backhand loop was also invented in this decade and perfected over time.
Red and Black Table Tennis Rubbers
In this era, players were commonly seen using rubbers of the same color, since the two-color rule would not appear until 1986.
Have you ever wondered why we play with a black rubber and a colored (usually red) rubber?
This is because, in the ’70s and ‘80s, players started playing with different types of rubbers on each side and flipping the racket to use both sides during a single point. This became known as ‘twiddling’.
For example, you could have pimples on one side and inverted rubber on the other. Both sides were red and it was very hard to tell with which side the player hit the ball if they twiddled their racket.
To counteract this strategy, the ITTF introduced a rule forcing players to use rubbers of different colors on each side.
The First Composite Blade
A third and last significant change, Gábor Gergely was one of the first players to use a blade with carbon fibers, the Butterfly Gergely. These were termed ‘composite blades’.
One of the most important inventions of the 1970s was the invention of composite blades when Butterfly introduced its TAMCA 5000 model to the market in 1978.
At first, not many players used it due to its high cost and because this type of blade was something completely new and untested. Previously, everyone had been using blades made only of wood.
Over time, more and more players adopted them. Practically all professional players and a large number of amateurs use composite blades today.
Moving on to the 80s, this was another hugely important decade for the development of the sport, especially in competitive terms.
Table Tennis in the Olympics and the Table Tennis World Cup
Now we not only have the World Championships as the most important competition. In this decade, the Table Tennis World Cup was established, and table tennis was included in the Olympics.
The creation of the Table Tennis World Cup happened in the year 1980. This event aimed to bring together the 16 most successful players on the professional circuit, in a tournament where only elite players face each other.
The addition of table tennis to the Olympic Games followed 8 years after, in 1988. This competition became the most important for table tennis players.
In terms of results, China was once again the most successful nation.
Chinese male players won 7 of the 10 world cups and 4 of the 5 World Championships team events. However, the first men’s event of the Olympic Games was won by Korean player Yoo Nam-Kyu.
Chinese female players won 5 out of 5 team events at the World Championships and Chen Jing won the women’s event at the Olympic Games. The World Cup did not yet have a women’s format.
The Invention of Speed Glue
In technological terms, blades with composites became a little more popular and a very important advance was made. The creation of speed glue.
Speed glue was a glue that, when applied to table tennis rubbers, gave players more speed and spin on shots.
This was achieved since the solvent vapors of the speed glue increased the elasticity of the rubber bands, creating a trampoline effect, similar to modern-day tensioned rubbers.
This was the beginning of the acceleration of table tennis, which would have enormous long-term consequences. Today, even though speed glue is banned, other similar chemicals called boosters are still used.
Sweden vs. China
This decade went down in the history books as Sweden’s golden age.
Led by Jan Ove Waldner, for some the best player in history, they managed to beat the Chinese players on multiple occasions.
The first time the Swedish team beat the Chinese was at the 1989 World Table Tennis Championships, and after that they won 2 more times, totaling 3 consecutive World Championships victories against the best team in the world.
It was an incredible feat since the Chinese had completely dominated the world scene until then. It’s an achievement no other country has managed to replicate since. This Sweden team last that could consistently beat their Chinese counterparts.
After that, the Swedes would fall in 1995 and 1997 but they would beat the Chinese team for the last time in the year 2000.
As if this were not enough, Sweden also won the Table Tennis World Cup team event in 1990 and Jan Ove Waldner won the second edition of the Olympic Games in 1992.
The women’s events, meanwhile, were always dominated by Chinese players, with very few exceptions.
The Introduction of the ALC Blade
At this time, another crucial technological advancement in table tennis took place. The creation of the arylate carbon blade (ALC).
Butterfly had been selling composite fiber blades since 1978, but they were too hard and stiff for many players, who wanted the stability offered by carbon fibers but needed a softer touch on the ball.
In response to this request, the first legendary ALC blade appeared, the Butterfly Viscaria.
This iconic blade, released in 1993, is used to this day by superstars like Fan Zhendong.
The Chinese Domination of Table Tennis (2000s-today)
The 2000s were a time of transition for competitive sport, both technologically and competitively.
New Rules in Table Tennis
In this period the sport was completely transformed. It went from 21 points per game to 11 in 2001, speed glue was banned in 2007 and Chinese domination in this period was, and still is, practically total.
There were also multiple changes to the ball used in table tennis, starting with the adoption of a larger 40mm celluloid ball in 2000. 2014 saw another change to a 40mm plastic ball as celluloid became more and more difficult to produce in the quantity needed.
The Swedish giants had their last victory at the WTTC in 2000, when Jan Ove Waldner was 35 years old. In this final, Waldner would beat 24-year-old Liu Guoliang, now president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association.
From this final onwards, the Chinese male players did not lose in any team event of the 3 major tournaments from the year 2001 to the present.
Chinese male players won all the team events at the Table Tennis World Cup, the World Table Tennis Championships, and the Olympic Games.
The Chinese women’s team only finished second in one team event, the 2010 World Table Tennis Championships team event, when they lost the final match against Singapore. They were champions in all the other events.
Recent Upsets Against China
In important international competitions, it is very rare for a team other than China to win, so when it does happen, it is celebrated by the table tennis community. Everyone likes to see the underdogs win!
Recently, Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito achieved an extraordinary feat. The last Olympic medal won by a non-Chinese representative was in 2004, when Ryu Seung Min won the men’s singles event.
Speaking of Ryu Seung Min, he filled the Korean people with pride by winning one of the most iconic matches in table tennis history.
Going back to Ito and Mizutani, they broke a 16-year spell without Olympic medals for the rest of the world when they won the first-ever mixed doubles event.
In addition to this, another very important victory for the rest of the world was when the Swedish brothers Mattias Falck and Kristian Karlsson won the men’s doubles event of the World Table Tennis Championships in 2021.
These were some of the achievements of athletes from the rest of the world, but, as we said before, the most dominant were the Chinese.
At this time, several of the best players in history appeared, such as Ding Ning, Xu Xin, Ma Lin, Zhang Jike, Wang Liqin, Liu Guoliang, and the best player in history, Ma Long.
The Greatest Player of all Time
Ma Long is the only player to win 2 men’s singles events at the Olympic Games, and on top of that, counting World Cups, World Championships, and Olympics, he won a total of 26 gold medals.
And his legacy doesn’t end there. Ma Long said that he wants to participate in the 2024 Olympics, and with his incredible tenacity, you never know what might happen. Will Ma Long break his own record and become the first triple Olympic champion?