Feature | Table Tennis

Timo Boll explains how table tennis has changed since he started playing

Triple Olympic medallist has seen the sport modernise dramatically in over 20 years at the top level

By ZK Goh ·

For a majority of table tennis' 32 years as an Olympic sport, since its introduction at Seoul 1988, Germany's Timo Boll has been playing at the top level.

The 39-year-old boasts a professional career lasting over 23 years, appearing in his first World Championships in 1997 before making his Olympic debut at Sydney 2000 where he reached the round of 16.

And that means he has seen how his sport has modernised since he began playing, from changes in the playing rules, to the dimensions and material of the ball, to what the racket is made of.

The changes have "never been easy, but it’s also been fun to change," Boll – who has won three Olympic medals and will make his sixth Games appearance at Tokyo 2020told Olympic.org.

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Adapting to change

Boll first reached the top of the world rankings in 2003 but has had to adapt to keep up with the changes.

The first major one came in the year Boll made his Olympic debut in Sydney, when the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) decided to make the balls bigger.

Table tennis balls, which had been a maximum of 38 millimetres in diameter since the sport's laws were first codified by the ITTF in 1928, now measured 40mm across.

Boll, who relied on heavy topspin, was affected by the change, which reduced the impact of playing that type of spin.

"It was the biggest weapon in my game, but the bigger ball made it harder to put the same rotation and side [spin] on," Boll said.

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Manipulating the racket

Another aspect for the athletes to think about is how to maximise their table tennis paddle and the rubbers they use on each side.

On this point, too, Boll has changed his equipment over his career.

"Twenty-five years ago, I played a very soft rubber which had an immense catapult effect built-in, but now I play very hard rubbers and I need to put all the effort in to play high-quality.

"I can control it how I like it, the rubber follows my movements," he explained.

The racket itself was the centre of some controversy when players began applying high-speed glue to their rubbers, which changed the way the ball reacted after being hit.

This led the ITTF to withdraw its authorisation of such glues in 2007, and decree a year later that "the racket covering must be used without any physical, chemical or other treatment which would change its characteristics."

Boll said this – in addition to the effect of his age on his body – led to a change in how he played.

"I stay closer to the table. I have to react faster, read the game much better, play much more precise than before," he said.

"It was because of the rule changes and also my physical abilities changed a little bit. I needed to adapt somehow, and somehow I have found solutions." - Timo Boll to Olympic.org.

New balls and Chinese struggles

China have traditionally dominated table tennis – the country has won 28 of the 32 Olympic gold medals in the sport – but even the country's top players struggled with one of the most recent changes.

Balls used to be made of celluloid, but they were changed to plastic in most international competitions in 2014. Boll explained that the plastic balls "cut down the rotation" and spin that players were able to impart.

Another slight change to the plastic composition was made after the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, which resulted in Chinese players losing ground.

Olympic champion Ma Long admitted to the Olympic Channel last year that the changes had set him and his teammates back. "China is meeting a period where others are improving," he said then. "Times have changed, skills have changed, the ball has changed, players have changed. A lot of things have changed, and we all need to adapt to the environment."

This development, however, was welcomed by Boll, who returned to the world number one position in early 2018, a sign of his longevity and continued success.

"Most of the time the Chinese have dominated our sport," Boll pointed out.

"It was good to see we still had a chance and there were ways to compete against them!"