A decade ago this article wouldn’t have been possible.
Or, to be more accurate, it would have been shorter than this one. Much, much shorter.
In fact, it would have been so short that I’ll happily replicate it in this intro without compromising this article in any way.
So what’s the deal with ping pong and table tennis? Are they the same thing or what?
Yup, they are. Literally just two different terms for the exact same sport. The only difference is that “ping pong” is used colloquially, while “table tennis” is the more formal term for the sport.
Any other questions?
In 2011, however, English sports promoter Barry Hearn used his company, Matchroom Sport, as a wedge to finally create a more official separation between the two terms.
Thanks to Hearn, audiences now have two different table-based tennis sports to follow, players can master two different variations of the same game, and writers like me get to write articles like this based on actual facts rather than relying on terminological hair-splitting.
Let’s delve into the detail.
Table Tennis vs Ping Pong - the Differences
The superficial differences between ping pong and table tennis are virtually nonexistent.
Essentially, you’ve still got two human beings hitting a celluloid (or plastic) sphere at each other from across two opposing sides of a waist-high table.
If these were your only criteria for designating the sport as either ping pong or table tennis, you’d have a really hard time knowing which one you were watching.
Fortunately, for both enthusiasts and players, there’s quite a bit more nuance to these sports than my cute little summary above.
And it’s in these little, but super important, nuances that we find the difference between ping pong and table tennis.
But First - a History Lesson
Those of you ancient enough to remember the start of the twentieth century may recall that it was English game manufacturers, Jaques and Son, who first used the term “ping pong” and that the game was called “whiff whaff” before this.
The industrious Jaques and his unnamed son went so far as to trademark “ping pong,” a move that was replicated by Parker Brothers in the US. Interestingly, the trademark is still registered in America and is currently owned by Escalade Sports.
So, for the majority of the sport’s history, people have been referring to it using a name that was a corporate creation – kind of the same way people used the term “xerox” as a verb for making photocopies.
Throughout all this time, the term “table tennis” has endured as the official term for the sport – its status confirmed so by the creation of the International TABLE TENNIS Federation in 1926.
Most people are just super grateful that “whiff whaff” was just a phase.
Ping Pong vs Table Tennis Equipment
Do you have what it takes to play ping pong? What about table tennis?
Now that we’ve established that ping pong and table tennis are, in fact, two different sports, we can actually answer this question in a meaningful way.
The Table and the Ball
There’s absolutely no difference between the tables and the balls used to play table tennis and ping pong. Both of these pieces of equipment are standardized across the two sports.
Here’s a handy reminder of the ITTF specifications regarding the ball and table. Feel free to click through to our more detailed articles on these specs: Ping Pong Table Dimensions and The Diameter Of A Ping Pong Ball.
The diameter of the ping pong (or table tennis) ball is 1.57 inches (4 cm) and they weigh 0.095 ounces (2.7 grams). To be eligible for use in an ITTF-approved tournament, the ball must be made from celluloid or plastic and be either orange or white in color.
ITTF-approved ping pong (or table tennis) tables are 9 ft in length, 5 feet in width, and 2.5 feet above the ground. The table can be of any color, provided that the ball is clearly visible against it.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Before we start talking about the differences between the ping pong and table tennis paddle, we need to take a glance into the mind of Barry Hearn OBE. Just a quick one, mind you, we don’t know what else is going on in there.
The promoter is somewhat of a legend in English sports broadcasting and has done a massive amount of work to popularize sports like darts and snooker, making himself a fortune along the way.
Recognizing table tennis’s popularity, but also acknowledging that the game’s speed makes it hard to follow as a viewer, Hearn decided to “reinvent” the sport as something more accessible.
One of the first things that had to go was the paddle components that imparted insane amounts of speed and spin onto the ball. This mostly refers to the rubber and foam padding on the paddle’s blade – the part that makes contact with the ball as it’s struck.
Table tennis paddles come in a multitude of forms. In fact, there’s a multimillion-dollar industry built on the specific, nuanced paddle-needs of table tennis players.
The composition, thickness, stickiness, and texture of the paddle’s rubber all play a role in defining the player’s style and the accessibility of a match from the audience’s perspective. Enabled by hyper-customized paddles, some table tennis players are able to obliterate their opponents in a single serve.
While being able to overwhelm your opponents with speed, spin, and power is still a hugely admirable skill to have, Barry Hearn felt that things needed to be normalized if the audience wanted a more enjoyable experience.
In fact, his company is very open about its feelings towards modern table tennis and the effect technology has had on it. Here’s an extract from the official World Championship of Ping Pong website’s tournament announcement:
“The game that fell out of favour with the advent of super-spin inducing rubber bats years ago is returning to the mainstream thanks to a potent mixture of speed, power and old-fashioned skill courtesy of the technology-free sandpaper bats.”
To that end, his company stipulated that ping pong paddles must be composed of materials designed to slow the game down and limit spin. The outcome… sandpaper paddles.
These ping pong paddles are much simpler in design and composition than their table tennis counterparts. They’re composed of five plies of wood and the blades have a simple laminated or sandpaper layer on the outside.
The result is much slower matches with longer, more exciting, rallies – exactly what Mr. Hearn’s audience of ping pong enthusiasts wants.
Ping Pong vs Table Tennis Rules
I’m going to be referring to the rules that are applied during the annual World Championship of Ping Pong tournament. These seem to have become the de facto “rules of ping pong.”
The table tennis serve has some very specific requirements. The ball must be tossed, from an open hand, at least six inches into the air before it is struck by the server. The speed that the ball reaches as it plummets back towards the table is used by skilled table tennis players to generate quite a bit of power and spin with the service.
To combat this, ping pong rules state that the ball must be struck directly from the server’s hand or even after it has been bounced on their side of the table.
This may seem like a small thing to new ping pong enthusiasts but, trust me on this, it’s a massive departure from the norm and makes an incredible difference to the point being played. In case you’re wondering, yes, it does make points last longer and often results in longer rallies.
In a nutshell, the advantage of being the first player to strike the ball has been greatly reduced.
In terms of the physical gameplay, the service is the only aspect of ping pong gameplay that’s different from table tennis.
As I mentioned before, every other aspect of the two games remains remarkably similar. Players hit the ball over the net, the ball has to make contact with the opposing player’s side of the table, and a player can’t let the ball bounce twice on their side of the table.
Players’ individual playing styles definitely differ greatly between table tennis and ping pong. With table tennis, it pays to develop a particular type of game that’s consistently somewhere on the offensiveness/defensiveness spectrum.
Ping pong success tends to come to players who are able to mix up their playing style depending on their opponent and the state of the match.
The reason for this is that table tennis is a faster game that’s harder to master, given how much assistance players are given by their specialist equipment. It pays to niche down, get REALLY good at a specific style of play and use equipment that amplifies this.
Ping pong equipment, on the other hand, gives the player literally no advantage. There’s no way to leverage it to augment your specific style and make you stronger and better using a particular approach.
With equipment playing a much smaller role in style development, it pays to have a much broader range of styles in your arsenal.
The only major point-scoring difference between ping pong and table tennis is the former’s inclusion of a “double-point” rule.
Once per match, each player has the option to call for the double-point ball. When they do so, the ball is exchanged for one with a different color.
If the player who called for the double-point wins the point, they are allocated two points. If they lose the point, there is no additional penalty – their opponent simply gets one point.
For extra intrigue and excitement, in the final match of the World Championship of Ping Pong tournament, each player has TWO double-point options.
Since 2001, an ITTF-approved table tennis match consists of three, five, or seven games. The winner of each game is the first player to reach 11 points with a minimum of a two-point lead.
The World Championship of Ping Pong has a slightly different match format, sticking to three games, but increasing the number of points per game to 15. In the final of the World Championship, however, the players play the best of five games.
Ping Pong has also done away with the forced two-point lead, opting instead for a much simpler sudden-death approach – the first to reach 15 points takes the game.
Ping Pong vs Table Tennis Doubles
Whereas there’s probably nothing stopping anyone from playing doubles using ping pong scoring rules and ping pong paddles, the World Championship doesn’t include a doubles competition.
So, if you’re playing doubles ping pong, one would think that the same dynamic applies where each team-mate takes a turn striking the ball, just like with table tennis.
Ping Pong vs Table Tennis Tournaments
Currently, only table tennis has the honor of being an Olympic sport, having been included in the summer event’s schedule since Seoul, 1988.
Both sports’ prestige events is their respective, annual World Championships. Under the banner of the ITTF, table tennis does have the administrative infrastructure to host significantly more official tournaments, however.
Ping pong is still in a relatively “ungoverned” space, with Barry Hearn’s company simply serving as custodians for the World Championship tournament, not as overseers of the sport itself.
It is very encouraging to see that ping pong’s lack of a governing body hasn’t meant that the World Championship is limited to only a handful of pre-selected players. As with table tennis, anyone with the right paddle stands a chance of making it to the sport’s most glittering event.
The ping pong world champion is chosen from the winner of a “final” event that’s populated by players who have won their right to be there in numerous “satellite” tournaments held all over the world.
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