Hardbat vs Sponge in Table Tennis / Ping-Pong - Which is Better?

Do You Have a Soft Spot for Hardbat?

Woman Playing Ping-Pong
Was Ping-Pong Better in the Old Days?. Photo by Stockbyte / Getty Images
When About.com Table Tennis forum member dadsky posted some scathing claims about modern table tennis made by an acquaintance that favors hardbat, fellow forum member and hardbat advocate Scott Gordon posted an insightful and balanced reply, which I have reproduced below.

Claims About Modern Table Tennis vs Hardbat from dadsky's Acquaintance

  1. Rubber and blade manufacturers promise high-speed table tennis resulting from their "research" when hardbat table tennis (or classical table tennis) with crappy equipment offers a faster pace of play, more control, and cheaper equipment.
  1. Table tennis play as seen on TV, using those commercial rubbers, is dull - similar to Formula 1 races where the most powerful engine wins. Skill is not the absolute factor in winning.
  2. Play with rubbers and so-called ITTF Rubbers is boring - play rarely goes beyond five exchanges - while hardbatters enjoy up to a dozen or more exchanges with every point.
  3. Commercial table tennis is just that - commercial. And there are suckers born every minute who actually believe that table tennis using ITTF equipment actually makes table tennis more exciting. and it's both sad and funny that so many people actually purchase this ITTF equipment and give away their hard-earned bucks to these money-making table tennis equipment manufacturers. He describes equipment manufacturers as "vampires" for selling equipment at such ridiculous prices - $40 for a "piece of rubber", when condoms cost much less!
  4. Table tennis 50 years ago enjoyed a larger audience than table tennis does today.

    Scott Gordon's Reply - Hardbat vs Sponge Table Tennis Rackets

    There are so many facets to this discussion that it is difficult to list them all in one post. I myself use a hardbat exclusively, but primarily in sponge events. I also was partly responsible for getting hardbat events expanded at the Open and the Nationals, and was chairman of the USATT hardbat committee for several years before needing a break and backing out of that role.

    Despite my obvious love of hardbat, I was raised on sponge, used inverted for 20 years before switching to hardbat, and the vast majority of my play is against sponge players.

    I think I am able to fully appreciate both styles and eras for their strengths. Maybe someday I'll write an essay (or even a book) about it, because table tennis is truly unique in having these two versions of itself that are SO different and so affect its history, development, and character. It is likely also a debate that can never truly end. Rather than try and list everything, I'll just make a few random comments.

    Disdain for the Minority

    It is true that when sponge first appeared, certain players who weren't at the top suddenly were champions, and vice-versa. Sponge assisted some players more than others. In the early days it was seen as a crutch just like long pips is viewed today by some people. Over time, it is interesting to note that the attitude is reversed, with some people calling hardbat a crutch for people who can't learn sponge. Whichever is the minority, is viewed with disdain.

    Modern vs Past Ping-Pong Players

    There is no comparing the athletes of the 40s with the athletes of today. With the possible exception of Bergmann, training today is much more rigorous. In the 30s and 40s there was also war in Europe, where most of the players were centered. They had more pressing concerns than just table tennis, and you didn't have nations funding professional players.
    That doesn't mean they weren't incredible athletes who would be surprisingly competitive if dropped into the tournament scene today.

    Hardbat vs Sponge - Which is More Exciting?

    Nearly every player who was alive in the hardbat era, even those who benefited from sponge, claims that matches were more dramatic without sponge. While it is not true in every case, after 10 years of organizing hardbat, I think that overall I agree. Interestingly, if you place two tables side-by-side, with a sponge match on one and a hardbat match on the other, the hardbat match will appear uninteresting. However, that would be the same as having a "battle of the bands" between Chopin and Led Zeppelin. One is too distracting. Even so, that hasn't stopped hardbat matches from often drawing huge spontaneous crowds at major tournaments... a good matchup can make for high drama, whereas more often the drama in a sponge match is due to a close score. Having said that, it would be unfair of me to not admit that the most exciting matches I've personally seen were mostly sponge matches (but of course, 99% of the matches I've seen were sponge matches, so it's even hard for me to compare).

    Influence of Table Tennis Manufacturers

    It is true that, to some degree, equipment manufacturers have held an increasing stranglehold over decisions made in the rules of the game. With respect to hardbat, it is for example often difficult for clubs in England to hold hardbat events because some that have tried have been threatened with loss of ETTA affiliation, under a leadership that arguably had a conflict of interest with profits from equipment sales. And it's not just hardbat... we saw the American company Asti get driven out of business by the collusion of rival mega-companies. This is nothing new or surprising in the world of sport. But it isn't really fair to say that if hardbat were better, it would grow on its own. There really ARE forces out there that would (and have) fought it, not in America but in countries where table tennis is more popular and thus more money is at stake.

    Hardbat Misinformation

    In fact, there is an incredible amount of misinformation being fed to beginners about table tennis before the advent of sponge. It is not uncommon to read in books that, before sponge, table tennis was just boring pushes, and it is sponge that makes the game exciting. Much of it is promulgated by people just parroting what they were told. The fact is that throughout its history, the game was always dominated by forehand attack and spin. Sponge simply gives one a further advantage in those areas.

    Continued on next page...

    Table Tennis Audience Sizes

    You can't compare audiences then and now. There are too many variables: the times were different, Asia wasn't involved then, it wasn't in the Olympics, there weren't video games (or even television!), etc.

    Ordinary Players Must Use Sponge to be Competitive?

    For most of us "mortal" players, using sponge is not a requirement to be competitive. I don't think whether I use hardbat or sponge has any bearing on my rating. If you're 2300 or higher, than yes it starts making a difference and you would need every advantage you can get. But below that (and we're talking 98% of players), other factors are more important. Just look at the list of full time hardbat players on hardbat.com - the average rating of hardbat players in sponge events is actually higher than the national average for sponge players. The belief that you must use inverted, or that you must even use sponge, is in my opinion a laughable myth that we have quite literally bought into. That said, I would never suggest that a promising junior player eschew inverted... a kid might be the next Olympic hopeful and so it wouldn't be wise.

    Respect for the Table Tennis Legacy and Past Champions

    The saddest thing about this "debate" between sponge and hardbat, is that it has separated the sport from its legacy. You don't hear baseball fans talking about how lame Lou Gehrig was... they talk about him with reverence. The world series is a big thing because it puts the winner in the company of the past greats. Table tennis, by contrast, has worked hard to distance itself from its own past, and rejected its legends as irrelevant. Whenever someone says ping pong is not a sport, we're fast to jump in with "oh no, that was back then... NOW we're really good, look at our fast paddles", and they just laugh harder. That, in my opinion, is a sure-fire recipe for guaranteeing our own obscurity. We should put all of the great champions in our glorious 80+ year history on the pedestal they deserve, and preserve, promote and enjoy the thrilling times they gave us. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon.