Get the Right Gear for Your Game
Whether you are a beginner who has improved enough to start choosing rubbers suited to your game, or an experienced player thinking about taking advantage of the latest rubber technology, sooner or later you will have to give some serious thought to what rubbers you should be using.
Consider Your Table Tennis Style
Probably the first thing to think about is the way that you are hoping to play. Different styles will have very different requirements for their table tennis rubbers. Think carefully about how you play both your forehand and backhand strokes – the chances are good that you don’t hit the ball the same way on both sides. If this is true, you probably will want different rubbers that best suit your forehand and backhand. If your strokes are pretty similar on both sides, you can use the same rubber on both sides of the bat, of course.
As we discuss the various factors involved in choosing a table tennis rubber, keep in mind the way you play. This will help you to narrow down the list of possible rubbers suitable for you.
Although I will discuss the sponge and topsheets of a rubber separately, in most cases they are purchased together. For example, Tenergy 05 can typically be purchased with the same topsheet but with different sponge thicknesses such as 1.7mm, 1.9mm, and 2.1mm. These are all still called Tenergy 05 though.
There are several things to consider when choosing your sponge. These include the sponge thickness, it’s density or hardness, whether to buy it separately from the topsheet, and whether to use it at all!
The thickness of the sponge will affect how fast the overall rubber will be, and also how much control it has. Thicker sponge is faster but has less control than thinner sponge. Most attackers use sponge of 1.9mm or thicker, while many defenders (but not all!) use thinner sponge. Most professionals also like thicker sponges because they absorb more booster than thinner ones, increasing the so-called ‘speed-glue‘ effect.
Similarly to sponge thickness, the hardness of the sponge will have an effect as well. The harder the sponge, the less the ball will tend to sink into the sponge, and so the dwell time will be reduced. This tends to mean that harder sponge will produce less spin than softer sponge. Whether this improves your control really depends more on the type of strokes you use – drivers tend to like the harder sponges, while loopers favour the softer sponges.
Buying Sponge Separately from the Topsheet
As in any sport, there are always those players who feel the need to tinker with their equipment, searching for that perfect combination of sponge and topsheet. If you are one of these players, feel free to try different combinations of sponges and topsheets – be aware that not all combinations are necessarily legal in competition though! For the majority of players, it is easier and better to simply stick to buying the usual rubbers that have the sponge and topsheet already joined together.
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It is possible to not use sponge at all – however this means that you must be using a pimple-out rubber. It’s not legal to use an inverted, or smooth, rubber without sponge. Using no sponge can be an effective tactic for those players who defend or twiddle their bats.
The topsheet of a rubber is the surface which sits on top of the sponge (assuming sponge is used), or directly on the blade (if sponge is not used), and which makes contact with the ball. Like sponge, there are several factors to consider when choosing topsheets for your table tennis rubber.
Pimples-In (Smooth) or Pimples-Out?
Most new table tennis players who are looking to take the sport seriously are told to begin with pimples-in rubber. The reason for this is that it will allow them to develop all the strokes used in table tennis while they are learning the game. Once they have developed a style of their own, the players can then decide whether to stick with normal rubbers, or whether to choose an anti-spin or pimples-out rubber that would be better suited for their particular style of play. It is relatively rare these days for new players to begin with pimpled-out rubbers.
The tackiness of the topsheet is a measure of how much it grips the ball when the ball is struck. Some rubbers, such as Hurricane 3 or Friendship 729, grip the ball a lot – it is difficult to slide a ball across the surface. Other rubbers, such as Tenergy 05, Sriver, or Mark V, will allow a ball to be slid across the surface much more easily. And of course, their are the anti-spin rubbers, which will offer virtually no resistance when a ball is pushed across the surface.
In general, tacky rubbers are able to place more spin on the ball, but suffer from the problem of being more affected by the opponent’s spin as well. Traditionally (say up to about the late 1980’s), the Chinese players who used inverted rubbers used rubbers that were tacky and had hard sponge without speed glue, while Europeans speedglued their bats and used less tacky rubbers and softer sponge.
In today’s modern game though, almost all the professionals are using booster to increase the speed and spin that can be produced. Most players still favour a less tacky topsheet, since it is less affected by the opponent’s spin, while the booster increases the speed and spin produced by the sponge. This is supposed to give the player the best of both worlds, with more spin and speed of his own while being less affected by his opponent’s spin. Some of the best Chinese players in recent years are boosting their tacky rubbers with harder sponge (Hurricane 3 is the usual choice) to get a similar effect.
The thickness of a topsheet can also vary between rubbers, although this is not important to most players buying normal rubbers made up of topsheet and sponge already put together. It is important to those players who buy separate sponges and topsheets and then put them together, as they have to be careful that the total thickness of the combination is not more than 4mm, or the combination will be illegal according to the ITTF laws of table tennis.
Again, the hardness of the topsheet can vary, with harder topsheets reducing the ‘dwell time’ and giving less spin than softer topsheets. Dr Neubauer actually produce an antispin topsheet that is completely stiff – very strange stuff to play against – like playing against wood!
Booster / Speed Glue
The subject of booster and speed glue is worthy of an article of its own, but that is a topic for another time. Suffice to say that booster or speed glue is used by advanced players to increase the spin and speed that they can produce. For shots involving spin, they will also increase control due to the increased spin.
Beginning players can and should avoid booster and speed glue until their technique is solid – otherwise they run the risk of never developing their shots properly.
Putting Sponge and Topsheet Together
As I mentioned earlier, most table tennis rubbers come premade, with the sponge and topsheet already joined together. There is an almost bewildering range of rubbers to choose from these days, with all of them manipulating the factors I have mentioned above to produce their own unique effect. There are also a couple of points to think about when the sponge and rubber are combined.
One more variable to consider is what is called the throw angle of the rubber. This is whether the rubber tends to ‘throw’ the ball higher or lower when making the same stroke. Given the same return from your opponent, and the same stroke by you, a rubber that puts the ball in the net is considered to have a ‘lower throw’ than a rubber than puts the ball on the table. For the same circumstances, a rubber that puts the ball off the end of the table is considered to have a ‘high throw’. You will sometimes hear players talk about ‘degrees of throw’ – basically a rubber than puts the ball low has a low degree of throw, and vice versa.
This throw angle is not an exact science (contrary to what you might think from reading on the various forums!), but more of a comparative feel between different rubbers. A rubber with a high throw is not better or worse than a rubber with a low throw, it is just different. Generally, low throw rubbers are considered to be easier to play with against topspin, while high throw rubbers are supposed to be able to lift backspin over the net more easily.
As mentioned in my article on choosing a blade, you may also want to be aware of the differences in weights between rubbers. Rubbers with thin or no sponge will tend to be much lighter than those with thicker sponges. Boosting or speed gluing also adds to the overall weight of the bat.
Choosing the Rubber
The best advice I can give you when selecting a rubber is to talk to an expert first – such as a coach or advanced player that you trust. Get them to watch you play and ask them what they would recommend for you, and why. Don’t be afraid to get a few opinions if you can.
Once you have some ideas to work with, see if you can try out the rubbers. Perhaps you can find another player who uses these rubbers, and borrow his bat for a hit. Better yet would be to borrow the rubbers from him, and then try them on your own blade – it’s amazing how different blades can affect the feel of a rubber. You might consider trying to start an equipment pool with fellow players so that you all can share rubbers for testing purposes.
When testing the rubbers, try out all your shots, and then play a few matches with them. See whether you like the feel of them, and think about how they compare to your old rubbers. Remember, you are looking for a rubber that will suit the style of game that you want to play – attackers won’t need a rubber that can chop well, and most defenders won’t need a rubber for fast attacking!
Finally, once you have chosen your new rubbers, give yourself some time to get used to them – it will take a while to adjust to the characteristics of your new rubber. Don’t give up too soon on your choice – give it a few weeks at least. Hopefully though, you will love your new table tennis rubbers and soon be playing even better with them!