Essentially, ping pong and table tennis are more or less the same thing. There aren’t any major differences between how the game is played, so to most people the terms ping pong and table tennis are interchangeable, regardless of whether they’re referring to a professional match or just a casual one with friends.
But avid followers of the sport will know that despite being two almost identical games, nowadays there are several defining features between table tennis and ping pong that differentiate one from the other to table tennis aficionados.
On the surface the names do appear synonymous, and in the early days of table tennis they actually were. However if you look into the history of the sport and its origins to how it’s played in the present day, you can gain a better understanding of when to use each term. In this article, we will go through a brief history of the sport, then discuss the main differences between the games of table tennis and ping pong.
A Brief History of Table Tennis
Table tennis was first conceived in Victorian England circa the 1880s. Lawn tennis was extremely popular at this time but people were unable to play during the winter, so they had to come up with a way of being able to play the sport indoors. Table tennis was invented as a means of solving this issue and quickly began gaining popularity as a past-time among adults in England.
As the game became increasingly popular, companies started to manufacture and sell table tennis equipment. Each company named their set slightly differently, with some of the brand names including Table Tennis, Whiff Waff, and Pim-Pam, to name a few. ‘Ping-Pong’ was the name given to the original set manufactured by a sports company called John Jacques & Son, which then became the widely-adopted name used to refer to the game, as a result of heavy marketing. At the height of its first wave of popularity in 1902, the ‘Ping-Pong Association’ was formed.
After its initial success, the table tennis craze died down which resulted in the original Ping-Pong Association being disbanded. However, people in parts of England continued to play the game, and by the 1920s it was being played by people in countries all over the world. As it was going through its second wave of widespread popularity, the Ping-Pong Association was revived in 1926, but under its new title of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF). The name change was due to the fact that at this point, the original manufacturer of the ‘Ping-Pong’ set John Jacques & Son had trademarked the name ‘Ping Pong’, so the association decided to change their name to avoid any legal issues over copyright infringement.
The first Table Tennis World Championship game was then held in 1926. Even though ‘ping pong’ was technically a brand name, it was still used synonymously with the name table tennis to refer to the sport in any sense. This was true up until 2011, when the first official Ping Pong World Championship was introduced, officially differentiating the game of ‘ping pong‘ from that of ‘table tennis’.
What are the differences between ping pong and table tennis?
Now we understand the history behind the terms and how each one came to be popularised, we can explore some of the actual differences between the games of ping pong and table tennis.
Before getting into any finer details, the easiest way to decide which of the two terms is the most appropriate to use comes down to the formality of the game in question. It’s generally accepted that the name ‘table tennis’ is used when talking about higher level professional games, while ‘ping pong’ is used for more casual social games, usually between friends.
Although the games are the same in essence, there are some differences in the equipment, rules and the way they’re played that set table tennis and ping pong apart from each other. They are as follows:
Table tennis is played using a paddle to hit a small ball across the table tennis table and over the net. This varies depending on which form of table tennis is being played, so you can look at the equipment to figure out whether you’re watching a game of table tennis or of ping pong.
In ping pong, all players must use the same type of racket. These are paddles made out of 5-ply sandpaper, providing the players with very little spin and preventing them from generating as much power, which is why games of ping pong are played at a slower speed than games of table tennis.
The rackets in ping pong are also different to those used in table tennis as they have two laminated layers instead of rubber on both sides. These sandpaper paddles are typically cheaper than standard table tennis paddles.
In table tennis, the players are permitted to customize their paddles to suit their personal style of play. They can pick between several different types of rubber and blades to find the best combination that suits them.
In casual ping pong games, serves are allowed to be hit straight out of the player’s hand, or after the ball has bounced on the table. This is different under the more formal rules of table tennis, as it’s a requirement for the ball to be thrown over six inches upward from the player’s open hand, and then hit from behind the baseline of the table.
In modern games of professional table tennis, each player gets two serves at a time, and the scoring of the games go up to 11 points. Ping pong however follows the more traditional structure that each player takes five alternate serves and the games go up to 21 points.
As ping pong and table tennis have different rules and equipment, they each have their own competitions. They both have a world championship, being the World Table Tennis Championship and the World Championship of Ping Pong, but only table tennis is recognised as an olympic sport.