Thursday, October 24, 2013

The New Poly Ball is Coming . . . Maybe

In March 2012, the ITTF Board of Directors voted to pass the following resolution, proposed by the Executive Committee and the Athletes' Commission:

"That the new Poly balls (non-celluloid material) be used at ITTF events as of 1 July 2014. The Executive Committee may allow the use of the Poly balls, in exceptional cases, in the period between the 2014 World Championships and 1 July 2014."

Half of a celluloid ball, formed by pressing a disc into a
hemisphere. It will be trimmed, glued with another half,
and polished. Image taken from the Nittaku ball video.

Celluloid is one of the first industrial plastics, dating to the 1800s. "Poly" refers to other kinds of plastics such as polyethylene. The rules of table tennis permit the use of any kind of plastic ball, so there's no rule change required for the adoption of a new ball material. This resolution just designates a particular type of ball for a few dozen elite events.

From one perspective this is not much of a change. The direct scope only extends to ITTF events: World Title Competitions and ITTF Sanctioned tournaments, which includes the ITTF World Tour, ITTF Junior Circuit, and continental events. The ITTF already specifies a particular ball for these tournaments. For example, all World Tour events must use the DHS ball, while Junior Circuit events must use the Butterfly ball. So this resolution is in a similar vein in that it designates a ball to use, but in this case it's by material type, not brand.

But even though this resolution is directed at specific elite events, the game played by the pros is also played by aspiring pros; likewise, aspiring pros play with dedicated amateurs and weekend hacks. Even novice players want to play the same game as the professionals. A change in equipment at the top has broad effects.

Each celluloid ball is checked by hand and sent through
a gauntlet of mechanical testing devices before it gets
its final grade. Image taken from the Nittaku ball video.
At the time of this writing, every ball approved by the ITTF is made of celluloid. In the manufacturing process, celluloid is largely composed of nitrocellulose, a highly flammable material. Celluloid is not the easiest material to work with, and most historical uses of celluloid transitioned to newer plastic materials long ago, with the major exceptions being as decorative components in things like pens and musical instruments . . . and table tennis balls. If and when we stop using celluloid in table tennis, we'll be one of the last entities to do so.

Poly balls were briefly used in competitive table tennis a few decades ago, so in that sense it's not new. Poly table tennis balls are also readily available as recreational toys, but not built to the standards required for official competition. The forthcoming poly balls are expected to meet ITTF requirements and behave more like celluloid balls than older versions.

Some players and coaches have been able to acquire prototype poly balls for testing purposes. Reviews of those prototypes have been mixed. However until a brand of ball is fully tested by the ITTF in the approval process, nobody can legitimately claim that they have seen a final production set of approved balls. And nobody can truly say they know how the new ball will behave.

Personally, I would like the playing properties of the poly ball to be similar to the celluloid ball in feel, but improved in technical aspects such as roundness, durability, and regularity of hardness and bounce. I am hopeful that the use of modern materials and manufacturing processes can help lead to those improvements. However with the change in material there will probably be differences seen during play, and the more differences there are, the more time players will need to adjust to the changes.

Domestic competition does not fall under ITTF jurisdiction, and USATT tournaments could conceivably continue to use celluloid balls indefinitely, as long as there is an available supply of balls. Anyways, until there is actually an approved ball, and until that ball is available for purchase, we will continue to use celluloid balls by default.

How players, tournament directors, and USATT deal with the poly ball will depend on when it arrives, and how it performs. The fate of the poly and the celluloid ball may ultimately be decided by market forces and manufacturer decisions.

The 2013 USATT Annual Assembly will be held in Las Vegas at 7pm on Wednesday, December 18th, and all USATT members are welcome to attend. The complete program has not been determined, but I will be available to field questions about the ball or anything else.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

2013-2014 NCTTA League

The NCTTA season begins this Sunday as seven college teams from Georgia and Tennessee compete in Atlanta. Several more South divisions meet the following weekends, and then the rest of the country after that with multiple competitions every weekend. The vast majority of play will be team competition, though there will also be some lone-gun singles players.

Unfortunately, the US is not known for its world-class table tennis. But it is known for its world-class universities, and sports are a part of most universities to some degree. In the US, college sports are critical for many sports, with football and basketball the clearest examples of this. Is it possible for our sport to use the university network to improve our sport? To some, not only is it possible, it is necessary.

A league of 200 teams is fairly large, but in many ways the NCTTA league is still small. The nationwide staff (all volunteers) is trained one by one. Budget is a constant concern. School teams struggle to be seen as real sports in the eyes of their athletic departments. Even so, in a country that is considered a table tennis backwater, we might have one of the best collegiate leagues in the world.

In the ITTF team rankings, the Brazilian Men's team is ranked #14, while the US Men's team is ranked #48. With that in mind, consider this Brazilian article, which can be found in its original Portuguese here. English translation by Jorge Vanegas.

  Brazilian College Champion in USA Declines Professional Career
José Barbosa prefers to continue on the road to business, he is in his last semester.
By Francisco Junior
To pursue the dream of being a professional athlete and to represent Brazil, or to continue with another career? In the mind of José Barbosa, College Table Tennis Team Champion in the United States, there is no doubt. The Brazilian studies business (focusing in administration, marketing and management) at Texas Wesleyan University and represents its team in collegiate competition. Though he is stuck in a tough situation, he has already decided not to pursue a career in sports.

"To be a part of the National Team is not in my plans any more. I was on the Under 15 and Under 18 teams from 2004 to 2008." He also said, "
I represented Brazil at the Universiade (College World Championships) held in China in 2011. For that reason, for me the sport was always a door opener," he commented.

This semester, 23 year old José Barbosa prepared himself in order to finish on a high note in USA Table Tennis. In the finals of the NCTTA (National College Table Tennis Association) championships, the Brazilian won the final match against Mississippi College, and therefore Texas Wesleyan won the Championship title.

"I came to the United States in 2010 because I received a table tennis scholarship at Lindenwood University. After one semester, due to my strong performance in team competition, I was invited to Texas Wesleyan University and helped win three team titles (2011, 12 and 13)," José said.

At the last edition of the NCTTA Championships, more than 300 athletes from 35 North American colleges competed. A total of six Brazilians participated. Besides José Barbosa and Claudia Ikeizumi from Texas Wesleyan, there were four others from Lindenwood University wielding their racquets.

José Barbosa asserts: "You cannot compare Brazilian table tennis with American"

In the analysis of José, table tennis played in Brazil "does not pass the entrance exam to enter the world of college table tennis in the U.S." mainly in terms of organization and structure. He recalled that even the food is provided by the tournament itself in the competition gym.

"The matches are broadcast live every day of the tournament with live commentators. The infrastructure is fantastic. We always have as many practice tables as competition tables (20 were in the last tournament). That never happens in Brazil, even in tournaments organized by the International Federation (ITTF, in English)" he compared.

A fan of the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov, José Barbosa relates that he lived with Cazuo Matsumoto in France in 2009, and points to his ex-roommate, the best Brazilian by world ranking (45th place), as a high point for the country at the time.

"I admire Cazuo Matsumoto for everything he has done in recent years. I know how hard he has struggled and how deserving he is of all that is happening," concluded the native of Jundiaí province in Sao Paolo, who cannot resist the longing to return to Brazil whenever there is a holiday, in order to renew his energy by receiving the warmth of family and friends.

We may not be the major leagues, but it's a positive when a player from another country says we're doing something right.

The strongest table tennis countries generally have professional or semi-pro leagues on a foundation of extensive recreational leagues. Leagues aren't a big part of the picture in the US. You can decide if there's a conclusion to be drawn from that.

NCTTA competition takes place in both the fall and the spring. If you're connected to a college in some way - staff, student, parent, etc. - I hope you can help us grow by participating or helping form a team. Playing on a college team might be the most fun you can have in the sport. And whether or not you're not a college student, we welcome volunteers in many capacities.