Nope, it's not Rodney Dangerfield doing his routine, but the sport of ping-pong complaining about it's treatment by the general public and many media organizations. What is it about table tennis that makes a significant number of people view it as something of a joke?
After mulling it over for a while, I think there are at least four main reasons why table tennis doesn't get the respect it deserves. And while not all of them are within our control, I believe there are at least two issues that we can all do something about to improve our sport's image.
Reasons Why Ping-Pong Doesn't Get Any Respect
- Because ping-pong is one of the few sports where two beginners can get together and immediately have fun and some long rallies. This is generally because most beginners start with cheap rackets that have very little grip, restricting the spin that can be put on the ball. Without spin, the game practically has to be played at a slower pace that allows for longer rallies to occur, since the players are mainly relying on gravity to bring the ball down on the table.
You can almost put any two beginners with average co-ordination and cheap equipment out on the table, and they will be able to serve, return serve, and play some limited topspin and backspin shots right away. True, experienced players would probably shudder at the technique involved, but the beginners don't know that - all they know is that they are having a ton of fun and that they can hit the ball around the table with a fair degree of control. Contrast their experience with the beginning tennis player who will struggle to learn to serve, a newbie squash player who finds it impossible to dig the ball out of the corners of the court, or an inexperienced badminton player who shreds the shuttlecock in a matter of minutes. New players in other sports are all too aware of their weaknesses - but new table tennis players have a false sense of mastery of the sport.
- The second reason is that most beginners and ping-pong garage players have never seen the real sport of table tennis up close and personal. A new tennis player would hardly ever pick up a racket and think he was a world-beater - he is all too aware of what real professionals can do - he's seen it ad infinitum on TV. But unless our beginning ping-pong player is lucky enough to see some Killerspin on TV, he's unlikely to have ever seen top class table tennis in his life.
Thirdly, the media itself is responsible to a degree for perpetuating the lack of respect for table tennis by the general public. More often than not, the media write about ping-pong from the point of view of 60 and 70 year olds still competing against young teenagers. While this is nice from a family friendly perspective, and gives some people the warm fuzzies about the sport, it's not exactly conducive to getting table tennis taken seriously. If your Grandma can still compete (and win) against young players, how much of a sport can it be?
While we generally don't control the media and how they portray ping-pong, we can at least attempt to emphasize that there are a number of reasons that makes older players competitive with younger players at the top level of table tennis. A fine example is 48 year old Cheng Yinghua, who qualified to represent the USA at the 2008 North American Olympic trials. Cheng was using his technique, tactics, cunning and technology to allow him to compete against his younger and fitter opponents. He Zhi Wen of Spain is another excellent example to point out. But allowing members of the media to believe and perpetuate the myth that 70 year olds can routinely play table tennis at the top level is doing us all a disservice. We should all be trying to explain clearly just why older players can still compete at high levels - and it's much more than just sticking a sheet of Dr. Neubauer on their backhand and trying to block every ball with it!
- The final reason I think ping-pong does not get the respect it deserves is very much our own fault - we need to be much more active in promoting our sport. Imagine a high level tennis player - don't you think he would be proud of his achievements and more than willing to talk about his experiences and what a great game tennis is with friends and acquaintances? Wouldn't he encourage others to share in this great sport at every opportunity? This word of mouth is a great advertisement for sports such as tennis. Unfortunately, I know of way too many good table tennis players who seem almost embarrassed about their skills, and who play down their athleticism instead of talking it up. If we don't truly believe that we are playing a real sport worthy of attention on the TV news and in the newspapers, why should anybody else? We should be spreading the word among friends and family about table tennis with zeal, not being apologetic for daring to play a minority sport.