Frictionless Long pips
As a coach, I've spent a lot of time over the years thinking about long pips, both how to play against and with them, and about whether they should be legal. My thinking on this has evolved over the years. I admit I'm somewhat skeptical of the pure long-pips blocking style, especially when a player basically covers the entire table by just reaching out and blocking everything back dead with long pips without sponge. In my opinion, it simply isn't very athletic, and table tennis is a sport. But it's legal, and as players and coaches, it's our job to figure out how to play against any legal surface. Besides, if you were to ban long pips, you'd essentially lose the chopping style, which is truly athletic and great for spectators. Plus not all long-pips blockers just stand there and block - some play an athletic forehand game, with the long pips often more a weakness than a strength.
Recently there's been a lot of debate about frictionless long pips. The ITTF made a regulation a while back that they are illegal. (Technically, no surface is frictionless, but they are defining frictionless to be under a certain amount of friction.) Some have taken legal long pips and baked them in the sun or treated them in some other way to make them frictionless, and argue that that's okay. It's not.
If a referee judges that the long pips are frictionless, then he knows that they have been treated in some way to make them frictionless. USATT rule 2.4.7 states, "The racket covering shall be used without any physical, chemical or other treatment." So when a player does something (such as letting them bake in the heat) to make his long pips (or antispin) frictionless, or does something similar to an inverted or any other covering, he is cheating.
Some might argue that since others cheat, it's okay for them to cheat. Sorry, two wrongs do not make a right. Only a small percentage of players cheat, and those who choose to do so are cheaters - and most of the time they are cheating against an opponent who is playing by the rules, unlike the cheater. How can a cheater justify that? (A separate argument could be made for cheating in a match if the opponent cheats, such as using illegal serves if the opponent serves illegally and the umpire won't call it, but that's a separate discussion.)
At the Cary Cup this past weekend, at least one high-rated player was using frictionless long pips. You could tell by the near complete spin continuation when he pushed against backspin, returning the spin nearly 100% as topspin, and the nearly 100% return of topspin as backspin when blocking. (Of course, there could be borderline rubbers where it's not clear, but it was pretty clear in this case.) A referee (or player or coach) experienced with frictionless long pips can rub a ball across the pips and tell if they are frictionless - it's a judgment call. And by definition, a referee can make this judgment call. Of course, not all referees will have enough experience with frictionless long pips to make the call. I don't know if the Cary referee could have - I wish I had asked him about it.
The USATT Tournament Guide specifically states that the referee "Is the final authority on interpretation of the rules and regulations as they apply to the tournament." Note the reference to regulations, which would include the ITTF regulation on frictionless long pips. The Tournament Guide also says, "In making decisions that are not fully covered by the rules, the referee should consider in turn: ITTF and USATT rulings, precedent, and the rule's intent." And it's pretty clear that the intent of the frictionless long pips regulation was to ban frictionless long pips. However, as far as I know, nobody complained to the referee at the Cary Cup, and so no official judgment call was made.
I considered complaining to the referee, but didn't want to disrupt the play of the top cadet player I was coaching. If it had been for a bigger match, say for a national title or a team match against another country, I might have reconsidered. Suffice to say I was confident the cadet could win the match, and he did so somewhat easily by playing very smart.
One defense used by players with frictionless long pips is that they are innocent until proven guilty. Sorry, that's not true; this is not a court of law. If you are using frictionless pips, you are guilty, period. You just haven't been caught yet. Those of us who can recognize frictionless long pips know these players are cheating, just as some of us can normally tell when an inverted player uses illegal speed glue by the sound. (Many modern sponges have the speed glue effect built in, so speed gluing has little advantage now - but those who do so are cheating just as much as those who use chemicals to increase the surface friction of inverted, use frictionless long pips, or who knowingly serve illegally, etc. But that too is a subject for another discussion.)
Now a little history - if that bores you, slowly back away from your computer screen. I'm sure there's a football game on TV. The color rule was passed in 1983, requiring different colors on the racket so players could see which side of the racket the ball was hit. I was one of the instigators for that - like most others, I thought it blatantly wrong that a player could use two very different surfaces that looked the same, but get two very different shots with the same stroke. For several years it led to very poor rallies as the game became a game of almost pure deception, with players making seemingly simple mistakes over and over, and twiddling the racket became the pre-eminent skill. It wasn't just choppers that caused anarchy with this; most attackers found that to survive in the suddenly ultra-deceptive table tennis universe, they had to use some a combination racket as well, and huge numbers went to long pips or anti on the backhand, which they used to set up their forehands. They could do any "spin" serve, and the opponent had to figure out whether it was spinny side (inverted) or dead side (long pips or anti). Similarly, they could flip the racket in rallies, and opponents would make error after error. I did a survey back then and found that over 70% of the players in the 100+ entry monthly tournaments I was running had gone to combination rackets, with over half using long pips or antispin. Think about that! Many of the other 30% were considering it, and nearly all were frustrated at what was happening to the sport - including most of the new combination racket users.
Here's a poem I wrote that was published in USATT's magazine that year, before the color rule was passed:
Little Jack Ding Dong,
Was rotten at ping-pong,
And he could not figure why;
So he bought some weird rubber,
And beat a top player,
And said, "What a good player am I!"
And then the color rule was passed, and life was good again. I vowed I would never complain about an opponent's legal racket surface again. I'm advanced enough that if I can't beat someone when I know what side they are hitting with, then it's my own fault. I've stuck to that, and expect my students to do so as well.
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