Many of us may still be stuck inside, our activities limited and our desperation for new hobbies at its peak, but there is at least one sport that a worldwide pandemic can’t limit: Ping-Pong (or, to the purists, table tennis). “Everyone is trying to figure out what they can do at home, which involves more than their NordicTrack or rowing machine. You’ve gotta do something where there are two people involved. Otherwise, you’d go crazy,” says Sean O’Neill, two-time table-tennis Olympian and USATT high performance director. “We’ve always said table tennis is a ‘recessionproof sport’ because it allows you to play at home. When people don’t have disposable income, they don’t go out but they still want to have some fun.” All you need is the right table, a ball, and two paddles.
When you first start playing Ping-Pong, any paddle will do. But once you get good enough to worry about things like backspin and drop shots (and, you know, winning), those hard-plastic paddles that came with your table will need to be upgraded. A paddle has two components: the blade (the wood base of the paddle) and the rubber that’s secured to it. Competitive players typically have specific rubber styles for both the front and back of the blade, depending on their play style (e.g., fast, all-around, aggressive, defensive). O’Neill says there are over 1,000 types of rubber to choose from. “No other sport has this level of customization,” he says.
To help you sift through the myriad options, we spoke to O’Neill and three other experts about the best paddles for every level of player. Here are their recommendations, which include recreational paddles and professional blade and rubber combos for when your game is ready for a stage a little larger than your basement.
The best recreational ping pong paddles
Beginners will want to start out using the same rubber on each side of the blade. Will Shortz, the owner of Westchester Table Tennis Center (he’s also pretty good at crosswords), recommends beginners look for paddles that cost between $25 and $40. “That’s going to be a solid all-around paddle, blade and rubber,” he says. “Once you start paying more for rubber, you can get a paddle that has grip, a tackiness, to it which imparts spin and will improve your game.” O’Neill agrees. “All the big-four brands — Stiga, Butterfly, Joola, and Donic — make preassembled, high-end recreational paddles that have quality rubber and a nice balanced blade,” he says. “For every $10 to $15 you go up in price, you will add more control and spin to your paddle.”
For those just starting out and not looking to make a huge investment in their paddles, the brands our experts recommend sell entry-level products like these to get you started. Some even include a couple of Ping-Pong balls.
According to John Hsu, a table-tennis coach at Maryland Table Tennis Center, “the modern game is all about spin, so it is good to get a head start on that.” He recommends that beginners get a paddle with smooth inverted rubber and says the Joola Infinity Balance is “the highest-quality wood and rubber for the best value. It gives you a lot of good spin and speed.”
Judy Hoarfrost, the owner of Paddle Palace and a USATT Hall of Fame player, calls the Stiga Total “a lot of bang for your buck.” She says it’s “really good quality” and points out that it even has ITTF-approved rubber on it — in case this Ping-Pong thing really takes off for you and you want to use it in competition. “Stiga is famous for their blades,” Hoarfrost says.
The best professional Ping-Pong paddles
As you start to play more, “you want something that will allow you to grow,” O’Neill says. “Blades provide different speeds and then the different rubbers — there are literally thousands of them — those will give you different speeds and spins,” says Shortz. The materials you choose depend on the type of player you are (defensive, offensive, all-around, etc.). Serious blades and rubber are sold separately to allow customization. You can glue them together yourself with a glue like Butterfly Free Chack Glue or Paddle Palace EZ PRO Glue. Or you can order from Joola or Paddle Palace, which will do the gluing for you.
Hoarfrost recommends the Stiga Allround Evolution for relatively inexperienced players who “want to step it up to the club and tournament level” and says it will give them “plenty of speed and spin.” It’s good for experienced all-around players, too, she says.
For a professional-quality option with a cool factor, O’Neill says that “Stiga is known for their handmade approach, and they also have done a lot of innovation with technology. They’ve had oversize rackets. They’ve had carbon. It seems like every two years Stiga is trying something new.” Hoarfrost says “DNA Future M rubber is the new Stiga rubber. It is made for an all-around player.”
Shortz’s own paddle is by the German-brand Tibhar. For a competitive player at the club level or more advanced competition who wants a strong offensive game with good spin, this Tibhar Stratus Power Wood with Evolution FX-S Blade-Rubber combo is one of the more affordable professional-level paddle combos.
Hsu likes the Fever, a professional-quality blade at a reasonable price that he says can be used by advanced players and others. “I can play with it, and when I let my students test it out, they immediately feel like their shots are faster and more crisp.” For all-around players, he suggests pairing the blade with Joola Rhyzm Rubber on both sides. The Fever is made with carbon fiber, and at the professional level, “pretty much everybody is going to use carbon,” he says. “Some players still stick with wood, but that is very rare. Carbon fiber increases the speed of the blade and the size of the sweet spot, which is where you want to hit it to get the best feeling and feel the most control.” According to O’Neill, “the farther out you go toward the edge of the paddle, the vibrations get bigger,” reducing your accuracy.
Hsu considers the Joola Energon Super PBO-c blade one of the highest-quality blades players are using right now. “It uses carbon combined with zylon fiber, which give the wood a little more of an absorption effect. When you want to hit shots that are really spinny, that extra dwell time gives your shots a little more spin without sacrificing speed.” If you’re advanced enough to need this paddle, you probably have pretty specific tastes in rubber too.
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