LONDON — The most-visited thread, by a significant margin, on Great Britain’s liveliest table tennis message board is titled “Chinese Team Bat Pictures!” Bat is slang for racquet, and this TableTennisDaily.co.uk post contained coveted close-up images from racquet inspection at the 2011 China Open, where the best Chinese players, including eventual 2012 Olympic gold medalist Zhang Jike, were competing.
(Zhang Jike’s bat, from TableTennisDaily.co.uk)
“There isn’t any secret,” Zhang said on Thursday, when asked what the recipe was for China to sweep men’s table tennis medals in Beijing and take gold and silver in London, but the Chinese players’ blade-and-rubber combinations are art of their special sauce, if you will, in a sport that’s far more gear-crazy than the casual Olympic viewer is aware. High-resolution pictures that reveal the small-type logos on players’ rubbers get pounced on by table-tennis enthusiasts, who hope to re-create the pros’ setups for their own competitions.
I saved the leaked images on my computer before heading to the men’s singles final at ExCel Center on Thursday, in hopes of 1) determining if whoever won gold was still using the same setup and 2) figuring out how much it would cost to set yourself up like the champ. You can’t be like Zhang, a massive celebrity in China who’s the reigning World Cup, World Championships and Olympics champ, and has 2,092,856 Tencent Weibo followers as of this writing. He was introduced before the gold-medal match as a “friend of Cristiano Ronaldo,” received a congratulatory Weibo message from another world soccer star, Gerard Pique, after winning, and has a world-class nickname: the Tibetan Mastiff*. But for around $330, you can have Zhang’s bat.
(* His coach, Lio Guoliang, apparently coined this nickname when he said, in rough translation, “Zhang Jike is like a Tibetan Mastiff. When in a good time, he will bite anyone he catches. But in a bad time, he would be just like a stupid dog.”)
The setup starts with the blade, the piece of wood — or in Zhang’s case, wood, arylate fiber and carbon fiber, to give it a bigger sweet spot and more spin — that includes the handle and to which the rubbers are attached. This photo from the Olympic final shows Zhang, a shakehand player, using the same Butterfly Viscaria FL he had in the China Open. It goes for $132.99 on the manufacturer’s site.
(Curiously, Butterfly makes a “Zhang Jike-FL Blade” that’s more expensive at $159.99, has a dragon emblazoned on it, and is endorsed by Zhang … but he doesn’t actually use it in competition.)
(By Adrees Latif/Reuters)
The above photo also gives confirmation on Zhang’s forehand rubber: the DHS Hurricane III NEO, with blue sponge. DHS, awesomely, stands for Double Happiness, and the Hurricane III is a super-fast, super-spinny rubber that gives Zhang’s looping shots incredible action. An everyman’s version of this can be purchased at MegaSpin for $22.49, but in an allocation system similar to maple bats for baseball players, the elite, Olympic-worthy versions of the Hurricane III are only available to pros. To get one exactly like Zhang’s, you have to go through ProTT in China and pony up $120.
The side view of Zhang’s bat, seen below, lets you see what “blue sponge” means: it’s a under-layer of rubber that further helps increase speed and spin on the forehand. He’s essentially adding another deck to the sandwich.
(by Bernd Thissen/EPA)
On the backhand, the photo isn’t as crisp (as I said before, these are hard to come by) but it matches the China Open shot of the Butterfly Tenergy 64. The manufacturer’s description says that this is a “super speed,” attacking-backhand rubber with “Spring Sponge Technology” and widely spaced pimples that help create crazy topspin backhands. Zhang had more than a few winners of that variety in the Olympic final. The Tenergy costs less than his forehand rubber, but it’s not cheap: It’ll still set you back $79.99 from the manufacturer.
(By Adrees Latif/Reuters)
To recap the costs:
• $132.99 for the blade
• $120 for the forehand rubber
• $79.99 for the backhand rubber
That makes for a total of $332.98 before tax and shipping. Once you factor in the price of speed glues that “boost” the power of the rubbers by making them stick and expand on the blade — the best, pro-level bottle at ProTT is $70 for 250 milliliters — you’re getting into the $400 range. For the first time at an Olympics, players in the 2012 field are not allowed to boost their bats with speed glue before matches, but it’s widely believed that every player is still finding creative ways to boost. It’s like table tennis’ version of doping: You can have the blade and the rubbers, but your shots won’t truly explode off the bat unless it’s properly boosted. And that’s the part of the sport that even high-res photos cannot detect.