Ping Pong vs Table Tennis: Is There A Difference?

Is there really any difference between ping pong and table tennis? A brief look back in history shows that table tennis began in 1885 and some equipment started being made in London. The game gained popularity in the 1890s and there were initially lots of different names for it, such as “gossima”. This form of the game used both cork balls and rubber balls, but the performance was unsatisfactory and most of the equipment sold poorly. 

In 1900, the London manufacturers tried using celluloid balls as ping pong balls and they found these to be very effective. Using long-handled racquets with sheepskin striking surfaces, the noises of the ball bouncing off the racquets sounded like “ping” and “pong”, depending on the tightness of the sheepskin. 

The sports company John Jaques & Son became partial to calling the game “ping pong”, and the game became an absolute craze in 1901–02 in the UK and then in America and all around the world, as explained in great detail in the excellent book “Ping Pong Fever: The Madness That Swept 1902 America”, which is available on Amazon. 

In the US, Parker Brothers bought the rights to the trademark name of ping pong. This effectively prevented other companies from using the name ping pong. Despite that, “ping pong” is still the most common and usual way of referring to table tennis in the USA. Later in 1926, the name table tennis was trademarked by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF). Again, although both terms are commonly used today, the name ping pong seems to be more widely used in American parlance.


Some Interesting Differences Between Ping Pong and Table Tennis

Ping pong and table tennis are almost the same game because there are no major differences, even though they are actually considered different sports. Probably the biggest difference is that table tennis is considered more competitive and serious than ping pong. Many people compete in clubs, leagues, tournaments, and cup competitions all over the world. 

Table tennis is even recognized in world championships as a competitive game, and it is part of the Olympic Games. Due to trademark issues, the ITTF adopted the use of “table tennis” as the official name to refer to the actual Olympic sport, whereas “ping pong” is generally played in a social or informal way. 

Another difference is in the service. In strict table tennis rules, the ball must be thrown from an open hand by the serving player at a distance of more than 6 inches. However, in less formal ping pong games, the player may hit the ball directly from the hand or even allowing the ball to bounce on the ping pong table. 

In table tennis, the serve has all kinds of specific restrictions. The server must hold the ball in an open palm, behind the table’s baseline, not extending beyond the right or left of the sidelines. The ball must be slowly tossed in the air from an open palm and struck on its way down while still visible to the opponent, no lower than the height of the table.

The ball must remain visible to the opponent at all times. Also, in professional table tennis matches, no one may wear any type of clothing that is the same color as the ball (white or orange). This is so that the ball can be seen at all times. In terms of scoring, professional table tennis games are out of 11 points and the players have to serve twice each time.

Ping pong games follow a conventional 21-point format, and each player serves five consecutive times. In ping pong, if a player reaches a certain score with the opponent scoring no points, the game is declared a shutout (or a skunk game). Table tennis has no such rule.

In terms of the equipment used, table tennis has customized paddles that can differ from player to player. The structure, the design, the blade, and the surfaces of the paddles often differ from one another. One side of the paddle must be red, the other white.

The sponge on the paddle must be no thicker than a certain prescribed amount and the rubber also has some thickness limitations. Even the type of glue used to secure the sponge must be of a certain quality. Speed glue is no longer allowed, if it is flammable.

Ping pong players generally use the same type of paddles, such as blue sandpaper bats. This makes the playing style in the two sports a little different. The sandpaper paddles used in ping pong offer slow to medium spin and speed, whereas table tennis paddles allow for a much faster-paced game. The length of the rallies in ping pong is generally much higher because each player has more time during each shot. 

Ping pong is much slower overall than table tennis, and serious players often have plenty of their own customized equipment. Some professional players will actually spend thousands of dollars on getting the exact type of equipment they need to match their specific playing style. 

There are also plenty of professional table tennis endorsements available from major sponsors such as Nike, and professional players like Ma Long sometimes earn as much as $40,000 or even more per year as individual players when you add in the endorsements and deals they can get from their sponsors. 

In 2017, there were twelve high-quality events that made up the ITTF World Tour with six regular events and six platinum events. For the regular events, the minimum prize money on offer was $70,000, while that of the platinum event was at least $120,000. 

So, ping pong matches and table tennis matches can usually differ in terms of service, scoring, equipment, level of professionalism, playing style, and game speed. However, without full and detailed knowledge of the rules, it can sometimes be a little hard to differentiate between the two sports.

This is why many people use the term ping pong to mean table tennis and vice versa. But the more you get into the sport, the more you understand how interesting it can really be. International table tennis matches offer much intrigue as people watch both singles and doubles matches at world championships or at the Olympics. Taking a little bit of time to completely understand the rules will help you better appreciate the games you might see on television.

Game Rules of Ping Pong & Table Tennis for the Skilled Player

 table tennis racket on table

While often used as synonyms, table tennis and ping pong actually have significant differences.

In table tennis, neither player may touch the table at all during the course of play. In table tennis, the ball must bounce on one side of the table before being struck, but in some ping pong games, the rules allow for what is the equivalent of a tennis “volley.” Players of table tennis generally have to focus on either offensive and defensive techniques, while ping pong players can specialize in both styles at the same time.

Other international game rules are fairly straightforward, which makes it easy for novices to play in more serious and competitive ways. The basic rules of the game state that the players must not let the ball touch twice on their own side and they must return the ball after one single bounce on their own side. If a player cannot defend against a smash or hit on their side of the table, then they lose that point of the game. 

Also, when starting a game or starting a point, the serve must first bounce on the server’s side before bouncing on the opponent’s side. As far as scoring goes, matches are generally the best three out of five games. A player wins when they have reached 11 points and the winner must win by two clear points to end the game.

This type of scoring is known as rally scoring, which means that any player can score on any point, no matter who served. This is different from a game such as volleyball, where points can only be scored by the serving team. In table tennis, each player may only use a towel at certain prescribed points in the game, but no more than those. In table tennis, there is a special ranking system that is monitored by the USTTA and the ITTF. Points can be earned based on the level of play in a range of different tournaments.

Some Common Strategies Used in Ping Pong and Table Tennis

stiga xtr people playing

Players sometimes use offensive strokes to try and move their opponent from left to right. Some players will smash the ball to try and force their opponents far away from the back of the table. This is when the game can be the most interesting when both players are standing far back from the table. 

The game also relies heavily on spin as players often put varying levels of spin on the ball. Too much spin should be avoided, but the right amount of spin can catch the other player off guard. Players who try to play with no spin might soon find themselves beaten by lots of their opponents. 

Some Popular Styles of Ping Pong and Table Tennis 

There are several styles of the game that can be found all across the world such as team events, doubles games, and special exhibition events. There are many professional ping pong leagues for both men and women of all ages. International rules are generally used for all major events, and table tennis players all over the world follow those same rules. 

Table tennis is a serious sport in some countries, requiring endless practice and competition to rise to the top. Everyone can learn how to play at a reasonably high level if they practice enough and get in good enough shape. Table tennis players must be able to start and stop quickly and travel from left to right to counter the attacks of their opponents.

The power required to hit certain shots like loops is impressive since the swing is full and very fast. The best players have excellent hand-eye coordination and a natural quickness that can only be appreciated in person because TV cannot always capture the close-to-the-table interchange that often dominates many of the points throughout the game.

Table tennis at the olympics.

China has dominated table tennis since it became an Olympic sport in 1988.

National Differences When it Comes to Ping Pong and Table Tennis

Table tennis is often misunderstood and under-appreciated in the USA. To try and promote the sport, the USTTA made a few changes to the game to try and make it more “watchable” on TV. For example, they tried to slow down the gameplay. The first effort took the game from 21 points to 11. The second effort was to make the ball larger, which made it harder to hit so fast, and this led to slower exchanges.

In both cases, the players adapted quite well but the game is still not considered good for TV. In many other countries, national table tennis champions are admired in the same way as Americans look up to Super Bowl MVP winners. Both games, table tennis and ping pong continue to be of great interest in Asia and all around the world, as more and more people are watching the highest levels of play and really learning more about the rules of the game.

There are tournaments that have become exceedingly popular with people of all ages and nationalities. For example, there is the World Championship of Ping Pong (WCPP) that takes place every year in London, England, hosted very well by the Match Room enterprise. This tournament has been held since 2011.

The current champion is Andrew Baggaley, who beat Alexander Flemming in the 2020 final to break Maxim Shmyrev’s record of winning three previous championships, and he became the record-breaking four-time champion. The tournament uses old-fashioned wooden paddles covered with sandpaper, which are meant to encourage slower ball movement and longer rallies for the entertainment of the live audience and for better visual appeal on television screens.

There is also the biennial World Table Tennis Championship organized by the ITTF. In the earlier days of the tournament, the Hungarian men’s team was considered the most dominant one, and they actually won the championship 12 times. This was followed by a short period of dominance by the Japanese team in the 1950s.

However, from the 1960s, China became the new dominant power in international table tennis with the exception of 1989–2000, when Sweden won the championship four times. Recently, China has continued to dominate the sport and the Chinese men’s team holds a record number of 20 world team championship titles.

Ma Long became the men’s singles World Champion in 2019 and thus he joined the legendary group of professional players like Hungary’s Victor Barna and his Chinese compatriot, Zhuang Zedong, who also won three titles in a row (2019, 2017, 2015). You can check out the excellent skills of Ma Long in the 2020 ITTF German Open here.

Ping Pong vs. Table Tennis: What It All Means for You

Now that we have examined the history of both of these intriguing sports as well as pointed out some of the differences in terms of the rules and the equipment, you’ll see that there really are some differences between ping pong and table tennis. This is a great thing to keep in mind the next time you challenge somebody to a game of “table tennis” in your garage. You had better be a pretty good player if you are going to call it that instead of “ping pong”.

Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.