In praise of doubles table tennis.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 18 2008 4:18 PM

Like Regular Ping-Pong, With Concussions

In praise of doubles table tennis.

Check out Slate's complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Guo Yue and Zhang Yining at the Beijing Olympics. Click image to expand.
Guo Yue and Zhang Yining at the Beijing Olympics

As the creator and producer of The Asian Basketball Show, The Asian Football Show, and The Asia Sport Show, I spent a large chunk of my life watching sports in China. Naturally, that meant an undue amount of table tennis, or, as us less highfalutin types call it, Ping-Pong. Despite being around the sport quite a bit, I remain unable to explain its appeal or, for that matter, to execute a spin serve.

One thing I do know is that I've always preferred doubles to singles. Doubles table tennis is so entertaining because it defies the laws of geometry. As anyone who's played in a rec room fully understands, a Ping-Pong table simply isn't big enough to accommodate four people. The key skill that every doubles team must master has nothing to do with shot-making or defense. Rather, it's having the agility to get the hell out of the way of your partner.

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In doubles table tennis, partners must alternate shots. That means the goal of any team is to sow confusion in the enemy—to make it so the player whose turn it is to hit has to get through his or her partner to do so. The highlight of a doubles match is when partners kick, trip, or smash into one another. I once saw a Malaysian duo knock heads so hard the match was delayed nearly half an hour. Also fun: when one player swings for the ball and hits his or her partner instead.

Sadly, at the Olympic level, the players are too accomplished for this to happen. Maybe it's just as well, then, that doubles has been eliminated as an Olympic event. In its place this year is a team format pitting different countries against one another; just as in Davis Cup tennis, there's only one doubles match involved. (I got a long explanation from the International Table Tennis Federation explaining the reasoning behind the switch, but it seems to boil down to ensuring that other nations besides China win some medals for a change.)

In search of my doubles fix, I tuned in to Sunday's women's team final. (You can watch it online here—fast-forward to around the 1 hour, 25 minute mark to see the doubles.) Unsurprisingly, China was the winner, devouring Singapore 3-0 for the gold. One reason that China is so strong doubleswise is that its players are quick enough to play side by side. The women's team of Zhang Yi Ning and Guo Yue (ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world in singles) is a righty-lefty combo. The two move in unison with such precision that they're seldom caught in a poor position. Most other teams, including Singapore, use a circular (or "stack") formation, with one hitter stepping forward as the other circles back and away from the table. Against the Chinese, the stack toppled, with the women from Singapore forced to lunge futilely from side to side as Zhang and Guo lorded over the table.

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