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Anyone can join the fun: how table tennis conquered the world

From Berlin to Melbourne and now Dubai, ping-pong is the coolest leisure activity around.

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson is a huge fan of ping-pong, which he calls 'whiff-whaff''. Reuters / Michael Buholzer
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson is a huge fan of ping-pong, which he calls 'whiff-whaff''. Reuters / Michael Buholzer

Forget royal weddings or births, the society event of the decade will surely take place when the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, sets a date to take on Pippa Middleton, the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, in a game of table tennis. Apparently, both families are very competitive. Such rivalries might at one time have been settled in the usual manner: jousting, perhaps.

But not in the 21st century. Such is ping-pong's current cachet, Middleton teased Johnson that he wanted to be "whiff-whaff" (as he calls the game) world king "even more than he wants to be prime minister" and challenged him to a game. Which should be televised live, surely. With regular champagne breaks.

The thing is, "Boris vs Pippa" would probably enjoy a huge audience. Right now, there is surely no cooler sport in the world: ping-pong bars have sprung up in London, New York, Melbourne, and of course, in Dubai.

Much of ping-pong's resurgence is undeniably down to its image as an uncomplicated, fun sport that anyone can play. Nostalgia for childhood afternoons spent smashing table tennis balls at friends is also strong. But its growing cultural importance over the past couple of years has been intriguing. Take the seventh season of the much-missed US comedy drama Entourage: John Stamos and Johnny Drama took each other on in suitably retro tracksuits … at Susan Sarandon's SPiN Hollywood. Incredibly, Stamos and the actor Kevin Dillon looked like they knew what they were doing.

It's interesting to note the attitude of the International Table Tennis Federation to all this. One might expect it to be wary of the sport being slightly mocked, but it actually finds it rather amusing. "The cool factor has emerged for our sport and that is great … although we also benefit from the fact that every celebrity in the world thinks they are good at ping-pong," says the president Adnan Sharara, laughing.

He might have been thinking about the Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, most famous for the hit television shows The IT Crowd and Girls. He conducted a recent interview for New York Magazine across the net from a perspiring journalist. "Until there are tears, we keep going," he told the writer.

At least he kept all his clothes on, which is more than could be said for Lena Dunham's character in a recent episode of Girls. Needless to say, keeping score wasn't quite the object of the exercise, not least because her opponent, played by Patrick Wilson, admitted afterwards that Dunham is "good at a lot of things, but not ping-pong".

And in a way, that's the point; you don't have to be a prodigy to get enjoyment from table tennis. Bounce, a cool new London ping-pong hangout, deliberately targets big groups to come and play, and maybe have a drink and some food.

Not that some don't take it seriously. One of last year's very best documentaries, Hugh Hartford's film Ping Pong, was about eight elderly champions. Octogenarians in the main, they'd probably thrash people half their age. In Berlin, the city credited with encouraging ping-pong's hipster credentials, there are outdoor, all-weather tables in most parks - and the Dr Pong bar only really gets going at midnight.

Dr Pong's loosely translated motto is "conversation, participation and unmitigated happiness". With aims such as that, no wonder table tennis is in rude health.

Table tennis … or ping-pong?

There was a time when table tennis pros would get very sniffy about people referring to the game as ping-pong, as if it was somehow demeaning. But ping-pong is hardly a jokey name - it's actually a trademark registered by an early manufacturer of the equipment, which is why the more generic "table tennis" began to be used by the 1920s. The terms came to distinguish people having a laugh with a bat and ball, and those who played it as serious sport. But attitudes have relaxed, with even the president of the International Table Tennis Federation happy to call it ping-pong. So you can call it what you like. Unless you're the London mayor Boris Johnson, in which case you call it whiff-whaff.


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