Come to the table

Table tennis is fast rising in popularity. Karen Tonge extols the many benefits of our fastest rackets game

Forget football: the sport everyone is talking about is table tennis. Even footballers themselves have been bitten by the bug. From cool clubs with tables in London and New York to celebrity fans including George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, table tennis is the new rock’n’roll.

The appeal of table tennis is obvious. It’s fast, exciting – and you don’t need much space. Even more importantly, anyone can play at the most basic level. There are table tennis clubs all over the country and it is not only one of the most accessible sports but also one of the cheapest with starter kits of two bats, balls and a net available to buy for less than £10.

Jack Hunter-Spivey is now a Class 5 wheelchair player ranked nine in the world, recently beating the World number one

Sport has the power to change lives, and nowhere is this illustrated more powerfully than during the Paralympic Games. As one of the 22 sports that will feature in this year’s Paralympics, table tennis is one of the most inclusive sports for people with a disability. At competition level there are 11 different classifications: 1-5 for those competing in wheelchairs, 6-10 for those who play standing and 11 for standing athletes with an intellectual disability.

Since winning four medals in London 2012 the GB Para Table Tennis Team has gone from strength to strength. Having taken a record 11 medals at last year’s European Championships, the team boasts, among its many bright prospects, a World champion (Will Bayley) and a double European champion (Rob Davies).

Will Bayley (below) was born with arthrogryphosis, a rare congenital disorder that affected all four of his limbs. Despite enduring numerous operations at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Will always loved sport and when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma at the age of seven his grandmother bought him a table tennis table as it was the only sport he could play during his treatment and recovery. Will fell in love with the sport and is now the World number one in Men’s class 7.

Former rugby player Rob Davies, meanwhile, was encouraged to try table tennis after a broken neck left him wheelchair-bound. Although he initially dismissed it as a ‘girly sport’, Robb soon became hooked on the game’s fast-paced intensity and has also worked his way to the top of the World rankings in Men’s class 1. Elsewhere, Jack Hunter-Spivey was born blind and deaf and was then diagnosed with cerebral palsy, before taking up table tennis at 11 ahead of the 2012 Games. He is now a Class 5 wheelchair player ranked nine in the world, recently beating the World number one.

Thanks to an increase in National Lottery funding, the GB team now has a thriving Pathway and Development programme in addition to its Performance Squad. This is giving promising young players the opportunity to compete internationally and gain valuable experience against top-level opposition. The programme’s success was illustrated at last year’s European Championships when Pathway products Tom Matthews, Billy Shilton and Megan Shackleton all won medals at their first major championship. Now, with a series of Talent-ID events around the UK, the team is already searching for talented players for Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

But you don’t have to be an elite athlete to enjoy table tennis. It is a great way to burn calories and get fit; it improves reflexes, balance, coordination, and both mental and physical agility. It is also a very social sport and, because it suits players of all ages, is a perfect family activity.

The fastest racket sport, table tennis also presents great strategic challenges. Chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer once described it as “running the 100 metres while playing chess at the same time,” and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is among those to have discovered its stress-relieving benefits.

So, there you have it. Table tennis: truly a sport for everyone.

Karen Tonge is Chairman of the British Table Tennis Association for People with Disabilities (BTTAD).To find a table tennis club in your area, visit www.tabletennisengland.co.uk

To find out more about Para table tennis, visit www.bttad.org/contact-us

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