A Primer to Inverted Table Tennis Rubbers: ESN vs Chinese Rubbers vs Tenergy
Table tennis equipment has evolved throughout the sport’s history. These changes have come in the form of new materials and manufacturing technology. If you watch professional matches from fifty years ago and compare them to the modern game, you quickly notice a few stark differences. The speed of the game has increased by an astounding margin. With each stroke, we witness new levels of power generated by the top athletes and their high-performance equipment. We see levels of spin that would make a jet pilot dizzy. Offensive firepower reigns supreme at the highest levels of competition and defensive players have almosts gone extinct. What caused this seismic shift? It wasn’t a meteor, but it was equally disruptive. The future of table tennis was altered forever with the addition (and evolution) of inverted rubbers and powerful sponges.
What are inverted rubbers?
Inverted rubbers (also called smooth rubbers, pimples in or pips-in) come in various forms. By rule, all inverted rubbers in table tennis need a sponge. Modern table tennis is largely played with grippy inverted rubbers, created to generate tremendous speed and spin. There is an exception to this, however. Anti-spin rubbers are inverted rubbers with very little grip. These rubber sheets are typically combined with unresponsive sponges in order to create a spin insensitive surface. There are advantages and disadvantages to using anti-spin rubbers, but that is outside the scope of this article.
Inverted rubbers work by combining a topsheet and a sponge to generate spin. The topsheet is usually a combination of natural and synthetic rubber, with a grippy surface and a pimple configuration that compresses into the sponge upon contact with the ball. Sponges come in various types characterized by their degree of hardness, thickness and elasticity. Finding a good balance between these attributes is essential. Ideally, an appropriate sponge must be easy enough to compress that a player can generate sufficient spin on soft shots, while also being resilient enough to withstand hard contact and efficiently transfer the energy to the ball. It is nearly impossible to accomplish this across the entire spectrum of shots, so most players choose a rubber that performs well across the range of shots they play most often during practice and competition.
There are many ways to classify inverted rubbers, but we would need an entire series of articles to cover them (and a lifetime to read them all). Instead, this article will focus on a few of the most common differentiating factors: the country of origin, the degree of “speed-glue effect” in the rubber, and the stickiness of the topsheet. By the end of the article, you will feel comfortable discussing the finer points of inverted rubbers at your next dinner party (or practice session).
Differentiating Factors of Inverted Rubbers
Country of Origin
One way of classifying rubbers is the country in which it was manufactured. There are three major countries where rubbers are produced: China, Japan and Germany.
Chinese rubbers come in various types, but most people think of hard tacky rubbers (rubbers with sticky topsheets) when they think of Chinese rubbers. Others just focus on rubbers made in China, as not all Chinese rubbers are tacky. In any case, the most popular rubbers made in China tend to be the DHS Hurricane rubbers or those designed to emulate them. The majority of Chinese rubbers have very little speed glue effect built into them and have a slightly “dead” feeling, with some exceptions. For this reason, it is common for players to boost Chinese rubbers, creating a similar effect to speed glue and increasing the rubber’s performance. Hard tacky Chinese rubbers are most commonly used as a forehand rubber due to their playing characteristics. The Hurricane Neo 3 series is a common entry-point for players trying out Chinese rubbers for the first time.
Japanese rubbers are sometimes considered the same as European rubbers. However, there can be distinctions made between them. Japanese rubbers often have a different manufacturing process and the very best ones on the market today, Butterfly’s Tenergy Series, have a different sponge. When most people nowadays think of Japanese rubbers, they typically think of Tenergy. This series from Butterfly has been the market leader for many years and the “Spring Sponge” technology has been extremely popular with professional players.
German rubbers are almost exclusively made by ESN, a rubber design and manufacturing company that produces rubber for most of the major equipment companies. Just about every major European rubber brand makes inverted rubbers at ESN. A few Japanese, Korean and Chinese brands use ESN to outsource manufacturing for certain product lines as well. ESN rubbers have gone through many iterations, with continual attempts to improve them. In the early periods after the speed glue ban, ESN rubbers were considered inferior to Tenergy and boosted Chinese rubbers by the top players. This is no longer the case, with many world-class players such as Vladimir Samsonov (Tibhar), Hugo Calderano (Xiom), Simon Gauzy (Andro) and Quadri Aruna (was JOOLA, now Gewo) using ESN rubbers under various brands.
Systematically classifying ESN products is a challenge. ESN manufactures rubbers for numerous brands and while many of the features of these rubbers are proprietary to ESN, a considerable number of their characteristics are brand-specific. ESN rubber sheets gained mainstream popularity in 2009 when they began manufacturing rubbers for various brands to compete with Tenergy. Specifically, rubbers such as Andro Hexer, XIOM Vega Pro, Donic Baracuda, Yasaka Rakza 7, and JOOLA X-Plode have proven to be high-quality rubbers that deliver respectable performance in many areas.
A newer generation of ESN rubbers, such as JOOLA Rhyzm, Evolution MX-P, Donic Bluefire M1 and XIOM Omega V Pro, performed at a very high level. These rubbers have been used by top players with great results in competitive events and are often considered to be suitable Tenergy substitutes.
Today, ESN has developed many rubbers for manufacturers optimized for the plastic ball. These include JOOLA Rhyzer series, Andro Rasanter series, XIOM Omega VII series and Donic Bluestorm series). That said, even their older generation of rubbers from 2009/2010 seem to perform reasonably well with the plastic ball. For example, Nittaku Fastarc G-1 is still one of the best selling rubbers in Japan and is used by the Japanese superstar Mima Ito.
Traditional Rubbers and the “Speed Glue Effect”
Traditional rubbers are often recommended to beginners and are most commonly found on premade rackets. Made in Japan, Yasaka Mark V and Butterfly Sriver are two of the most popular rubbers in this category of traditional rubbers. There were other lesser-known traditional rubbers made in Japan, Europe and China as well. These rubbers were popular with professional players during the “Speed Glue Era,” but are no longer used by most pros. During that period, rubbers were treated with speed glue to maximize performance. The speed glue had a dramatic effect on the spin and speed capabilities of a given rubber. The use of speed glue is no longer legal because the hydrocarbons in such glues are considered highly detrimental to human health.
Nowadays, inverted rubbers have higher quality sponges and topsheets that aim to replicate this effect without requiring the player to apply speed glue. These rubbers are now used by many players and their product descriptions often include buzz words such as “tensioned topsheets” or “factory boosted”. These rubbers have been chemically treated in some fashion, causing the rubbers to play closer to traditional rubbers with speed glue treatment. Some players still argue that nothing comes close to speed glued traditional rubbers. While this may be true, the health concerns surrounding the toxicity of speed glue were, and still are, real.
Topsheets - Grippy vs Tacky
Rubber topsheets are generally classified as tacky or grippy. Tacky rubbers are almost exclusively associated with China - especially the DHS Hurricane series. However, there are tacky rubbers made by ESN (such as Tibhar Hybrid K1) and grippy rubbers made in China (729 Focus III Snipe). Tacky is usually a reference to a sticky topsheet where the ball literally sticks to the rubber when the rubber is new or if the stickiness has been preserved. Most inverted rubbers have topsheets with some degree of grip even though the ball doesn’t literally stick to the topsheet. Grippy rubbers, when compared to tacky, are less sensitive to incoming spin and rely more on engaging the sponge to generate high levels of spin.
Additionally, there are other differences between rubbers such as sponge hardness and thickness, along with the pips configuration. Brands also have older and newer rubber releases as they try to update rubber technology to match changes in the official rules, techniques and gameplay.
The Tenergy Era
The Butterfly Tenergy series, with its “Spring Sponge” technology, was a major revolution in the post-speed glue era of table tennis equipment. Tenergy is easily the market leader with high level players as the rubber is highly responsive and able to generate spin across a large range of impact speeds. Pros felt that it had some definite advantages over the alternatives in the early days of its release circa 2008-2012.
There are 4 major kinds of Tenergy rubbers, each known by a two digit code which specifies their topsheet configurations: Tenergy 05, 80, 64 and 25. Each variation comes in a regular version (medium-hard sponge) and an FX version (medium-soft sponge), such as Tenergy 05-FX. Tenergy 05 also comes with a harder sponge: Tenergy 05 Hard.
Tenergy 05 is preferred for spin-oriented and active offensive play, and is less suitable for passive play and blocking, Tenergy 64 is designed for speed-oriented offensive play and passive blocking. Tenergy 80 is somewhere in between those two rubbers in those given areas. These differences come from the variations in the pip structure of the topsheets. Tenergy 25 is a different rubber that doesn’t quite fit into the T05-T80-T64 continuum. It supports close to the table play, but requires a good and powerful brushing technique to get the most out of the rubber.
Rozena and Dignics
When compared to Tenergy 05, Rozena performs at same speed but with less spin. Despite featuring the same bouncy "Spring Sponge" feeling of Tenergy sheets, it easier to control incoming spin, making it suitable for a large number of players. Rozena is sold at around half the price of Tenergy.
Improving upon the Tenergy series has proven to be a tall task for every manufacturer, including Butterfly. However, the Dignics 05 rubber has surged in popularity and quickly amassed a strong following. Dignics is the latest major rubber series from Butterfly to have such an impact on the game and was developed in response to the implementation of the plastic ball. It uses an even more advanced version of Butterfly’s Spring Sponge technology (Spring Sponge X) and advancements in new topsheet materials enhance the grip and durability of this rubber. The price point for Dignics is higher than the Tenergy series and it is gaining traction with the players at the highest levels of the sport.
Which inverted rubber is best for you?
Ultimately, the best rubber for you will depend on your playing style and experience. Faster isn’t always better and what’s right for the pros won’t necessarily be right for you. Regardless of your equipment choice, it’s important to spend enough time practicing with it to become comfortable. Table tennis is a game of quick reflexes and ingrained techniques. Your equipment needs to become an extension of yourself.
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