Ping pong is the perfect sport for any age – and Roger Federer is proof

Roger Federer - Cameron Smith/Getty Images for Laver Cup
Roger Federer - Cameron Smith/Getty Images for Laver Cup

Anyone who plays ping pong will know that it is infuriatingly addictive, even among former tennis world champions.

With that legendary forehand, on the cusp of retirement, Roger Federer, 41, was seen smashing the table tennis ball to his opponent last week. “A quick warm up,” he quipped in a video he posted on Twitter, en route to the dinner that preceded his last professional appearance at London’s Laver Cup tournament, the “Ryder Cup” of the tennis world.

Risk of addiction aside, the Swiss star could do worse than seek solace in table tennis as he re-adjusts to life after lawn-sized tennis.

Having played since I was a child, I bought an outdoor table during lockdown and know of few other sports with as many benefits for body and brain.

Cardio might give me an endorphin buzz and weights boost my strength, but knocking that 2g ball from one side of a table to the other clears my mind quicker than you can ask “is the world’s fastest table tennis shot really 72mph?” (Yes).

Actress Susan Sarandon, the unlikely unofficial Hollywood representative of the sport, who part owns SPiN, a chain of table tennis bars in America and Canada, is similarly convinced.

Ping pong cuts across all body types and gender – everything, really – because little girls can beat big muscley guys,” she said. “You don’t get hurt; it is not expensive; it is really good for your mind. It is one of the few sports that you can play until you die.”

She is not the only celebrity fan of a game now mostly played in China, but developed in Victorian England. Barack Obama and David Cameron played doubles against a pair of teenagers at a London school in 2011 – the following year the Camerons gave the Obamas a customised Dunlop table.

In 2013, Pippa Middleton, the Princess of Wales’ sister and a former competitor in national table tennis championships, challenged Boris Johnson – also a player – to a duel (“I’m game if she is,” he responded). Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, meanwhile, reportedly stipulates that a table tennis table be present when he performs in concerts.

Because it is low impact, table tennis can be enjoyed at any age - Vladimir Godnik
Because it is low impact, table tennis can be enjoyed at any age - Vladimir Godnik

Table tennis soared in popularity during lockdown with Liberty Games reporting a 250 per cent year on year increase in table sales in 2020.

This month, Kathryn Wylde, chief executive officer of the non-profit organisation Partnership for New York City, said finance bosses were even offering employees on-site table tennis tables as an incentive to return to their office post-pandemic.

As one of the fastest racquet sports, the visual and spatial awareness required can sharpen reflexes, improve hand-eye coordination and arguably boost brain power – so much so that a 2014 Korean study of women over 60, published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, suggested that ping pong stimulated cognitive function more than weightlifting, walking, dancing or gymnastics.

Research in 2016 found it may improve the concentration span of children with ADHD.

In the United States, the Sport and Art Educational Foundation runs a table tennis therapy program for elderly people with dementia while, in 2020, scientists at Japan’s Fukuoka University found that table tennis could slow the progress of Parkinson’s disease, with five hours’ playing time a week reducing tremors, limb rigidity and slowness of movement.

Because it is low impact, it can be enjoyed at any age. The World Veteran Table Tennis Championships, held in Oman next year, has a category for the over 90s. Professional players can burn up to 500 calories per match, the rest of us 200 to 350 calories an hour with quads, hamstrings and arm muscles put to good use.

And while ping pong might not have the high profile of actual tennis, it is every bit as competitive. Maybe it’s not the last we see of Roger Federer on court, albeit with a smaller racquet in hand.