I’m not the first person to write about sponge thickness. I’m not necessarily more qualified to explain the differences between using 1.9 mm or 2.1 mm. I do get the idea that most of the people who have tried to explain the nuances of sponge rubber probably use maximum thickness rubber themselves. I almost never run into players who are playing with 1.0 mm, 1.2 mm, or even 1.5 mm thickness. I’m sure I’m not the only player who routinely uses thin sponge. It just sometimes seems like it. There are some potential disadvantages to using thin sponge, but that goes for maximum thickness as well.
So, what possible advantage is there? Let me clarify that for the purposes of this article I’m primarily talking about smooth inverted rubber, and not pips out. Pips can be used with no sponge, and depending on the types of pips used, the sponge can either be thick or thin. Perhaps that is a topic for another day. I will address anti-spin, since sponge thickness greatly affects rubber with slick top-sheets.
If you are using extremely thin sponge rubber, you have sacrificed speed, and to some extent spin. You may be able to get very heavy spin on chops, but loops will be extremely hard to execute, and generating power away from the table will be nearly impossible. Despite this, 1.0 mm and 1.2 mm rubber can be used effectively for chopping, blocking, and playing close to the table. Thin rubber is excellent for pushes, and quick blocks over the table. Gambler Reflectoid and Spinlord Marder are defensive rubbers that are quite easy to use in their thin versions. Anti-spin rubber can be especially challenging to use with thin sponge since the top-sheet won’t grip the ball. Having a soft and slightly thicker sponge can provide some grip, and make anti a little easier to use.
The best qualities of thin sponge can also prove to be a weakness. Players who hit with thin sponge for the first time are often impressed with how well they can feel the ball. Some players can benefit from the added control, but at high speeds the lack of sponge can cause some problems. Trying to hit a ball too flat, or blocking strong shots causes the ball to feel like it is hitting through the sponge to the wood. This often results in the ball falling into the net. Some players don’t seem to have this problem, but it can be frustrating if it happens very often.
What types of players might benefit from thin sponge? Primarily, players who are looking for extreme control are good candidates. If you block more than loop on your backhand, thin sponge could be a good option. Inverted rubber with thin sponge can be a good compliment to any type of pips used for chopping, especially for players who twiddle. Using thinner sponge also lightens up your racket, and can actually improve the feel of the opposite side of the racket, even if that side has a thicker sponge. Thin sponge tends not to work well on super fast blades. It also doesn’t work well on extremely slow blades, unless you are primarily chopping. A good all around or all around minus blade seems to work best for blocking and playing close to the table. Most shots that can be done with thick sponge can be done with thin, as long as you don’t play too far back.
Some players will discover that the control that they feel with thin sponge on most of their shots, more than makes up for the lack of speed on a few of them. It can be ideal for older players who need to play at a slower pace, or players who play less frequently and need extra control. I coach very few defensive players, and don’t recommend 1.0 mm sponge to all around players and loopers. I do often start players with 1.8 mm to help them feel the ball more. Thin sponge rubber isn’t for everybody, and it does have it’s limitations, but there is an element of control that is different than with thicker rubber. Not many players are using it, but there are at least a few that probably should.