EDitorial ± 30-Mar-2006

Not A Game For Boys

Friend of mine recently passed me one of Robert Crampton's "Beta Male" pieces from The Times magazine, in which he wrote about taking advantage of his wife's absence by inviting his mates round to play ... ping-pong. There's talk of "smacking it around addictively until the small hours" and the "grace & beauty of the sublime ping and the superlative pong."

Good stuff, as ever, but for those of us who've played competitively for aeons, albeit in a local league, there is another side to The Game.

The real thing -- yer actual table tennis -- is all skill & sweat, snaking serves, and saying sorry (or at least holding up your hand) when you land an edge. These players are people putting their bosses, businesses and bad chests to the back of their mind. They wear an obligatory dark top and aren't afraid to show their legs, and sup squash out of mugs between ends. Unlikely individuals that you wouldn't recognise on the street: retired gents who are suddenly sprightly and can teach you a thing or three, coached kids who'll mercilessly thwack it past you, and anonymous fellas who can more than hold their own in (whisper it) The Premier.

Now virtually everyone's singing a popular song
But I still believe in the excellent joy of the Pong
— Frank Black, Whatever Happened To Pong?
Of course it requires reflexes and a degree of mobility, but that's only the physical side. What you really need is nerve. Say you're on matchpoint and you've got the service: fast & low into your opponent's body? Spinny and short? How about applying nothing at all to the ball? Only you can decide. Then, on the return, loop it or play safe? Chop, chop, chop, then bang as you pull the trigger. Sweet when it goes on; sweeter still when it doesn't come back.

Our antepenultimate game of the season tonight. Opposition just below us in the league. Basic format is three per team, nine singles and one doubles, ten points up for grabs. I'd looked up their recent results online and had set my sights on at least 2/3: instead I got a big fat zilch. Had five matchpoints against arguably their weakest player, and watched as they trickled through my fingers: oops, there goes another one. Bottled it bigtime. Still kicking myself (and missing). Took their best player to deuce in the final game, but his nerve held and mine, well, didn't. That's why he's on 86% and I'm in the low 60s.

Put one away and the deadly enemy on the other side of the net may even say something admiring. Compliments escalate as follows:
  • good
  • very good
  • well played
  • shot!
  • great shot!
  • or even, as happened once tonight, ninja!
Miss a sitter and feel free to curse yourself (donkey!), smile ruefully or slowly shake your head in disbelief. Completely fail to make contact and get ready for jibes of "whoosh!", "well left!" or "looked good."

Sure is a long way from having a knockabout on the dining room table using your dad's hard bat, a row of books as a net and an old shiny ball once bought from a big tub in the newsagents and now retrieved from the cat's playthings. Still, as Mr Crampton concludes, What Brilliant Fun.