I have read lately that table tennis is making a comeback again. People wanting to avoid sitting in front of their computer terminal are seeking this more active and engaging activity.
Mao played it. So did Henry Miller. And Bobby Fischer was a demon at it. Table tennis has an exotic and even bizarre past. Now England's 17-year-old Katy Parker tells Will Buckley of her hopes to make a big mark on its future
Sunday 21 July 2002
Table tennis is an introspective sport. At the top level it requires monumental concentration and instinctive brilliance. At times, when both players are exchanging shots, looking for a crack in the other's defence, it even resembles chess.
This idea is given some support from the fact that Bobby Fischer was a fine player. 'Fischer played table tennis the way he played chess: fiercely, ferociously, going for his opponent's jugular. He was a killer, a remorseless, conscienceless, ice-blooded castrator...' wrote Marty 'The Needle' Reisman in his autobiography The Money Player - The Confessions of America's Greatest Table Tennis Champion and Hustler.
Reisman is one of the main players in a wonderful memoir by Jerome Charyn - the professor of cinema studies at the American University of Paris and celebrated thriller writer. Entitled Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins - Ping-Pong and the Art of Staying Alive, it is a history of table tennis studded with quirky moments of autobiography and has been described by Don DeLillo as 'probably The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong'.
Reisman was banned from the sport for three years for overdoing it on an expenses claim and went on the road with the Harlem Globetrotters playing exhibition games at half-time. Thereafter he travelled the world playing the game for money before settling in New York's Upper West Side and taking on all-comers: 'The last great ping-pong impresario of the 1970s,' writes Charyn.
Peter Shaw, reviewing Reisman's book, argued that 'contrary to popular belief, autobiographies tend not to reveal but to conceal the truth - from their authors no less than from their readers.' Reisman, wrote Shaw, wasn't really 'the hustler he thinks himself. He lacks the killer instinct that he rightly sees as the key to success in a man like Bobby Fischer. Lacking the necessary touch of inhumanity, Marty Reisman has been something more than a world champion, a man whose true story lies in defeat.' I thought about Reisman as I stood in front of a table-tennis table in the sports hall at Preston College, facing up to a 17-year-old girl called Katy Parker, and trailing 2-11, 1-11, 1-10. It was match point and it was quick.
If there is any disparity in ability in table tennis the game rapidly becomes pointless, though I had been fortunate to score four points (two service errors from Katy, a streaky forehand, and a net cord). No disgrace in this, for Katy is England's third ranked player and will be facing stiffer competition, unless something has gone disastrously wrong with the organisation, in the Commonwealth Games.
Further, Katy had a clear advantage in that she actually knew the rules. On the way up to Preston I had prepared myself for a five-serves-at-a-time, up-to-21, best-of-five-sets contest. Instead I found myself involved in a crap shoot. One minute I was working out whose serve it was now you only had two in a row, the next Katy had reached 11 and was changing ends. Table tennis is a sport which requires great concentration. Ideally on the game in progress rather than the rules.
That's the trouble with ping-pong; they keep changing the darn rules. Most famously after the following episode from Charyn's book: in Spongers Seldom Chisel, [Dick] Miles writes about the infamous long point between Poland's Alex Ehrlich, King of the Chiselers, and Romania's Paneth Farcas, during the team championships at the 1936 World Games in Prague. (In ping-pong parlance, a chiseler is a monomaniacal defensive player who will never, never attack, and keeps pushing the ball until he can no longer stand on his feet.) The first point lasted two hours and 12 minutes. Ehrlich had his special, outsized 'chiseling bat'. He was determined to wear Farcas down at the very beginning of the game. He pushed and pushed and after 70 minutes the score was still 0-0, but Farcas 'had shrivelled with every return and now looked like a hunchbacked robot'. Ehrlich himself was suffering. 'The extra weight of his chiseling bat had begun to tire his arm', so he 'deftly switched his bat and continued the point left-handed'. But there was a problem with the umpire. After 85 minutes his neck had locked, and a replacement had to be called in.
'The arena began to empty. Ehrlich didn't care. To keep him relaxed, he had a chessboard put on a table near the sideline and would whisper his moves to the Polish team captain. Meanwhile the ball "had crossed the net more than twelve thousand times," according to the Chiseler King. But after two hours, Farcas's arm began to freeze. And he lost the first point.
'Twenty minutes into the second point, a member of Ehrlich's team reached into his equipment bag "and pulled out a knife, a long loaf of bread and a two-foot Polish sausage". Thinking that the Poles "were prepared for a winter siege," Farcas started to attack. When Ehrlich returned the ball twice, Farcas, in a fit, "sent the ball and bat together sailing wildly over the King's head" and "ran screaming from the court". 'In response to Ehrlich's long point, the ITTF decided to "invigorate" the sport of ping-pong. It decreed that a game had to stop after 20 minutes, the victory going to whoever was ahead.'
Ehrlich, a Polish Jew, would spend four years at Auschwitz, only saved from the gas chamber because the Nazis recognised him as a ping-pong world champion. Dick Miles, the author of Spongers Seldom Chisel, was the ying to 'The Needle's' yang. Jim Courier, the American tennis player, rather surprisingly was accorded literary kudos for reading Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City during changeovers. Miles read Ulysses. 'Ulysses is still under my arm. I've only read it about 50 times. I've been reading the book all my life,' he told Charyn.
Miles has written about the modern game: 'to the unaccustomed eye a top-flight modern match might well appear a game played in the recreation room of an asylum by two berserk patients.'
While watching Katy practise with her mother, Jill Hammersley-Parker (European champion and three-time winner of the English Open) I refrained from passing on this observation. Although you could see his point. The ball moved so fast from side to side that it went from being hypnotic to verging on the insane.
Katy and Jill couldn't be more normal. Intense, perhaps, but not in the same league as Reisman or Miles. Katy is coached by her father Don, also an England international, and her elder brother was a good player but opted to play cricket - he's now on the ground staff at Lord's. Despite this defection, the Parkers can claim to be Britain's first family of table tennis. So, how many tables do they have at home? 'Just one,' says Jill. Which is rather disappointing. I'd imagined it would be a ping-pong emporium. The soft pfutt, pfutt, pfutt sound emanating from every room in the house. Is it odd for Jill to watch Katy trying to emulate her? 'I find it strange sometimes. Katy does things I would never have done. But that doesn't make them wrong. It's important to learn to play your own game and do so instinctively.'
Has it been hard for Katy to follow Mum? 'I don't feel any pressure from my parents but I think people expect me to do well because of who my parents are. It's natural for them to compare me to them,' says Katy.
Columnist and author Howard Jacobson has described ping-pong as 'a shy sport played by shy people'. And Katy doesn't exactly brag about her success. 'Only my closest friends actually know the extent of it all,' says Katy. 'She doesn't tell anybody,' says Jill. 'She's very modest.'
Katy has been on a Sport England scholarship at Nottingham working on her game from 9.45am to 12.30pm and 4pm until 6.30pm every day for the past year but... 'If I say I play table tennis it just leads to loads of questions,' Katy continues. 'So I just say I'm going to college, because it's easier.'
Very early on in a table tennis career you have to decide whether you want to be an attacking or defensive player. You either bang the hell out of the ball or you stand back and absorb it.
'I played attack until I was 12,' says Katy, 'and then I started defending.' 'She does attack as well,' says Jill. Why the change? 'When I went to my first Euros I think I lost all my games and I was never quick enough to be an all-out attacker. The defender has to concentrate on keeping the ball on and letting your opponent make the mistakes.' 'You can still be a defender and be offensive in the way you play,' says Jill.
Absolutely. From Jacques Secretin, French singles champion 17 times, to Matthew Syed, England's number one, it is the boys on the back foot who provide most of the entertainment, darting hither and thither, an almost obscene distance from the table, and miraculously putting bat to ball and returning it on to the table. The defenders are the entertainers. It is they who have chosen to be defenders; it is not something that has been forced upon them. As Richard Bergmann, a doughty Austrian defender who became world champion at 17, wrote 'you should be able to vary your style of play and go back to defending of your own accord'.
The defenders dominated until, writes Charyn, 'in 1952 an obscure watchmaker, Hiroji Satoh, arrived in Bombay with his sponge bat, which he carried in a special wooden box'. He was the lowest-rated player on the Japanese team. But he beat Bergmann 'who had spent a lifetime studying the sounds of table tennis. But against Satoh there was no sound... Bergmann was a deaf mute in a game that required dialogue... he became, like many silent picture stars after the introduction of sound, a has-been overnight.' And then Satoh beat Reisman. 'I was throwing lethal punches and hitting myself in the face,' wrote Reisman. 'Sometimes it floated like a knuckleball, a dead ball with no spin whatsoever. On other occasions the spin was overpowering.'
On his return to Tokyo, Satoh was greeted by a million people. He was the first Japanese to win a world title of any kind since the beginning of the war. 'Satoh was driven to sake,' wrote Dick Miles, 'and this abused, apologetic homunculus who had wrecked the game in 10 days was never seen again in international play.'
The game wasn't wrecked, merely altered. In a sense it lost its voice with the plock, plock, plock being replaced by the merest muffle of a sound. The quiet game became yet quieter.
And, perhaps as a consequence, a game that, according to Lisa Lipkin, 'was the sport of choice among thousands of Jewish boys growing up in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when Jewish men dominated the field', a game where the champions came from Prague and Budapest, began to move eastwards towards Japan and China.
There was another lasting effect because without sponge, there would never have been glue. How else could the sponge be affixed to the bat? And glue did for the chiselers because, says Jill, 'it helped the ball go much quicker'. The authorities would love to ban glue and assist the defenders but no one has invented a replacement adhesive. Although, in a strange twist, the gluers have problems of their own because since 11 September they have not been allowed to take their glue as hand luggage. Or so says Jill.
Enough glue. Can the British win a medal at the games? 'If we all play to our best we have a chance,' says Katy. Who are the main threats? 'Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Canada...' says Katy. 'They've all got Chinese in their team,' says Jill. 'It's the national sport in China. Millions upon millions play it. [Jan Ove] Waldner from Sweden [the world champion] is a very well-known person in China. And the TNG Closed Tournament in Tientsin took over a year to complete because there were so many entrants.' A year? It's possible. Chairman Mao once wrote: 'Regard a ping-pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat and you have won a point for the fatherland.' Perhaps, but political agendas seem too aggressive for such a quiet game. I prefer Miller to Mao.
'This is my seventieth year of ping-pong playing,' Henry Miller wrote in 1971. 'I started at the age of 10 on the dining room table. I take on players from all over the world. I play a steady, defensive Zen-like game. The importance of my recreation lies in preventing intellectual discussions. No matter how important or glamorous an opponent may be I never let him or her distract me.'
And they were often glamorous and distracting. Miller played ping-pong at Clichy with Anaïs Nin, with Chaim Soutine at the Villa Seurat, with Lawrence Durrell in Corfu, at a Paris bistro with Brassaï, in Hollywood with Man Ray...
The man with the starriest of ping-pong CVs concluded: 'No other sport can engage in the same way, it allows you to dream, it is like being in a trance state.' A game for dreamers. A sport for the modest and retiring and reflective. Katy must have a chance.
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