TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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