Table Tennis - Men's Singles Preview

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Week 5 (of 206) and I’m switching sports to table tennis in the third leg of what I’m now thinking of as my leisure centre section. Tomorrow night I will face the mighty John Adams in the palatial surroundings of the Peers Sports Centre. As with badminton, I have played a bit of table tennis over the last couple of winters, although I have yet to try out the new scoring/serving system.

Under the old rules, each set was played on a first to 21 points basis, with the serve changing ends after every five points. The new rules feature a shorter set format (first to 11) and the serve now changes ends after every two points. Matches are decided over five sets. If you want more details of the technicalities, check out the BBC’s beginner’s guide to table tennis.

Table tennis was never a demonstration sport in the Olympics. It made its debut as a full medal sport in Seoul in 1988. As I was with badminton, I’m surprised at how relatively recently it was included in the Olympic programme. The current men’s singles Olympic champion is Seung Min Ryu of Korea. He became only the third non-Chinese player to win a medal in the men’s (singles or doubles) events in the game’s Olympic history.

One of the others, Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, the men’s singles champion in 1992, beaten finalist in 2000 and a semi-finalist in Athens, is a legend of the game. He can wander the streets in Sweden without causing much of a commotion, but he can’t leave his hotel without getting mobbed when he goes to play in China. He is expected to retire after the world championships in Shanghai next year.

Table tennis is one of those games for which a lot of people I know have volunteered their services as an opponent. It seems to inspire a similar wistful look in everyone; a look that suggests memories of playing on holiday, and maybe even winning the campsite competition. Lots of people fancy themselves as being “handy enough” at table tennis, but the truth is that a professional could very quickly make even a decent part-timer look like a total fool.

The general perception is that a high level of fitness isn’t required to play this game. While that may be true, the men and women who play it well are among the fittest athletes on the planet. Neither John nor I quite sneak into that elite class at the moment, but we are fairly evenly matched so we should have a good game.

In other Olympic news – I’d like to offer enormous congratulations to Sascha Kindred, who has been adding to his medal haul in the pool in the Paralympics. He won gold in both the 200m individual medley SM6 and the 100m breaststroke SB7 (setting a new Paralympic record in the latter). He is the world record holder in both events and was defending the titles he won in Sydney four years ago. He also put in a stunning final leg to help Great Britain grab a bronze in the 4 x 50m freestyle (20 points) relay.

I’ve never met him, but his twin brother (Timo) is a good friend and a keen sportsman who will no doubt be featuring in many of the events I have to complete over the next four years.