If At First You Don't Succeed...

Friday, October 08, 2004

Last week, we played a table tennis match (best of five) and it didn’t count. This week, John Adams and I rattled through another match (best of seven) in about 15 minutes as our doubles opponents looked on, busting at the seams to get in on the action. Last week, John beat me in a five game thriller, but the result failed to stand on a technicality. This week, I beat him in a six game sprint, and the result will stand regardless of the malignant chatter from the audience about the legality of my service action and the quality of the ball being used.

With the singles out of the way, the path was clear for the main event of the evening - the men’s doubles. This epic nearly didn’t happen. Through the course of the day I struggled to find a fourth player. In the Olympic spirit, I strove well, but failed to conquer. In the end, we were spared another wasted trip to the table by a virtual stranger – or a virtual friend to be more exact.

Huw Morris saved the day. Until he strode up to me and introduced himself last night, I had known him only through his postings to Sportsfilter.com as the mildly disgruntled West Bromich Albion fan (is there any other kind?) using the screen name Salmacis. Having seen this website, he realised he lived just round the corner from the venue and volunteered as official photographer for the evening. Fortunately, he got my last minute e-mail before he left the house and brought his trainers as well as his camera.

After some confusion over who was left-handed and who wasn’t, it was decided by mutual consent that John and I would face Rob and Huw.

If playing doubles in badminton requires a degree of mutual understanding and consideration, then playing doubles in table tennis requires a degree in mathematics just to work out who should be standing where and who’s next to serve. Unlike badminton or tennis, where one half of the partnership could theoretically hit nothing but his own serves for the entire match, the workload is more evenly distributed in table tennis. If you hit two of your side’s shots in a row, the point is lost.

Getting out of the way is a hard skill to master – especially when you’ve just spent a quarter of an hour playing singles. On numerous occasions through the course of the match, I prevented John playing some exquisite shots simply by not realising until it was too late that I was standing between him and the ball. John on the other hand (polite, deferential Englishman that he is) didn’t once get in my way.

Having discovered the necessity to possess this difficult skill, I am amazed that the Asian nations are so good at table tennis doubles. I can only conclude that those who are good at staying out of the way also stay at home to practice their table tennis, while those who aren’t, come to Oxford to wander around looking at old buildings in front of me when I’m on my lunch break.

For a man who didn’t know he was playing until he arrived at the table, Huw played very nicely. He figured out my serve quickly enough that I had to try and change it halfway through the game, with messy consequences. Rob’s form was as I’d expected it would be. A word of warning to anyone playing anyone at anything – if the phrase “I used to play all the time, but I haven’t for over a decade” is used, beware.

Children play sport with a sense of discovery and careless abandon that can be very hard to beat. Adults playing a game (that they used to enjoy) for the first time in a long time exhibit a similar sense of rediscovery and excitement in their play as they journey out to their limits. In time, once they reach their limits and realise that they have contracted somewhat over time, they can become tentative and cagey – they stop playing and start working on their game. But on the way out, it’s all flourish and exhibition.

So it was with Rob. You could see his experience in the way he played, even if it was thinly concealed behind years of sitting at a desk and a particularly hopeless hired paddle. More than the rest of us, he looked like he knew what he was doing. He was trying to hit good shots, while the rest of us were just trying not to miss.

In the end though, all his talent couldn’t outshine the surface of the rubber on his bat, and John and I managed to eek out a victory. With the end of the game came the end of the table tennis leg of the journey; many thanks to John, Rob and (especially) Huw for playing with and against me. I’ll be playing badminton mixed doubles on Saturday morning, and then it’s on to tennis of the table-less variety next week. Four down, one hundred and twenty-four to go.

Rob and Huw celebrate avoiding the whitewash having just closed the gap from 3-0 to just one game.

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Singles:
John McClure (GBR) beat John Adams (GBR)
11-5, 13-11, 11-13, 8-11, 11-9, 13-11

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Doubles:
John McClure & John Adams (GBR) beat Robert Simmons & Huw Morris (GBR)
11-5, 11-7, 11-9, 9-11, 9-11, 11-8