Table Tennis Review

Friday, October 08, 2004

Smoking is a really disgusting habit. Even smokers will concede that for the most part they don’t enjoy smoking, but they keep doing it, because, every so often, it’s just glorious. It’s that every-so-often that still haunts ex-smokers like me years after they’ve stopped; that moment after a warm day on the golf course when the first mouthful of cold beer hits the back of your throat and you briefly think that life would be perfect if you could only set fire to some dried leaves and inhale the smoke.

Eastenders is also a really disgusting habit, although much less likely to give you cancer. Night after night you keep watching it even though you know in your heart of hearts that it’s rubbish. Partly you watch because familiarity in this case breeds not contempt but a sense of belonging, and partly you watch because it reminds you that no matter how hard your day has been, its very unlikely to have been as miserable as Pauline Fowler’s. But you also watch because the odd time (increasingly odd these days by all accounts) they get it exactly right. From somewhere they produce a decent script and you realise at the end of half an hour that, for most of it, you managed to suspend your disbelief and you actually cared what was going to happen next.

Table tennis isn’t quite as habit forming as smoking or Eastenders, but it has its own little way of sucking you in. Like many sports, the participants spend most of their time failing and only a very small proportion of it pulling off the kind of shots that float like dreams through their imaginations. For every ludicrously difficult smash from ten feet behind the table that somehow gets just enough topspin to stop it missing the table, but not enough to make it dive into the net, there have been any number of failed attempts and containing shots.

The game’s timing tends to be impeccable. It’s when you’re at your lowest ebb and beginning to get frustrated with how incapable you both are of stringing together a decent rally that one arrives and makes you both smile and laugh with each other (no matter who won the point) like a couple of little children watching and believing a magic show. The ball does things you hadn’t expected it capable of, and your body reacts faster than you’d known it could.

It’s a game that requires both patience and talent in greater measure than I posses to be truly exciting. John Adams has a penchant these days for referring to things he likes as being such-and-such “of the gods” – during all our table tennis exploits, we produced just one rally that made him look into the video camera and proclaim it to be “table tennis of the gods!” And they must have had a hand in it, because I’m fairly sure that neither of us is half as good as we’d need to be to produce again the kind of form we found in that one lonely moment.

I will play again I’m sure – I own a bat and it’s not exactly an expensive habit – and I will watch with refreshed appreciation the efforts of the pros on the TV. It’s a good game, and I’ve enjoyed this leg of the challenge a lot, but I won’t be falling asleep tonight longing to be the next Jan Ove Waldner.