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The Beautiful Game

In defense of ping-pong.

In the popular imagination, table tennis has never recovered from its origins as a parlor game. Because it lacks the costly glamour of lawn tennis, because you can do it on a dining room table, because people who can't play always think they can, and because it's watched at the highest level only by those who play it at the highest level, table tennis remains a joke: ping-pong--which, to lovers of the game, equates to calling grand opera sing-song.

I won't pretend, as a lover of the game myself, and as a one-time player, that I don't feel the insult personally. When the headmaster of the school I attended in North England read out pupils' achievements at morning assembly, mine were always greeted with a laugh. I was winning more medals for my sport than others were winning for football or athletics or arm wrestling, but my sport was ping-pong. In the end, the school decided to stop noticing my achievements altogether, to put an end to the hilarity. With the release of Balls of Fury, a movie about table tennis that calls itself "[a] huge comedy with tiny balls," the jokiness continues. Table tennis is for fools or comic scoundrels. And yet--at least until the FBI sends the hero down into an Oriental ping-pong underworld, ruled over by Christopher Walken in Fu Manchu drag--the plot of Balls of Fury bears striking resemblance to a real-life table tennis story that is by no means lacking in grandeur or romanticism. In the movie, Randy Daytona crashes out of the 1988 Olympics and is reduced to performing table-tennis tricks at a casino in Nevada. In life, the great American table-tennis player Marty Reisman crashed out of the World Championships held in Bombay in 1952 (a championship he was widely tipped to win) and was reduced to performing table-tennis tricks as a warm-up to the Harlem Globe Trotters. Balls of Fury is over in 90 minutes, but, in life, Reisman is still around, still striking the ball like a champion--I know because he lets me practice with him sometimes when I come to Manhattan, on a pilgrimage to his genius--still fuming about the injustice of his defeat and still wondering, in some corner of his heart, whether the decision might yet be overturned. The man has a sense of humor, but, for him--as I remind myself when he rings me in my London home at four in the morning to tell me that he's playing better than ever--table tennis has been no jest.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist whose books include The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights.

His near contemporary and longtime rival, Dick Miles—ten times U.S. champion—was more literary still. In the days when they traveled the world lifting titles together, Reisman would be out placing bets on himself while Miles stayed in his hotel reading Ulysses. Later, he was to write a funny, sad, and sexy novel, which has not yet, to my knowledge—and to the shame of publishers—appeared in print. But he was a man better able to deal with change and disappointment than Reisman. Hard to say, in that case, which of them was the greater player or who would have won more world championships had sponge not stolen the opportunity from them both. But, if the game is about rubbing salt in your own wounds, then Reisman wins it.

He is furiously active now, propagandizing impossibly on behalf of the "hard bat"—that's to say, the racket as it was before Hiroji Satoh. It's the dialogue of table tennis he hopes to retrieve, the classical drama of the encounter, which, today, is over with a serve, but once delighted in a beginning and a middle and ended only when you or your opponent had looked the deeper into the other's soul. For which the term is metaphysics, not ping-pong.

What happened to Marty Reisman, and, therefore, what happened to table tennis, was this: The Japanese invented the sponge bat. Hiroji Satoh, who won the title that should have been Reisman's, was little-known even in Japan. What won it for him was the technology. Before the invention of sponge, table tennis was played with rubber pimples on plywood rackets. If you were good--and no one was better than Reisman--you made the pimples sing. Sponge was silent. And reactive--fast, not by virtue of your speed of shot but simply because of what it was: a hand-held mattress that absorbed all sound and spin, devilishly returning to the opponent whatever the opponent had imparted to the ball. With sponge, the music went out of table tennis, along with the inventiveness, the wit, the colloquy, the passion, and the intellection.

In their place--as the technology of racket glues and tacky surfaces has grown increasingly sophisticated, making the ball travel at the speed of light--is an athleticism that is marvelous in itself but is not truly intrinsic to the game. Today, table tennis is played at such a furious pace that no one outside Asia wants to watch it. (The single exception to Asian dominance, provided by Sweden, is only to be explained, I think, by that aspect of table tennis which no technology has ever been able to affect--its introversion. Perhaps because of the cribbed and sunless conditions in which it's played, without space for exuberance of shot or personality, table tennis has always been a sad, inward-looking sport, and sad, inward-looking people enjoy a natural advantage at the table.)

The Hungarian Dr. Roland Jacobi became the first official World Table Tennis Champion in 1926. I take his doctorate to be significant. Table tennis began as a sport for intellectuals and philosophers. It was chess in shorts and you didn't even need the shorts. You could win wearing long trousers and without ever having to remove your cardigan. But no less significant is Jacobi's nationality. Apart from the Englishman Fred Perry, founder of the casual attire empire, every world champion for the next 25 years came from one crumbling corner or another of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hungarian Victor Barna had an amused, laconic backhand the likes of which the game has never seen since. The Viennese-born Richard Bergmann defended so far back from the table he was in another room. Even from those distances they eyed each other up like cats. You needed the shots to be a world champion in those days, but you also needed the psychology.

Whether it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that gave to table tennis its distinctive air of melancholy reflectiveness, or whether the inherent mopishness of the game simply found its natural home there, is impossible to say. But, until sponge, it remained the perfect sport for deracinated solitaries with quick, lugubrious intelligences.

Not surprising, then, that, after the war, New York's Lower East Side became another breeding ground for great players. It was here, among immigrant gamblers and hucksters, that Reisman learned the game. Though a hustler born and, without doubt, the game's only extrovert, Reisman grew up with a taste for literature as well. The first time I met him, when he was over in Manchester for the World Veterans Championships, I was astonished to discover that what he carried in his leather shoulder-bag was not a towel and a change of shirt but his most recent and, to be honest, not-so-recent press cuttings. It would be a mistake to think of that as egomania, pure and simple. A voluble string-bean of a man--in appearance, a cross between a cardsharp and a beat poet (a switchblade is how he conceives of himself, a murderously slim weapon concealed inside a gambler's fancy vest)-- Reisman has always wanted to see his genius commemorated as much in words as silver cups. Of table tennis memoirs, the snappiest remains his own contribution to the genre, The Money Player.