Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spring 1996 -- A tacky rubber clinic

In recognition of my ongoing renaissance in the game of filthy sidespin and cobra-like reflexes, a tale from the ping pong archives:

College was when I first got into the game. I guess it was the multitude of tables everywhere you went. My friend Ulysses had grown up as a military brat, skipping around the Pacific rim in his early days, and thus had a decent foundation. His most notable habit was playing in the Chinese penhold style -- index finger and thumb encircling the handle where it meets the blade and the entire paddle being held "upside down" with no real forehand or backhand -- just twisting the wrist side to side to adjust to ball location. He had his own paddle as well. I was suffering from tennis withdrawal and was happy to take up what looked to be a smaller-scale, indoor version of that sport.

Ulysses and I sparred regularly, mostly on the glossy but beat-up green table at the Blazer Hall food court. We recruited some interested (albeit less fanatical) guys from the dorm for an informal league, complete with stat compilations and occasional tournaments. As our skills increased, our rallies became longer and more frenetic, often drawing the attention of passers-by and people sitting at the tables enjoying their hot wings from KFC. The highlight of these audience interaction sessions was a pick-up game with a grocery-shopping Tony Delk* (accompanied by Walter McCarty), who you may recognize as having big careers in another sport.

Apparently we also drew the attention of somebody else.

One day, in the middle of one of our many epic tit-for-tats, a couple of guys walked quietly up and sat down. One of them, a guy with glasses and shaggy brown hair, was carrying a small pouch. He sat down, and, in a process that reminded me of peeling the layers off of an onion, winnowed his pouch down to a paddle case, then a plastic bag, and finally a paddle. He took out a cloth and polished it. I glanced at Ulysses and could tell he was thinking the same thing as I was. It was a mixture of mirth and, yes, fear. The way he was treating his paddle reminded me of the way people treat their firearms. He obviously meant business. At the break, he asked if he could have the next game.

I was first. The ball headed his way. He poked it back nonchalantly...effortlessly. We continued until he was warm. Ok, he's definitely not a novice. But I've played before too. This should be fun. Challenging, maybe, but fun.

So the game started. I served first, but I would soon be on the receiving end, Apollo Creed - Ivan Drago style. He took a wide swing and brushed up on the ball as he hit it. The shot that headed my way reminded me of a lob in tennis.

Is this a joke?

I stood back and waited for the ball to hit. New guy or not, I was going to make him taste this one.

This is how we play.

What happened next seemed to defy all laws of physics that I had known up until that point.

The lazy lob, upon being reintroduced to a solid surface, shot out at me with a fierce kick and a much lower angle. I missed it completely.

I didn't know it at the time, but I had just been introduced to a previously unencountered dimension of table tennis -- spin. Ulysses, for all his skill, played with a bare-wood paddle. Every ball he hit, and consequently, most of the shots I had seen in my playing career up to that point, was as flat as a board.

I did adapt, somewhat. That is to say, I actually started to make contact with some of those freaky shots. But then came my introduction to the secondary rub of the double-edged sword that is hitting back a heavy topspin shot. All of my returns went way long. And the ones that by some small miracle stayed on the table inevitably came back anyway, since, well, the guy was pretty good. He was picking balls up off of his shoelaces and sending them back with the same heavy juice. Soon enough the carnage was over. Exasperated, I ceded the table to Ulysses.

More of the same. Although I didn't know it at the time, I think Uly was able to handle him a bit better since the flipside of not being able to create spin with a rubberless paddle is that it is less affected by incoming spin from your opponent. But it's a testament to this guy's skill that he was able to force so many errors even against a paddle that's just about as frictionless as they get.

So our hard lesson was learned. The new guy thanked us for the game. We humbly thanked him back, taken down more than one notch. His friend came back, and I saw him ask how it went. The new guy cracked a slight grin and shook his head.

We never saw that guy again. I remember hearing from somebody that he had a coach and and been invited to try out for the Olympic team. Maybe true, maybe not.

Our confidence came back soon enough. Even if that was real table tennis, we still liked our little games better, humble as they were.



*In answer to the inevitable question from my curious readers, Delk's table tennis style can best be described as a close-to-the-table chopper. He was better than I thought. But yes, we could have taken him.


Addendum, 5/11/08: Web designers, take note -- put the words "rubber clinic", "filthy", and "tacky" in your text and you'll get lots of traffic.

And people here based on a search for the above keywords, um, sorry to disappoint you. This story was about ping-pong.

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