Monday, August 25, 2008

SPORTS: No PP'ing Table Tennis

The nice thing about having multiple TVs on during the Olympics is that occasionally you find yourself riveted by the 'B' story (the little TV) instead of a not-bad story going on, on the main TV. Such was the case Saturday night during the final day of Olympic competition. I was watching the Men's Volleyball final between Brazil and the USA, an event I looked forward to. Each Olympiad reminds me just how entertaining volleyball is, played at the highest of levels. Men or women, indoor volleyball is pretty good.

But I ended up watching the Table Tennis Men's gold medal game between Wang and Ma on NBC for the most part.

Ma Lin won it in five frenetic games that saw Wang Hua almost wipe out four or five point deficits in each of the four lost games. I quite enjoyed the competition and wonder, to be honest, why people over here (in North America), seem to have such a hard time following games on TV. For me, it was perfectly watchable, engrossing even. I like the fact that there was little in the way of histrionics. No coaches interfered, since the Chinese have the quaint notion that if two team members play each other, THEY should decide the match, rather than interfering coaches. They sit in the stands instead. Eliminates the old "YOU like HIM/HER better than MEEEEEEEEE" ranting. All in all, like I say, I ended up focusing in on Table Tennis over Volleyball.

I have a family history in table tennis. My dad was a pretty good player and I was the only one of the three kids that really took up the game. Oddly, it's probably the only activity my father and I ever shared for about the first 50 years of my life.

My dad set up the ping pong table in the basement. And make no mistake, it was a ping-pong table. An old press-board two-part relic with a net that sagged more than it should. But Dad and I spent hours down there playing around. Went through a sleeve of halite balls every month. It was a lot of fun.

I initially learned playing with old Chinese sandpaper bats. Not a huge amount of control, but even as a kid, I could really hit the ball with those old bats. I even stubbornly refused to use the orange rubber pimple-faced bats that Dad bought one Christmas ... for about a month. Got a little sick and tired of being beat 15-0 and 21-0 depending on which game we were playing to. I finally started scoring some points again when I went with the better controlling rubber bats.

Dad never coddled me or the others. He'd play his style and let us work ourselves into a real lather while he just played a return game. I'd smash forehand and backhand and he'd just doink it back over the net to let me wear myself out some more. Hey, I was a kid. I wasn't that I was too stupid to notice which one of was getting all the exercise, it was just I kept figuring the NEXT time I smashed it, it would be a winner.

At the same time as I was getting 'lessons' from my father, I was also playing in a social game over at Steve Baldwin's house pretty regularly. Steve had top-of-the-line equipment and also had a father interested in the game. Nice people, the Baldwins. Steve was always just a little bit better than I was, but I won often enough that we both enjoyed the competition. Some of the 'Baldwin Opens' tended to go a little late into the night. First night of my life I EVER stayed out past midnight, it was because the final went extra long before I lost to Steve. On my way home, I considered every excuse and discarded them all. I was going to have to face the music. As it turns out, just around the corner from our house, somebody else's house was on fire. My family was there gawking. I just sidled past them, not considering to stay and watch the tragedy. I was absent-mindedly reading a book when the family got back from the bonfire. "Where've you been?" I asked.

And I got away with that one.

I think it was my 14th birthday. But it might have been the 15th. The best of the birthday presents that year was a Stellan Bengtsson-model bat, with red rubber over inverted pimples on one side and green rubber over sponge on the other. It was absurdly expensive, about 40 bucks. And it was all I could think of for about the next month. My dad flipped when I notched a finger groove on the red side. But it was MY bat.

For awhile, I did better, just because of the bat. I scored more than a few points of Dad regularly, although I'd be past my 16th birthday before I actually beat him. And my results against Steve and company were much, much better, prompting the whole crowd to get pro-model bats. Once that happened, Steve re-asserted the edge he held.

I never clubbed it for table tennis. The Brampton Bullets were in their early days then. Steve went, but eventually dropped out. We were all satisfied with playing our friends, enjoying our little pond. Dad didn't play much after I started beating him, the mountain having been climbed. But eventually, high school intruded on our little competition and we all drifted apart.

College came and presented a chance to have some fun, make some money. I was always pretty good left-handed, playing handshake grip. I could defend well enough that I could get the odd shark to try and take me for some money, especially after I volunteered to play right-handed. Handshake or pen-holder, I'd then play well enough to win the wager. Being right-handed probably helped with that.

All of these memories resurfaced Saturday night watching Ma upset Wang for the gold medal. I have NO idea where in the house that Bengtsson bat is. The folded up ping pong table is over in a corner of the basement, hidden behind boxes and boxes of books, magazines and comics. I have no next generation of Mugfords to teach ping pong to. Which is too bad.

Because learning ping pong on the way to taking up Table Tennis is a LOT of fun.

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