Rediscovering joy, competitiveness of ping-pong

-A A +A
By Brian Kehl

It may not be the most popular sport on earth, but it’s as addictive as gourmet peanut butter. (Trust me on this one — once you try it, you can’t go back.)

I am talking about the highly competitive world of table tennis, or, as some know it, ping-pong.

My history with the game goes back to my early years, when my father bought a table and proudly placed it in our basement. He, his friends and my relatives would play often, as did I, and I would have to say I reached my peek sometime in my late teens.

I was good then. Real good. Young and in shape, my friends would come over and we would play through the night, betting $1 a game, sometimes winning, sometimes losing but never giving up.

As I was to find out later, the particular style of the game we played around my house, which revolved heavily around jackhammer spikes, loud curses, CCR on the stereo and the delightful sound of clinking beer bottles, didn’t necessarily translate to wins in the wider world.

When I was an undergrad and living in-house with four friends and a different table, I experienced firsthand the damage a player who can effectively use spin can cause. Sure, if they floated one up my jackhammer spike would make quick work of it, but after hours of playing, they rarely gave me a floater. Instead, in those first few months at least, I spent most of my time jerking in different directions and trying to figure out which way the hollow little monster was going to go (much as I do now, as a soccer goalie). But I learned.

By the time the fellowship of the house dissolved and I moved out, I was somewhat like a karate man who had learned kung fu: I had a good power game, and I could use finesse and spin. I still couldn’t really beat those filthy buggers, though, because for me to improve I had to play them, and they improved proportionately as well. Toward the end, it was almost psychological, with me conceding defeat before we even started.

In any case, I thought my table tennis days may be behind me until I decided to fix up my basement. As I finished patching, painting, sweeping and cleaning, I thought about with what I could decorate the basement: What is the purpose of this subterranean space, aside from a place for my cat to potty, my dogs to stay warm, me to do laundry and cave crickets to breed?

At first I thought a pool table may be the answer. It was not, if only because of the price tag and hassle. I used to slam soccer balls against one of the brick walls to speed up my reflexes as it shot back at me, for some reason harder than I kicked it. I thought I could continue that, but, after the patching and painting was done, I nixed that idea, too. Finally, my mind traveled back to the glory days, and I thought of the ping-pong table, covered with cat food, empty aquariums and various other types of materials, still in my parents’ basement. Surprisingly, when I mentioned taking it, my parents didn’t mind. They actually seemed to think it was a good idea, and I can’t swear to it, but I thought I saw a jackhammer twinkle in my dad’s left eye.

So, in preparation for the tournaments I plan to have, I have been searching for parts. First, I wanted to find a paddle made of silver and decorated with rhinestones. Apparently, they are not made — at least not anywhere I looked. And I found out something else: the world of ping-pong isn’t just about hanging around my basement, drinking beer and slamming the bejesus out of a little white ball.

I suppose it’s always been like this, but I never realized what a highly specialized world table tennis inhabits. There are “rackets,” nets and posts that run up in the hundreds of dollars. There are even specialized shoes. And there are reviews.

I found what I thought would be a decent pair of paddles on Amazon.com until I read the customer comments. Apparently, while the paddle may be good for a “first-timer,” it lacks the requisite “stickiness” pro players crave. Enough said.

I finally settled on a pair of paddles made in China, and supposedly used by the Chinese Olympic team. They’re only $20, but as the Chinese have a high reputation in competitive table tennis circles, I feel it is a good buy. Of course I am buying this online and from reputation alone. Any actual research would defeat the purpose of recreation. And I’m still not 100 percent sure what shipping will cost, or if these paddles were made in a sweat shop. But ignorance is bliss, as they say.

And last Saturday the table arrived, along with my mother, father, brother, a blower and lawn mower. We did leaves that day, and put the table in my basement in two pieces. But school ends for me this week, my leaves are cleaned up and this weekend I will have time to put it together.

And we’ll see what kind of advantage I have with Chinese paddles and table tennis shoes, spin or no spin. And we’ll see if I can train my dog not to eat the balls.