My brief induction into the table-tennis-hall-of-fame

You feel as if you were losing that game again ? as if someone was beating you in table-tennis after you led 20-12 game-point. You desperately try to recollect that forehand arm action you practiced for hours on end when it suddenly evaporates from the last bastions of your memory. At 20-16 your opponent jeers at that gaping hole in your game-face. At 20-19 you almost imagine the bitter scene in the post-game show when people come to you and let you know how sorry they were or how badly you lost (mostly the latter). At 20-20 you thought it was all but over.

Yet, this was the game, I crawled back into. One that I did not give up. At 22-20 my arms up in the air.  Skill over Power. That was the mantra.

Those were the days when your testosterone was gaining momentum and was in danger of breaking out into superfluous outlets. As a withdrawn fifteen year old you strolled aimlessly in the playground, when you heard the muffling voice of your Aloysian PT teacher tell you “Don’t waste your time Son. Go on, take some sport and work on it.”

Yet, you are skeptical about your own ability as a sports person because you did not have bulging biceps, nor the quadriceps as your macho colleagues did (needless to say, your  physique could be best described as a “single-cep”).  Yet, not wanting to discourage you, your  PT teacher had alluded that table-tennis was the best fit for you.

“Remember,” he says (as he had historically done to numerous other aimless students including your elder brother and his friend and his friend’s friend…), “What cannot be accomplished by physical power can be done through skill.” 

Later that day, you are amused about the triviality of learning a sport that, as far as you are concerned, is no more entertaining than “beating eggs on both sides of an out-of-scale wooden table. Gosh! Cant they make that table smaller if indeed beating eggs is the intention?”  And what law in physics does not tell you that when a ball is hit horizontal it stays horizontal (unless forced by an outside force to act otherwise ?).

The next day you trudge to the indoor sports arena in the hope that if not anything you get a perverse thrill out of watching your classmates swipe rackets in the air and then chase that tiny TT ball tee-teeing on the floor. And between the noise of ?hoo’s and ?haa’s, and the smell of sweat, that’s when everything changes. One blurred figure. A pair of vicious eyes. Almost spitting fire.  Destroying hapless opponents two times its size.  If skill over power is the phrase of the day, that figure is the epitome.

…What cannot be accomplished by physical power can be done through skill….

The next evening inspired by that imagery, I decided to try my own luck in table-tennis. I plotted my move until the last of the students  had left and when there were 10 minutes for the finish play bell. Without any playing partners I decided to dismantle the table parts, untie the net, slide one half of the table against the wall and give it a shot.  With the old half-eaten rubber racket awkwardly clutched  in my hands (one that I had borrowed from my  PT teacher’s old godown), I recalled that blurred figure mentioning to someone that the “shake-hand” grip was “in” and the “pen-hold grip” was “out.”  So I tried the shake-hand grip on the first few volleys. The ball either missed the table, or the racket or the wall. Sometimes it missed all three! It was a humbling experience for a guy of my stature, but for now no one was watching. So I played to the whims and fancies of an unperturbed ball that did not seem to concede any of its power to me.

The next few days, like a broken record, the pattern continued. “Skill over Power” didn’t make any sense and just while I was giving up I saw that figure again. This time it approaching towards me, across my peripheral vision. Those confident steps. It stopped and thrust out something. A new ?Stiga’ racket. A gift from some uncle in Sweden.

“Look, you can spin on this surface and smash with the other,” it told me.

“There is also anti-spin, you know,” it revelled.

While I admired its confidence, I was provoked by its  bluster. That set me off. The next day I took of my savings and bought a locally manufactured country wooden racket and challenged it for a game.  At the end of two games, the scores read 21-0 and 21-3 in its favor.

It had to be that damn racket! 

My thought of giving up the game now turned into a careful emplotment of revenge. I had to beat that blurred body before I ever gave up the game. That night, amidst my social studies homework (beneath the shroud of Tin-Tin goes to America) the phrase “Skill over Power” reverberated through the night.  I had to first make friends with that figure, understand its game-face, get the feel of its racket, and perhaps one day I could beat it. 

The next day, while I was still reeling under the overhang of defeat, that figure approached once again. It smiled. “I am Deepak” It blurted. Those lanky legs with arms almost skeletal. A waist that puts Miss India to shame. An awkward hunch which seemed natural in a Table Tennis venue, and then that lean-mean face. Each of those face lines cried out loud “victory” “victory.” Deepak looked at me and didn’t say a word. But I read his message “Get to know some basics kid before you can even start competing with me.”  That was insulting. What did I care about coaching? Didn’t he know that I was a raw street talent, not the one who needs to be coached and forced to play text-book like?

Yet the invitation to the local YMCA was tempting. After some games, Deepak took me to his home to show-off a brand new table-tennis table which his dad had gifted him so that he could study and play at the same place. What a great idea, I thought. Now I could convince my dad too that I was going to Deepak’s house to study math. My dad was all too happy because he felt that finally good sense had prevailed on me.

Back in Deepak’s house we had great fun playing among sweaty t-shirts and sipping ice-cold lemonades that Deepak’s younger  brother prepared for us in exchange of allowing him to be our ball-boy.  In the next few weeks, I picked up on my game while on the other side Deepak was reaching new levels of sportsmanship. In a span of six months we played so many games together that I could predict his every shot ; serve on the fore-hand, I would receive a top-spin on my back-hand; attack on his backhand and he would send a chop so low that my return would almost certainly crash into the net. As my arms felt the ringing tone of the ball and its impact on the racket rubber, through the layers of the timber fibers and then onto my sweaty fingers. Sheer ecstasy when the whiff of the breeze past me and the ball waded away from my face, and as my arm sliced through the curvature of the swing. With a new found power I was smashing cross-court, top-spinning, side-spinning, looping, chopping, slicing, blocking,  jabbing? it was the day of teenage empowerment. 

As the months passed we no longer had a need to be opponents (but as proponents we played side by side). We were doubles partners.  Deepak was aggressive and spectacular, while I was defensive and defiant. We discussed our strategies for the future as we basked in the lime-light of going to Sweden to beat Waldner or going to China to beat Jiang Jialiang and return as home-town heroes. Table tennis was no longer a game to me. It was an attitude that shaped a belief of “Skill over power.” Deepak was no longer a player to me. He was the manifestation of that belief. 

We kept such a strict routine that when I was absent for a day, Deepak would come to my house to meet my dad and revive my interest in math! Of course my math scores suffered, and my dad gave me a lengthy pep-talk about the importance of getting an engineering degree, getting married, and settling down (just like him). After all there was no money in table-tennis because the money was in cricket ! Yet he promised me with a “Joyner” (which would make “Stiga” look like dead wood).  I almost gave a slow-mo hi-fi to my dad.

At the advent of my 8th standard exams and my math scores reading like Deepak’s opponents scores my priorities had now changed. So when Deepak talked me into trading my “Jonyer” for exchange of his “Stiga,” I conceded.  It was more than passing an expensive table-tennis racket. It was passing him a shake-hand grip of my friendship. A souvenir of the days when our collective dreams came together in our make-believe-world-of-the-table-tennis-hall-of-fame and one little fantasy of beating Deepak atleast once before I prematurely retired!.

Author: Newton Dsouza- USA