Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On the Advent of Sponge Table Tennis Paddles

(from the archives...)

Location: Bombay
1 (Pigeon-toed table tennis players)
0/0/0000 (year)


You could hardly blame Marty Reisman for being a little bit arrogant. Forget that he was the odds on favorite to win the world championship. Forget all about the fortune of gold Marty had just smuggled over the border and which was now glowing in a velvet-lined suitcase under his bunk back at the hotel. It was sometime after midnight and Marty was about to score with the Maharishi's mistress, the one with the eyes like a kaleidoscope and the Persian smile. And get this: The Maharishi was passed out on the couch twenty yards down the grand hall while Marty got stoned off his rum and was trying to make it with his girl. 

Yeah, you might say that Reisman had an excuse for having some skip in his step. 

.. .. ..

The next day was so hot you could lose twenty pounds of sweat just by opening your eyes. Bombay was a toaster oven on broil, and Marty Reisman wasn't in the mood to lose. It was 1952 and Marty was playing the best table tennis that any American ever had or ever would. Not one player on the sub-continent- and the best group of players ever assembled was there- could claim to be on a hot streak like Reisman. Marty had won the last four U.S Opens, was ranked in the top five in the world, and had just come off a proper throttling of all comers at the British Open, a tournament that at the time was tantamount to winning the Worlds. The 24-year-old version of Marty Reisman was the kind of guy who could pull off a white-on-white suit, and you better believe he was strutting it on the way to Brabourne Stadium that day. 

Marty waxed his first two opponents before their paddles were out of their sheaths. This gave him a little bit of time to stroll around the grounds. Marty decided to scout the sucker he was supposed to face in the quarterfinals of the round robin. It was a slick Brit by the name of Richard Bergmann, a tough draw for Marty since this guy was also ranked in the top-five. 

As Marty swaggered up to the door that lead to the main stage he heard something funny. It sounded like somebody was playing table tennis against one of the Maharishi's purple feather mattresses. There was the familiar pah-thop of the ball hitting Bergmann's hardbat. Reisman could recognize Bergmann's pah-thop in his sleep. See, table tennis is just as much about hearing the ball as it is seeing it, and by now Marty knew pretty well the sound of Bergmann kissing the ball for a short goodbye. But the other sound didn't make sense. It did sound like a mattress. But it also sounded like celluloid smacking against a car tire. 

The scene he walked into made almost as little sense to his eyes. Bergmann was getting undressed by the mascot of the Japanese squad. Hiroji Satoh was supposed to be there to fill out the roster. How in the name of Ruth Aarons was this happening? 

Satoh was'.t moving his pigeon-toed little feet any faster than usual, and he sure wasn't swinging his chicken wing with any more force than normal. But somehow that ball was rocketing off his paddle with what Reisman would later call an 'atomic blast.' Bergmann was pressed against the back barrier the entire match. Being a world class hustler Marty had an eye for somebody taking a dive, but that wasn't what he was seeing. Satoh was beating the seven-time world champ so bad that this geek even had the balls to turn to Riesman mid-point and smile his gaptoothed smile as if to say, " seeing right, motherfucker. And fool, you're next."

Rumor has it that the other members of the Japanese team offered to coach Reisman on how to take down Satoh and his magic paddle. The Japs were ashamed of the way Satoh was compensating for his junior high school skill with some M.I.T worthy technology. See, Satoh was right then and there introducing the sponge paddle to the game of table tennis. Before then everybody used hardbat, the same stuff you probably got sitting on your table down in the basement. What Satoh was doing against Bergmann was changing the fate of the game from dining room ballet to high velocity sporting event. The date is almost biblical in the table tennis universe: 0/0/00 in the year of our sponge, when our Satoh was resurrected from the ashes. 

Marty looked across the table and thought to himself, "I can beat this guy. I'm supposed to beat this guy..." He was able to combat Satoh's aerospace well enough to take the first game. He won using adrenaline and guts. That's about when the bottom dropped out. 

Not being able to hear the ball as it ricocheted from Satoh's paddle was the equivalent to boxing blind. Since Reisman couldn't hear it he didn't know how much velocity to expect or what kind of spin. He sprinted forward as a deep strike darted past him. He faded back when Satoh undercut the ball for a drop shot. The power was what really did him in. Marty had no idea how to reacclimatize his swing to that kind of authority. It was like trying to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball using the splinter they give you on bat day at the stadium. You're going to get humiliated; you just hope it isn't in front of 10,000 people and one seriously unhappy Maharishi. 

.. .. ..

There was no way to win, not on that steaming hot day in India. Marty ended up keeping his gold, but that was no consolation. He flew home with his head hung low and his white-on-white suit stowed in the overhead compartment. Marty Reisman had made the wrong kind of history in Bombay. He wasn't coming home the first American world champion. Marty was returning not as a man but as a human asterisk, the answer to a ping pong trivia question: Who was the man that was supposed to win the tournament that changed everything?

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