Here is some wisdom that encapsulates a winning philosophy in tennis and ping pong:   Keep the ball in play against beginning and average (intermediate) players and you will win most of the time.  Consistency – not making mistakes – is the key here.  Try not to clobber or smash the ball impulsively. Slow down; just keep the ball in play  or  “Make haste slowly,” is another celebrated way to express this strategy.  One of the caesars said this – Caesar Romero or possibly Sid Caesar … or maybe it was Augustus.  Yeah, now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure it was Augie who said it a long time ago.  Good advice, too.  He probably had plenty of time to kill during one of his sieges as he played patient ping pong.

     Of course, with the current state of speed-generating ping pong rackets, it’s often difficult to keep the ball in play.  That’s because today’s  spongies (or squishees) are offensive oriented paddles, and the points are usually short.  It wasn’t always like this, however.   In 1936, Alex Ehrlich of Poland played Paneth Farkas of Romania and the first point lasted two hours and 12 minutes. Really! No jive!  Neither one of these boychiks wanted to make an offensive move, so they just kept chipping the ball back to one another.  And, naturally, back then there was no sponge involved, which is why there was this extended rally where someone counted about 12,000 shots taken (6,000 by each man).  It became a test of nerves and discipline – to see who was the least impulsive and impetuous.

     Unfortunately and, most regrettably, the game of ping pong (I prefer not to use the term ‘table tennis’) has evolved (regressed, really) whereby points are very short.  If you’ve ever watched a match between players rated at 2500 or above, you better not blink because the action may only take place during that 125 millisecond blinking time.  Most often, it’s a three ball game – a serve, a return and a putaway (and if you blink 3 times you may not see any of these 3 shots, either).  Whereas it used to be a defensive game with long rallies, the advent of specialized rubber and sponge and glue, not to mention technical developments in  blade materials with an amalgam of strange fibers (carbon, Kevlar, fiberglass, aluminized carbon {texalium}, basalt fibers), all have combined to increase the speed and spin astronomically.  In so doing – and congratulations to the ITTF and the manufacturers for accomplishing these techno feats – they have DESTROYED THE SPORT!!!!  The fun was having long points, not ending them before they started as a result of someone standing 9 feet away attacking you with a 70 mile per hour projectile.

     For me, I’d much rather see a Punch and Judy-type ping pong game  (Punch and Judy is a baseball expression describing a guy who tries to get on base with cheap singles that aren’t hit especially hard) with less talented players keeping the ball in play for long rallies, as opposed to elite players trying to win points with those slimy, deceptive spin serves.   And such a match, though uncommon, took place recently in our club and I was privileged to see it – and enjoy it!  It involved two intermediate players: James X and William X, we’ll call them. (Though they share the “X” here, they are not related; out of reverence for their play, I will refer to them as King James and Prince William).

     I actually joined the few observers to this  match when it was in its final stages during the deciding game.  By this time, both King James and Prince Williams were perspiring heavily and at least one, the Prince, looked to be somewhat out of breath.  It soon became easily evident as to why the latter was puffing for air more than his royal adversary.  He was attacking,  exerting a lot more energy than King James, who was playing the long-range defensive style of yesteryear.   And it was sensational!  Ten to fifteen feet behind the table, he was lofting the ball back one after the other while Prince William attempted to crush these seeming meatballs with everything he had.  Sadly for him, however – and great for the spectators and the King – he could not put the ball away.  He just couldn’t kill it!  Wasn’t within his skill capacity.  It was like a speed governor on a car limiting its ability to get enough gas to go beyond a certain limited speed.  Meanwhile, the ghosts of Ehrlich and Farcas must have been rejoicing at the extended rallies, as I myself was.  And, also, thank god that no ITTF Extradite Rule was interfering with this endurance contest.

     It was classic:  an attacker and a defensive player.  The defensive guy’s strategy is basically keep getting the ball back and wait for the other guy to make a mistake.  And, although Prince William didn’t have that lethal shot to end a point, he was unerring in taking these high-bounding balls and hitting them hard to his younger opponent, the King.  It was now not just a physical match. It was more than that. This was one of those marathons where strength of mind, perseverance  and just  plain ol’ willpower would factor in.

   In the end, the King did finally prevail, winning that deciding game.  More importantly, what I had witnessed was a portal to the past, when the game of ping pong used to thrill those that played and those that watched such wondrous points.