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The rear of the West Side Club, a billiard parlor on Eleventh Avenue and 50th Street, has been the Manhattan hub ever since two desperate enthusiasts persuaded the owners to install eight tables. The players had fled their former home in Chelsea after a shooting, on the pool hall side. West Side drew one of the most intense and least well-known sports subcultures in the city: world-class athletes from Nigeria, Guyana, Indonesia, China, Romania, the Dominican Republic and some native New Yorkers who excel at a game that most Americans have a hard time thinking of as a real sport.
Forget the duffer's serve, return, slam you played in summer camp, or on the wobbly table your parents kept in the finished basement. Come down some night (before it's too late) and watch the pros. Behold the swoop and reach as the bright orange ball is thwacked across the net. Follow the spin. Admire the footwork. Applaud the speed-of-light reflexes, the agility, and the cunning.
Ping-pong was recognized by the Olympics in 1988, the same year they let in tennis. In Europe and Asia, clubs and leagues are part of the social fabric in every town and city, but somehow the sport never caught on in the States, except as a kids' game for fool-around recreation. The sport has had its boomlets of national interest, but nobody could ever figure out how to make money from it.
Ask Marty Reisman. In 1951, 21-year-old Marty from the Lower East Side became the U.S. champion. A born showman, he went on the road playing exhibition matches at halftime during basketball games. When that petered out, he scrounged a living through a time-honored hustle: spotting the suckers a fistful of points in private matches. "Sometimes for $200," he told me the other night. "But a $5 bet was also a big deal in those days." Marty is a fixture at the West Side Club; his own club on West 96th Street closed 20 years ago.
A second boomlet for the sport kicked off in the spring of 1971, as Nixon and Kissinger pursued their back-channel opening to the People's Republic of China. During the initiative, the Chinese confounded the president and his national security adviser by inviting the U.S. table-tennis team to Beijing. The exhibitions were capped by a gala reception at the Great Hall of the People a scene memorialized, sort of, in Forrest Gump. In real life, the world was entranced by the sight of goodwill ambassadors from two hostile superpowers meeting across a six-inch net. Political journalists had a good time dubbing the American athletes' visit "ping-pong diplomacy." Kissinger himself gamely posed with a racquet.
George Brathwaite was on the U.S. team that played in Beijing. He often quotes the saying, "It is equally important to make your opponent miss," that the Chinese players told him was uttered by Chairman Mao. George is from Guyana. He is a regular at West Side, a vice president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association, and one of my coaches. George remembers the media coverage and the thousands of spectators when the Chinese team paid us a return visit in 1972. "And then it died down," he says sadly, "while the rest of the world moved ahead. Germany has more clubs today than we have members of the USTTA."
Everybody has a theory as to why Americans never caught ping-pong fever. Brathwaite thinks it's because the sport was never integrated into the school system the way it was in Europe and Asia. Another West Sider says that the gap between the recreationals and the professionals widened into a chasm during the '60s when the new equipment inverted sponge skins on the paddles to replace the old-fashioned hard-rubber or sandpaper covers; a harder, speedier ball didn't percolate down to the basement players.
This is true. When I came to the West Side after not having a racquet in my hand for 20 years, Abass Ekun, the Nigerian superstar and the first of my coaches, started at stage one by correcting my grip. (There's the European "shake hands" grip, the Asian grip, where only one side of the paddle is used, and a couple of other variations, but mine wasn't one of them.) When it looked like I was going to stick around, Abass stripped my store-bought paddle and glued it with $60 worth of Sriver-FX skins. As played today, ping-pong is a game of spin; the sponge layers help grab the ball, adding control. Oh yes, the ball. Abiy Eshetu, an Ethiopian player, clued me in to something he'd thought was too obvious to mention: all balls are not created equal, and the best ones aren't necessarily white. Three-star Nittaku attack balls, made in Japan and usually orange, are more durable, more perfectly spherical, and more reliable in action.
My immersion into the ping-pong subculture came with my urgent desire to pay for an hour's lesson. Because of the pitiful economics of the sport, most of the top-rated players, unwilling or unable to apply their competitive skills to the normal work world, have to coach for a living. The facts of life result in a clean fiduciary relationship with no ambiguity or misunderstandings. I don't mind that I'm a walking $20 bill in a T-shirt and glasses. Where else could I work up a sweat with a superb athlete while redistributing the wealth to New York's Third World economy in a micro, trickle-down way?
Every coach has something fresh to offer, and a different style of conveying knowledge. As the one who pays, I've felt entitled to a measure of promiscuity, even if the element of guilt is never absent. These days my main man is Alex Perez, who came here from the Dominican Republic two years ago. Alex doesn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish, but he taught me a backhand sidespin serve that's a lulu. Alex also took my footwork problems to heart after watching me nearly sprain an ankle. Nike doesn't bother to make a table-tennis shoe, although it is standard gear in Europe and Asia. This summer Alex came back from the U.S. Open in Florida (that's the Table Tennis Open, need I say) with lightweight Japanese shoes that improved my footwork on the spot. Now we're working on topspin loop returns.
Alex and Abass and the other West Siders who travel by van to the rated tournaments in other cities are competing for something like $400 in the Open Singles. Subtract food, lodging, and the tournament's entry fee, and they're lucky to break even, although their ratings might go up a notch. Table-tennis ratings are modeled on chess ratings, for some obscure reason. When Abass beat the esteemed Shao Yu, New York's top-rated Chinese player, at a recent tournament, his rating jumped to 2550. I'm unrated, natch, but if I went the tournament route I'd be in the under-1000 class.
Not all tournaments are rated. The Chinatown tournament, held three times a year on Mott Street, isn't rated. It offers groceries from local merchants as prizes. It's a great family scene, with toddlers running around like at the old Chinese opera. Shao Yu's name is the only one written in English on the scoreboard, because he is such a famous draw. Catharina Tjiook of my Women's League won in two Mott Street divisions this summer; she came away with giant cases of Ginseng Ale and Tung-i Lemon Iced Tea.
After a year of lessons I summoned my nerve to come to the West Side on a Sunday afternoon and try out for the Women's League, which Catharina, an Indonesian champion, founded eight years ago. Five league players represented New York in women's ping-pong at the Gay Games in Amsterdam last year, but they got eliminated early. Tjiook's mission is to involve more women, lesbian and straight, in the sport. She spends her own money on trophies for her seasonal competitions, and she brought in Monica Golubovic as her official league coach. Monica was a star on the national Romanian team before she defected. When she arrived in New York with her husband and baby, she was horrified to find that top-rated players had to practice in billiard parlors. It wasn't that way under the Ceau¸sescu regime.
Catharina sized up my game and placed me in the Intermediate Division, Monica overcame my resistance to the backspin chop, and I finished the season ranking eighth out of 14 in the singles and third in the doubles, so I got a trophy. Hooray! This year I expect to do better, wherever we end up playing.
Which leads me to some further theories about why ping-pong doesn't have a serious rep in the States. Its onomatopoeic alliteration makes it sound like a sissy dilettante's game, while "table tennis," the preferred alternative, reminds some people of miniature golf. And since it consists of so many lightning moves executed in close quarters, it doesn't lend itself readily to a huge spectator crowd. It's aerobic, but is it telegenic?
I don't see any deus ex machina on the horizon to rescue ping-pong from its present obscurity; the players just want a convenient venue to play in that attracts the pros. Coach Min Shili, who used to be at the West Side, has opened Champion eight tables, good lighting one flight up on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. I've played there twice already with Maria, my doubles partner. Coach Hui Yuan Liu has seven tables in Flushing. The duffer venues are three tables on East 86th Street and four on West 26th, in billiard parlors. But I'm used to the best.