Alex Ehrlich was the King of Chiselers, and the noblest aspirant to his throne was Paneth Farcas, Prinz of Sitzfleisch. When King Alex and Prinz Paneth finally tangled, it produced the most remarkable point of table tennis ever played. In table tennis a chiseler is not a cheat, but the term is an equally opprobrious epithet for a stubbornly defensive player who refuses to attack, pushing rather than smashing even the juiciest "meatball." In those leisurely days of the mid-'30s when King Alex reigned, if two good chiselers met only impatience or exhaustion prevented their pushing the ball back and forth forever. The King was a strapping Job, but the Prinz of Sitzfleisch was as patient as a penguin.
I saw King Alex recently in the unlikely city of Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, where I had come to watch the 28th World Table Tennis Championships. During a slow afternoon's play we shared a table at the arena buffet and chatted about old times. Alex is an erect, 6-foot-4 Pole with a small, unorthodox head and absurdly long arms. He can scratch a knee without stooping. In general, international table tennis stars are a band of sophisticates who can count to 21 (but not higher) in a dozen languages, order Ch√¢teau d'Yquem by vintage and recommend a cheap hotel in Taipei or Rabat. Although less polished, Alex speaks 15 languages—but he mutilates them, I'm told. Nonetheless, at big tournaments he is beset by players without a common language who huddle around him to exchange the sport's ultramontane news. With me, Alex usually starts talking in whatever language he happens to be thinking in at the moment, until he realizes his mistake and raps his forehead to reset the wheels. The ensuing English is often memorable. Once, commenting on a player's sportsmanship, he said, "I should have the money how dishonest he is," and again when I told him a certain unpopular player had married he asked ingenuously, "Against who?"
The King of Chiselers' long point, is as famous in table tennis coteries as Tunney's long count is at Ring magazine. Quite literally that single point changed the game—changed it as much as the calamitous introduction of the sponge racket was to do 16 years later. The tale, however, through countless retellings, has collected an apocrypha not easily pruned, and King Alex himself had never told me the real story. So at the buffet in Ljubljana I asked him about it. He began by deprecating the entire affair.
"Never believe it vaz three hours, Deek, like maybe you heered. I look at vatch ven first game begin, so I know exact. Vee play only two hours and tvelve minutes."
November 15, 1965
"Oh, I see, Alex," I said. "Well, how long was the second game?"
"Vee not play second game, Deek. It vaz first game."
"Ah! Now I see! It was the first game that took two hours and 12 minutes. Well, then, how long was the long point?"
"Nein! Nein! Deek. Es war die erste...le premier!" Alex was excited. Sputterings of Hungarian and Swedish came out. He rapped his forehead in exasperation. "Deek! Deek! Whole match only vun point!"
I knew if I asked one more stupid question Alex would have a fit, so I sat back and let him tell it.
A Prague arena, 1936, the World Championships, 3,500 spectators. Rumania vs. Poland: a crucial match in the Swaythling Cup, the Davis Cup of table tennis. When the sealed team lineups were opened, Alex Ehrlich, Poland's King of Chiselers, and Paneth Farcas, Rumania's Prinz of Sitzfleisch, were brought together in the first match.
King Alex had one tactical advantage: a fair attacking forehand. Prinz Paneth had no driving stroke whatever. His haughty, professorial manner suggested that he thought hard hitting unbecoming conduct. "So much a pusher Paneth is," says Alex, "he not even attack ven he practice." Gamesmanship began even before the players came to the table. While Prinz Paneth laced his sneakers, Alex ostentatiously announced he'd lay 4 to 1 he'd win. He spoke in Rumanian. "I bet everything," he told me, "the food, hotel, train. If I lose whole team valk back to Varsaw. Ven vee come to table for varmup, I attack. Backhand! Forehand! Very hard. Paneth, he is clever. He pretend he cannot return."
Paneth won the umpire's toss. Just as he prepared to serve, however, King Alex turned his back on his opponent, walked dramatically to the Polish bench and returned with his special chiseling bat. "So big around it is," Alex explained, extending his enormous hands to watermelon length. "It is very heavy, but for pushing never do I miss." Prinz Paneth glanced coldly at Alex' perfectly legal outsized bat and served contemptuously. Alex returned to the forehand, and Paneth returned to the backhand. Alex returned to his opponent's forehand, and Paneth returned to the backhand. Alex again insisted on the forehand; Paneth again insisted on the backhand. And so it went...and went...and went.
Even a small-time chiseler knows that winning a pushing duel requires doggedness more than skill. The first few points are crucial. The burden of catching up must be put on one's opponent. Then, when his own passivity becomes unendurable and his chiseling determination cracks, he overreaches himself and he's lost. Alex therefore played the first point as though it were match point, but 35 minutes later the electric scoreboards still read 0-0. Alex was undisturbed: he had a plan. If the Rumania-Poland team encounter went the nine-match limit, Paneth, Rumania's hope, would have to play Alex' two other teammates. Said Alex, "I not vorry. Perhaps I not vin match. But Paneth absolutely play no more. He need rest for six months. I keel him for my team."
Elapsed time: 70 minutes. Score: 0-0, first game. The pattern of play had become hypnotic. Paneth Farcas had begun the match as erect as a Rumanian aristocrat, but he had shriveled with every return and now looked like a hunchbacked robot. Pools of perspiration had formed at the feet of both players, and Alex remembers wondering when Paneth would finally wear out. Alex himself had a problem. The extra weight of his chiseling bat had begun to tire his arm. His remedy was extraordinary. After one return, he deftly switched his bat and continued the point left-handed. Farcas didn't notice. He simply kept pushing the ball to that same spot on the table—except now Alex' switch had turned the match into a forehand-to-forehand struggle.
With a sudden twitch the umpire stopped following the ball and glared at Alex. The King was unnerved. "At first I think he is Rumanian. Then I see the trouble. His neck! Forth and back it had go for 85 minutes and now it lock in this position. So new umpire come in vile vee still play point. Now two Austrian players come back to hall. They are surprised vee still play. They had go to movies after vee begin, and now they think electric score machine must be kaput. It still say zero-zero! And soon also vee lose second umpire. His vife had make dinner and he must absolutely go home." Alex switched the bat back to his right hand. "And now I see Paneth seem veaker. Soon, I think, I attack and vin. But not yet. I had svore on my lips to my captain I attack not vun ball till Paneth is absolutely dead, and I see he still have forces."
Meanwhile the tournament committee panicked. Alex and Paneth had started at 7 p.m., and it was now 8:40. The angry hecklers had left and only a few dozers remained, but not a point had been scored, and the finals, scheduled for the following night, no longer seemed distant. So they called an on-the-spot emergency meeting of the International Table Tennis Federation. Through the loudspeakers the delegates were summoned, and they convened in a special room behind the stands. The first order of business was the roll call. "America?" "Here!" "Austria?" "Here!" And so it went until the chairman called, "Poland?" No reply. "Poland," he insisted. No reply. Suddenly everyone realized that the delegate from Poland was the King of Chiselers himself! Since no decision could be legal without his vote, the delegates picked up their chairs, marched down to courtside and arranged themselves near the barrier on Alex' side of the table. Sometime during the second hour, to keep his man relaxed, Alex' captain, Jakob Gorski, had set a chessboard on a table near the sideline and had started a game with Alex. Between returns Alex would sneak a glance at the position and whisper his moves to Gorski. When the delegates arrived the chess game was necessarily abandoned. "But I have rook for knight and a vinning position," protested Alex. "Vile vee play, there is meeting," Alex went on. "Delegates ask first if vee agree to a draw. I say no. Paneth also say no. Then they ask if vee agree to five-point games. Paneth now say yes. But again I say no. I am stronger, I say. In five points perhaps I lose. But in tventyvun points, never! I vill push him into ground! But vile I speak, Deek, I not take notice, and so it happen I push just vun ball to Paneth's backhand. Now you see, Deek, for two hours tvelve minutes had Paneth pushed forehands. Ball had crossed net more than tvelve thousand times—tvelve thousand times, Deek, and not vun ball had I give to backhand! So ven I give him backhand, Paneth scream! I look. He is helpless! He cannot move his arm to change! It push forehand by itself! But ball go right through backhand side! And so first point become mine. And now I give it to him, Deek. I say to him, in Rumanian, of course, 'Paneth, I am sorry this point over. I vaz just beginning to enjoy it. You are much better pusher than I thought, Paneth. Perhaps it is possible you vill even vin this match. But remember, Paneth, I am not best pusher of my team. Against the others you vill have to be more steady.' "
The match ended abruptly. When the second point had gone a mere 20 minutes, a member of the Polish bench behind Alex began to feel hungry. Without realizing the psychological effect it would have on Paneth, he reached down into an equipment bag and pulled out a knife, a long loaf of bread and a two-foot Polish sausage. He started slicing sandwiches. Another player filled cups from a huge coffee thermos. Paneth, who could see all this from his position at the table, must have assumed that the Poles were prepared for a winter siege. He began to mumble—soon Alex could pick up the words. "He vaz saying over and over, 'He not make me crazy, he not make me crazy, he not make me crazy.' " Then it happened. For the first time in his career the Prinz of Sitzfleisch attacked. Ferociously! His first drive, incredibly, went in. Alex returned it. Paneth smashed again, even harder. When that one came back too, something snapped. With one grotesque windup, a holler and a swat that sent ball and bat together sailing wildly over the King's head, the Prinz of Sitzfleisch ran screaming off the court.
I thanked Alex for the story. The arena buffet in Ljubljana, where we still sat over coffee, had become crowded. The World Table Tennis Championships bring together more countries than any other sporting event except the Olympics, and this year 444 players and 123 delegates from 49 nations attended. At one table the representative from Ghana was trying to explain to a tournament official his desire to rent an electric heater, and at another a gentleman I'd met in Pnompenh was violently stroking his bat through the air demonstrating somebody's backhand. In the process, he upset a tray carried by a waitress who passed just as he took his backswing, and some astonished North Koreans were showered with scrambled eggs. Two Oriental photographers, Chinese and Japanese apparently, were discussing in painfully slow English the most desirable apertures and shutter speeds for table tennis. Some off-duty ushers asked me to autograph their programs and, in mufti as I was, the recognition was unexpected. It could not have occurred in the U.S., which, for a table tennis star, is a bleak, demilitarized zone between Europe and Asia, where the major tournaments are held. Indeed, so untroubled is the anonymity of an American champion in his homeland that one could be ranked first by the FBI and first by the U.S. Table Tennis Association and pursue both careers successfully. Some years ago a splenetic editor of the New York World-Telegram inserted my picture in the crossword puzzle and demanded for 1 across, "pictured U.S. Table Tennis Champion." Thereafter I was the butt of jokesters at my table tennis club who twitted me about indignant letters to the editor protesting the difficulty of the puzzle. But once, while sharing a ricksha with Mr. Chung, chairman of the Hong Kong Ping Pong Tong, I was greeted deferentially by a passing coolie, "Ah! Mr. Miles! You back Hong Kong now?"
From the buffet Alex Ehrlich and I could see the playing floor with its 20 tables. It was a splendid, colorful sight that contrasted vividly with the cellars that house Manhattan's two table tennis clubs. But the matches, however fast, were depressing.
To the unaccustomed eye a topflight modern table tennis match might well appear a game played in the recreation room of an asylum by two berserk patients. The days of Good King Alex are gone. Rarely nowadays does the ball cross the net more than five times on any point. Standing close to the table, both players trade drives with increasing speed and spin until one or the other commits an error or scores on a kill. The game, in fact, has become so fast that in 1955 Japan's Tanaka won the world singles championship in a final three-game match that lasted 12 minutes. This frenetic style, introduced by the Japanese and perfected by the Chinese, has, say some experts, reduced a sport to a game, but they agree it is not madness, merely winning percentage. Spectacular, long-range defensive play is obsolete. In many ways the changes in the game parallel those in lawn tennis, a sport many people feel has been ruined by the big-serve-and-volley style.
Ferenc Sido, the Hungarian, joined Alex and me at our table. Even when he was world champion in 1953, his 200 pounds on a lumberjack frame refuted the popular notion that table tennis stars are shrimps, but he had widened and he settled into the chair cautiously. Sido and I had split about eight matches over the years, but we never had a disputed point. He was not a hanky-panky artist who would accidentally step on the ball if he didn't like it or make his sneakers squeak on the floor during a deuce point. The closest we had come to a rift was when his team photographer happened to catch my picture measuring the net with a dollar bill (the net is 6 inches, a dollar 6‚⅛) and it ran in a Budapest newspaper above the caption, "Capitalist puppet Dick Miles judges even the net by a dollar bill."
On a court near us the men's singles world champion, Chuang Tse-tung of Red China, was dispatching a Nigerian. They were exchanging frenzied counter-drives with such haphazardness that a stranger at quick glance could not have guessed which player was champion—yet the score read 19-5 for Chuang. Sido shook his head sadly. "Ach! It's crazy," he said. "It's too fast. There is no play. These spongers, they ruin the game with their speed." Alex Ehrlich disagreed. "Nein! Nein! Das ist voonderful. These Cheenamen, how they attack! Just look. Toujours l'attaque!"
The King of Chiselers defending a style so opposed to his own seemed self-contradictory, but in a negative way he regards himself as its founder. After his famous long point in 1936 and other endurance contests (there had been a 7½-hour match that year that ended only when the players agreed to toss a coin) a cry went up for a time-limit rule. In 1937 the International Federation set a maximum of 20 minutes for the completion of a 21-point game, and to provoke attacking play it lowered the net from 6¾ inches to six inches.
These two changes advanced the sport to its middle period. The six-inch net particularly vitalized the sport by creating attacking champions. Bohumil Vana, the Bouncing Czech, Ferenc Sido of Hungary and Martin Reisman and I were among them. But pitted against the attackers were the defensive greats, such as Richard Bergmann and Johnny Leach, those incredible ballet dancers who ranged 15 feet behind the table.
The clashes between these opposing styles—attack and defense—produced the sport's most spectacular play. I remember a typically stunning match of the period: Reisman against Bergmann in the 1948 World Championships in London's Empire Pool. Ten thousand people watched it.
Marty Reisman is a tall, cadaverous New Yorker with a bird's face and black-rimmed glasses. His only muscle is an overdeveloped biceps. Nevertheless, his forehand drive was the most explosive shot in the game, and during the 1948 World's the crack of his bat echoed all over the hall. If the ball breaks during a volley the point is replayed but, even so, if Reisman blasted a winner and the ball flew apart he held up his arm to the crowd and delightedly flexed his biceps. He insisted his heart was weak. Once, playing doubles against two poor players, he murdered a setup needlessly hard and with the same follow-through fearfully clutched his chest. Turning to me, he whimpered, "My God! My heart!" "Well," I said, "slow down. Don't hit so hard." "Are you kidding?" he gasped. "I'd rather die!"
Reisman's opponent for the memorable London match, Austrian-born Richard Bergmann, four times world singles champion, was the greatest defensive player of all time. Bergmann was a colorful character as well, and his flair for dramatics usually spiced his matches. If he expected a time-limit encounter, he placed three clocks under the table whose successive alarms were set for 12, 17 and 19 minutes. A wristwatch would have done the job, but "wearing one," he said, "impairs my rare balance." The protests of startled opponents eventually got the alarm clocks banned. At the start of every match the ball is chosen by mutual consent after both players spin and squeeze it to test its roundness and resilience. Bergmann, the perfectionist, once made headlines in Tokyo when he delayed a match two hours by rejecting some four gross of balls. Another time, against Japan's Tomita, he charged in for a drop shot with such momentum that to avoid crashing into the table he leaped on it, bounded across the net, and there brandished his arms like King Kong while he glared menacingly at his opponent.
The Reisman-Bergmann match was a thrilling spectacle of defense vs. attack and, though Reisman lost, for a kid playing in his first World's he gave Bergmann a fright. In that presponge-racket era the court was 40 by 20 feet. The barriers were 15½ feet behind the table and 7½ feet from the sides. To return a hard-hit drive a defensive player must retreat and allow the ball to decelerate to a speed more reasonable than the 120 mph at which it crosses the net. His return must be kept low. If it is not, his opponent's subsequent drive will have a steeper trajectory and force him to retreat still farther so that the ball can fall into the pocket between waist and knees from which the defensive chop shots are most comfortably stroked. Reisman was hitting the ball so hard against Bergmann that it was still rising when it reached the barrier, and Bergmann, having no more court behind him, had to intercept it at the awkward, shoulder-high level or get passed entirely. To return one drive, Bergmann actually hopped over the knee-high barrier and, on another, running backward, he toppled right over it. Thereupon, to protest his narrow confinement in a court 40 by 20, the grand Bergmann stomped on and flattened the barriers at his flanks and rear. The crowd cheered, and Bergmann bowed loftily. When the umpire had reset the barriers Reisman flexed his muscle.
Though we took only one cup away from London that year, we routed the favored Hungarian and English teams with such celerity that the English were appalled by the American style. "It's too fast," said Ivor Montagu, head of the English TT Association. "It's detrimental to the Game." And strangely enough, despite the history of chiseling and long points, they paid us the paradoxical tribute of proposing to the International Federation that the net be raised again. While this was debated we lost in the finals of the Swaythling Cup to the Czechs who, incidentally, outhit us, and the six-inch net stayed. If the British thought the game had become too fast, they, and indeed the whole world, had yet to learn about real speed.
A shot unheard around the world heralded the modern game. Doug Cartland, the American star, came back from the Bombay World Championships in 1952, and at the table tennis club in New York he described it: "Everyone was watching the Japanese players. It was their first appearance in a World's, and they looked pretty good. Especially Fuji and Hayashi. Crisp penholder grip forehands—" "Penholders?" someone asked. "How can they hit that way?" Displaying imaginary chopsticks, Cartland continued, "It's their natural eating grip. Anyway, their first two players were all right, but their third player, Satoh, looked like a joke. Little guy. Pigeon-toed, glasses, looked half dead. Like he came for the Indian sun. Couldn't drive, couldn't chop. Just kinda blocked it back. Wasn't even in the first 10 in Japan, but they brought him over because they thought his style might give some trouble. But he had this weird bat, see. Carried it around in a special wooden box. Wouldn't let anyone touch it or look at it except when he played. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. Sponge rubber it was. Foam an inch thick. He'd hit the ball and there was absolutely no sound. So naturally you never knew when to start moving for the shot. The ball was on top of you before you took your backswing.
"And talk about crazy spins! The ball sunk in his bat and came catapulting out of there like he'd had a slingshot. He didn't seem to be doing anything at all, but he had the best players in the world going crazy. Bergmann was missing simple push shots, and Sido was Gott-im-Himmeling all over the hall. Two players actually ripped the rubber off their bats and tried to play against his spins with bare wood! But he just kept winning. He'd bow humbly to his opponent before the match, and after he won it he'd bow apologetically. But the big match was Satoh-Lanskoy. Everyone was waiting to see that one." "Michel Lanskoy? The Frenchman? Why him?" asked an eager junior. "He's not so good." "He's not good, but he's deaf," Cartland continued. "Can't hear a thing without his earpiece, and he always turns that off when he plays. Claims he concentrates better that way. So everyone figured Satoh's soundless bat wouldn't make any difference to Lanskoy. Sure enough, when they played, Lanskoy took the first game. Well, boy oh boy, they were rubbing their hands. 'See! That's the answer,' they said. 'We'll plug up our ears with wax and practice. Next time we'll cream him.' Only trouble was that Satoh turned around and creamed Lanskoy in the next three games and won the match. Then he goes on to win the world title. Satoh was as surprised as anyone else. He seemed almost embarrassed. He didn't mean to cause so much trouble. Even the Japanese were sorry they had brought him. They didn't want to get a bad reputation after their first World's, and they were actually coaching Satoh's opponents. They can all beat him."
In Japan, Satoh had been regarded as a crackpot, and his sponge was old stuff and ineffectual. He couldn't win a tournament. But in Bombay for the first time in his life he was a hero. People whispered he was a scientist who had perfected the ultimate substance with which to cover a table tennis bat. Actually, he was a watchmaker. When he flew home to Tokyo with the cup, 16-year-old kids jeered and hurled challenges at him. He couldn't take it. Satoh was driven to sake, and this abused, apologetic homunculus who had wrecked the game in 10 days was never seen again in international play.
But sponge was. Despite the furor it provoked—at tournaments players carried placards reading "Ban the Bat"—the ITTF shilly-shallied. Mr. Montagu said grandly, "First we must beat it: then we can ban it." Meanwhile the spongers turned the sport into a crap game. Upset followed upset. Strokes, footwork and touch became obsolete terms. All a player needed was a thicker, faster sponge than his opponent: the bat did the rest. Standing close to the table, he could produce spins and drives impossible to duplicate with normal rubber. The effect was like a tennis racket strung with heavy rubber bands. Reisman, who didn't switch, said it was like "fighting against a machine gun with a bow and arrow." Nobody really liked the new game, not even the spongers. They gleefully scored upsets against normal rubber but hated playing each other. At a practice tournament in New York I remember two class-C spongers, who got paired against each other, both screaming, "C'mon, lemmee play that Miles instead."
The sponge offered new hope for class-B players and veterans, and they were the first to switch. Yugoslavia's Zarko Dolinar was seven points off the top with normal rubber, but with his new artillery he was the best in Europe in 1954. At the London World's that year, he swaggered around with his sponge bat in an elaborate wooden case, à la Satoh. He had painted a skull and cross-bones on it, beneath which 28 of his star victims had signed and, since he and I were scheduled to play each other in the singles, he'd already reserved a space marked "29" for me. Whenever we happened to pass on the playing floor he'd wave the grim box at me and ask, "How's No. 29 today?" But I chopped him down three straight and asked him to autograph my primitive rubber bat. It was the first hint that plain rubber and a defensive chop could contain sponge and the attacking game.
Five years later, in 1959, nearly every tournament player had switched to sponge. The Red Chinese wizards were sending players rather than "observers" to the World Championships, and they were picking the lock the Japanese had kept on the game since Satoh's appearance in 1952. That year, at the World's in Dortmund, Germany, the Chinese captured the men's singles title, but only just, for the draw created a personal war between them and me, pairing China's three best players against me in succession. Result: I slew two Chinese dragons with my "bow and arrow" before the third one got me in a five-game semifinal thriller. Despite their eventual victory, the Chinese were stunned. They played the same bashing, sponge style as the Japanese, but I was almost the last holdout clinging to normal rubber, and my ancient equipment was so novel it confounded them just as Satoh's sponge had confounded everyone in Bombay. They banged into my defense, and my chops sent their drives to the heart of the net. I was dubbed the Sponge Tamer. As a result, the Chinese went home and invented their own chopper, Chang Shih-lin.
I got my first look at Chang in a Prague arena in 1963. Alex Ehrlich and I were perched in an aerie euphemistically described by the tournament committee as the "players' section." On the tiny green rectangle far below us the finals of the Swaythling Cup between Japan and China were being played. China had lost the first match, and a new Chinese player was at the table warming up to play the second. No one knew who he was.
"They must be dumping," I shouted to the King of Chiselers. "The Chinese are dumping to Japan and I've got $200 on them." The 400 experts who had studied the Chinese players for a week were also stumped. Out came 400 programs, as everyone tried to find out who the unknown player was. To the rest of the 9,000 fans we must have seemed like a rooting section waving flags, but we were trying to identify the mysterious player by the number on his back. It was difficult at that altitude, but a German with Japanese binoculars finally got it. "His name is Chang Shih-lin," he called out. It was not frightening that I didn't recognize the name...the Chinese bashers are all good. But Chang was not bashing in the warmup. He was practicing, of all things, his chop! And then from our seats we picked up a refrain as nostalgic as Deep Purple, the unmistakable click of his plain rubber bat. In the modern game the anomalous figure of a plain rubber chopper against the best spongers in the world was unthinkable. How could they possibly send him in? That's when I screamed, "Dump." But Chang's dead bat controlled the sponge spins, and the more the Japanese "juiced" the ball the more spin they got back themselves. Chang was the byproduct of my victories in Dortmund, and the gentlemen of Japan got a humiliating lesson in spin.
Spin, of course, is the ingredient in table tennis that eludes even the sophisticated fan. So subtle is the wrist action that a player can hit a slow, tip-spin drive that's easy to return and then follow it with an apparent duplicate that will zoom crazily off the bat of an unwary opponent and shoot 20 or 30 feet straight up. A basement player in the U.S. would have no more chance of returning a "loop" by Chuang Tse-tung than he would have of returning a serve by Pancho Gonzales. Indeed, tennis players themselves are baffled by the spins of the smaller game. A few years ago Kenny Rosewall and I met unexpectedly in Hong Kong at a party given by a rich tailor. There was a table handy, and our host arranged a game between us. I would have been kinder to Kenny, but the tailor had sold me a tight suit, so I punished his guest. Rosewall proved what I always had known: he's a great fighter. But he scored about five points a game and went off muttering, "Boy! I wish Lew Hoad were here."
Once a table tennis player is hooked by the game, he seldom strays. At Ljubljana I saw the same faces I had seen for 20 years. In what other sport can a man so easily vent his spleen? I've seen tennis players bobble a lob and go from rage to insanity when they couldn't destroy their rackets. For frustrated golfers, wrapping six-irons around trees is expensive. But a table tennis bat? Even a weakling can splinter it, and the satisfaction is worth the $5 he'll pay to replace it an hour later. In fact, some find this too light a penance for missing a setup. A player I know in Chicago has to bite the sponge off his bat and chew it to shreds before he feels absolved enough to shatter the bare blade against his thigh. When our club in New York was at 55th and Broadway, a passionate member liked to throw his sneakers at his opponents. His aim was as poor as his backhand, and if the windows were open the pedestrians below got bombarded. When his rage subsided he'd run down the stairs in search of his shoes, and he once got arrested for stopping traffic in gym socks on Broadway. Yet they play on.
A tournament player is used to living on a low budget. Several years ago Marty Reisman and I were suspended when we demanded that the English association give us more than six shillings a day for meals and move us to a better cell. I'll never forget that hotel and those beds. The morning after the first awful night I was surprised to see my roommate, Reisman, hop off his pallet refreshed. "How did you sleep?" I asked. "Not bad, Dickie boy," he said cheerfully. "Not bad. Of course, I had to get up a few times to rest."
This year, as everyone at Ljubljana had expected, the Chinese and Japanese men's and women's teams reached the finals without serious opposition.
The women played first, and, astonishingly, against Japan's two hardest hitters China gambled on two defensive players using plain rubber and Western tennis grips rather than sponge and penholder grips. Retrieving smash after smash from 20 feet behind the table, they subdued the bewildered Japanese girls 3-0. The classic struggle—defense vs. attack—had been revived, and after 16 years of speed, defense won a world championship.
The Red Chinese are not well liked in the sport. Their players rarely mingle, even in the practice room, and they've mocked recent World Championships by dumping or defaulting to one another to let their best players advance without effort. In a quarter-final match of the World's singles in Prague, one of them laughingly served three successive times into the net against a comrade. Even so, Ferenc Sido, who passionately loves the game, was glowing when the Chinese retrievers won. "This was more like table tennis," he said. "You heard the crowd? You heard that good sound when the ball hit the racket? Perhaps in three years the game will come back."
The Swaythling Cup for men was easily won by two Chinese bombers and the Chopper.
Five days later Miss Fukazu of Japan restored her family pride by winning the singles title from a Chinese retriever. But in the finals of the men's singles, Chuang Tse-tung, defending champion, met Comrade Li Fu-jung. Chuang is a peacock for the Party, and they have ascribed the statement to him, "I owe my success to the study of Mao Tse-tung." Though Li was under orders and did his best to look interested, he will never win an Oscar. After one lovely pirouette a Spaniard on the top tier yelled, "Olé!"
The next day the posters and flags that had adorned the Ljubljana shopwindows were taken down and the invaders dispersed. In front of the modern Lev Hotel, battered suitcases plastered with stickers and customs stamps of every nation were being secured atop the airport buses. Mr. Cooper of Australia was telling some Swedes that in 1967 they would have to go to Paris to get the jet that has already been chartered to carry the European teams to Melbourne for the World's. The Chinese officials were arranging themselves in a 1965 black Lincoln sedan borrowed from their embassy in Prague. Zarko Dolinar was again urging me to fly to Sarajevo in the afternoon and play in a small tournament with the Chinese and Russians. Since I hadn't played in Ljubljana I was tempted, but 40 Chinese, a dozen Russians and a lone American meeting in Sarajevo was asking history for an encore. Sido was embracing the Jubilee Cup for veterans in the crook of his right arm.
"Until Melbourne," he said to me. "And teach some American kids how to play. We must bring back the Game. Defense can do it."
"If I find a philanthropist, Sido," I said, "I'll devote my life to it."
From over my shoulder the gloomy growl of the King of Chiselers intoned, "Defense is finish. Today is attack! Toujours l'attaque!"