"Seriously though, what sport do you really play?" It's the question every table tennis player hates to hear. In terms of frustration it can only be equalled by, "Oh, you mean Ping Pong?", which is, closely followed by, "Don't only Chinese people play that?" Seriously, table tennis; no, not ping pong; and actually, lots of nationalities are proficient at the sport, not least the Swedes, who until recently dominated the game (months of darkness, table tennis is played indoors, go figure).
Far from the glare of the television cameras, table tennis occupies its own little world, with its own loyal fan base, its own pros, and even its own equipment and clothing lines with funny names like Tibhar, Joola and Stiga. It has its own funny little vocabulary too. Not many outside of the table tennis inner circle would be familiar with a "pimples rubber" or indeed "speed glue" (no relation to either acne or drugs).
And despite its small following, anywhere you go in the world it is possible to find a game. In the slums of Cairo you will happen upon the occasional table in the street where you can pay around two Egyptian pounds (Dh1.4) to challenge the last winner. And he's usually fairly handy. One of the most enjoyable games I ever played was in Siem Riep in Cambodia, where a tin-roof shack sheltered five high quality tables and a bunch of locals who played topless and barefoot. The only hindrance was the geckos that would intermittently fall onto the tables from the rafters and hold up play. My opponent casually flicked one off the net with his bat as it struggled to disentangle its tail.
Such places are a world away from the professional leagues of Europe and China, where players compete before large crowds in a variety of national and international competitions. Yet, few outside the sport would even know there are professional table tennis players; dedicated, full-time athletes, competing for contracts and sponsorship, as well as the big prizes. Younger players can earn full college scholarships if they prove their potential in the game, usually with a good national ranking.
Players maintain strict diet and fitness regimens and train mornings and evenings - before and after school, college or work - and extensively on weekends, forsaking social lives in the process. "You can get really, really sick of the game," a former British number one, Alex Perry, told me at a training camp in England many years ago. "You're always knackered and you can't go out that often." Perry went on to win 13 national titles and four Commonwealth gold medals.
And it can be a thankless business. The money does not compare to what top tennis and football players earn, and there won't be hordes of fans in the parking lot after a tournament crowding around the table tennis player's hatchback. "It doesn't go down so well with the ladies," as one Irish player put it (though in somewhat less presentable words). Still, table tennis is one of the most highly-skilled sports in the world, and certainly the most skillful out of all the racquet sports.
The bat says a lot about how the game is played. It is made up of a blade, which is the wooden paddle and adjoining handle, and two rubbers, one red and one black. There is a baffling array of brands catering to each component, which players chose according to their style of play. The use of rubbers in table tennis enables players to put a level of spin on the ball not possible with stringed tennis or squash racquets. Judging the spin of the ball, in fact, is a complete set of skills in itself.
The game is played at an extraordinarily high tempo and is great to watch. In the time it takes to make one shot in tennis, two or three have been taken in table tennis, and the average stroke requires just as much exertion. More often than not players end up 10 or 15 yards back from the table during rallies. In the university, at the table tennis stand the club set up during the fresher's fair, organisers asked us to turn off the VCR showing classic matches as too many people were crowding around to watch and were blocking up the hallway.
"Uh, this isn't, like, uh, ping pong," one sheepish fresher said after a particularly exciting rally. "It's, uh, like, tennis on a table " Over 150 people signed up to the club on that day alone, including the insightful young fresher. Television ratings reflect the crowd's enthusiasm at the fresher's fair. Table tennis broadcast during the Olympics, and even replays of competitions shown at obscure hours on the BBC and Eurosport, consistently draw high ratings. Yet as soon as these events are over table tennis drops off the airwaves, like so many falling geckos. Most fans resort to buying dvds over the internet.
Only in places where table tennis is particularly popular, like Sweden, China and some Eastern European countries, is the game a regular feature on television. Table tennis players there are household names, appearing on talk shows and in advertisements. "You wouldn't believe it," a fellow player once told me after returning from a training camp in Sweden one summer. "Table tennis players are like celebrities over there, they have them on TV shows and billboards."
"That's cool," I said. "Now let's go watch the football." @Email:email@example.com