Andrew Baggaley: It's time for Britain to turn the tables
He is Britain's No 1 table tennis player but believes we need another Desmond Douglas
Sunday 18 December 2011
How did you start?
I first had a bat in my hand at four, playing with my mum, Yvonne, in our back garden. She was a good player herself. I progressed to the local league at seven and I was Britain's youngest-ever professional aged 13 when I signed for a team in Belgium. It was great to play abroad against tough opposition and in international competitions with England. I have won three English senior titles and five Commonwealth Games medals and beaten lots of world-class players.
Why did you choose table tennis?
My whole family played it, my mother, dad, brother and sister. My brother, Stephen, has coached and managed me to this level. I was equally good at tennis so I was very natural with a bat. But I didn't have the opportunities in tennis, there seemed no pathway to the top. You need a lot of money to play tennis and it wasn't the same in table tennis. I am happy I made the right choice.
What grabs you about the sport?
What appeals to me most is the individualism – one against one. There are not many sports where you are not actually hitting each other but can go eye to eye. Barry Hearn compared table tennis to boxing. There is an element of it in our form of combat.
How do you train?
In Milton Keynes, where I live, there are several venues and the facilities are good. I train with MK Dons and they have set up a programme for me. It's great working with professionals from another sport, although we are from different worlds. Their chairman, Pete Winkelman, who is in the music industry, has been very supportive.
Can you make a good living?
Since leaving school, I've always been full-time and I've managed to do fairly well out of it. Obviously it's not like being a top footballer, but we do all right. Most of us play in overseas leagues. I now play for a French club who pay me a weekly wage. We play in front of relatively big crowds, sometimes up to 2,000. I've also played in leagues in Italy, Sweden, Germany and Belgium. It's not always about money, it's about the opportunity to play against better opposition. Ideally I'd love to play in a professional league in this country but you need a promoter to set up a grand prix with decent prize-money.
Why isn't it better promoted?
It's a great sport, an amazing sport, but I don't know why it isn't bigger in terms of public appreciation, like it used to be years ago. Those at the top could run it better; sometimes you feel they are trying to keep the sport down. Yet as a recreational game it is booming, there are clubs and pubs where you can play it all over the country, even nightclubs are setting up tables and you have A-list celebrities playing. Everyone can relate to table tennis – you play it in youth clubs or on holiday. You need someone the public can identify with, like Desmond Douglas, who was on Dickie Davies's World of Sport every other week back in the Seventies, but there's no attempt now to create that sort of image or personality. It's still regarded as a school-hall sport.
How is your form going into 2012?
The top British players only compete against each other once a year, in the English Championships. The rest of the time we consider ourselves a team trying to beat the best in the world, so we are not really rivals. But with the Olympics coming up, the competition between us for a place will be more intense. I'm 28, but in table tennis terms I am still young because all the best European players are over 30. There are always goals to hit. When I am 37 or 38 it will be different, but at the moment there is so much scope for me to improve.
What do the Games mean to you?
The Olympics are the pinnacle of any sportsperson's career. I am going to give it my best shot but even just to compete when they are in your own country is amazing. The opposition will be strong, particularly the Chinese. Beating them is always difficult, but the times they lose is when they have the maximum pressure on them.
Do you have any other interests?
I love music, singing and playing the guitar. I play in a rock group and my sister, Esther, writes the music. It's the only time I can really switch off. As a family we were all involved in music before sport, we were all taught classical piano. I'm always travelling but we have managed to do quite a few gigs.
Fred Perry, Chairman Mao, Boris Johnson: the kings of ping-pong
The favourite sport of Chairman Mao famously brought the United States and China together again during the Cold War. Forty years on, it is still building bridges. The first Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup in Doha in November featured pairings from North and South Korea, India and Pakistan and the USA and Russia.
Wiff-waff or what?
True or false? When table tennis fan Boris Johnson wiff-waffled after the Beijing Olympics he memorably claimed that the sport had been "invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century". True. It was first played among the upper classes as an after-dinner parlourgame with a row of books as a net and cigar-box lids as bats. It has been an Olympic sport since 1988
The new snooker
Table tennis has over 300 million participants worldwide and here the 2.4 million who regularly play the sport have been boosted by a further 40,000 taking advantage of tables set up in pubs and clubs, such as London's King Pong, during lunchtime breaks. The sport seems to be the new snooker but why is it still regarded as a relatively minor activity? Says Baggaley: "You need a Barry Hearn-type figure to get hold of it and promote it like boxing or snooker – give it a bit of glamour. And it needs to be on television."
Team GB's Olympic prospects
Britain have never won an Olympic medal at table tennis, so one of any colour in London from any of Team GB's three men and women would be a triumph. Baggaley is Britain's No 1, ahead of Paul Drinkhall and Darius Knight, but he is still ranked only No 142 in the world. There will be 172 players taking part in the Olympic tournament and four of the world's top six men and five of the top six women are Chinese.
So who is the British icon?
Fred Perry was the last Briton to win Wimbledon, but had table tennis been an Olympic sport in the Thirties he could well have struck gold. He was a world table tennis champion at 19.
The London 2012 venue
London's barn-like ExCel, normally an exhibition centre, will be 2012's busiest venue, hosting table tennis, boxing, judo, taekwondo, weightlifting and six Paralympic sports.
British Olympic Association
The British Olympic Association are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the "Best of British" athletes for, and lead them at, the summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver extensive support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies to enhance Olympic success. Go to olympics.org.uk
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