Ping-pong: we're having a ball!
London's hottest new venue is a… table-tennis club. Simon Usborne grabs his paddle and finds out how the game is becoming a social staple
We queued around the block behind velvet ropes for the launch party of a new bar in London. Inside: the sounds of cocktails being shaken, camera shutters clicking, canapés being consumed… and the ping-ponging of hundreds of little plastic balls.
Bounce is a cavernous former nightclub transformed with £2.5m into a ping-pong paradise of 17 tables, a 40ft bar (make mine a Wiff Waff, a G&T with a twist) and a 95-seat pizza restaurant. If table tennis has for a few years threatened to achieve what few indoor sports do – a semblance of cool – then Bounce seals its ascendancy.
Across Britain and beyond, a Victorian parlour game latterly played in church halls and on rickety garden tables – or by Olympic automatons – is spinning into new arenas. At least one member of Made in Chelsea attended the launch in August of Ping, a smaller venue in west London, while bars in cities all over the country are hosting ping-pong nights or clearing space for tables.
We look to New York for the origins of the new, sociable ping-pong. Susan Sarandon, the actress and table-tennis nut, was among the investors in SPiN, a Manhattan club that has spawned three more branches across North America since it opened in 2009.
Britain, too, brims with celebrity ping-pong fans. One Direction play backstage after gigs, Damon Albarn is obsessed, and U2 frontman Bono hosted a tournament last month at a GQ awards after-party in the home of PR bigwig Matthew Freud.
Elle Macpherson has booked a table at Bounce but the club welcomed sporting celebrities to its launch last Thursday. Timo Boll, the German world No 7 (above), left jaws slack after an exhibition game on Centre Court, a table salvaged from the London Games. So too did David Wetherill, the Brit with a crutch whose superhuman shot at the Paralympics has been viewed six million times on YouTube. He played for much of the night with the British Paralympic silver-medal winner Will Bayley, who said he hoped the post-Paralympic buzz would help his teammates to secure sponsorship in the run-up to Rio.
Watching it all alongside hundreds of amateurs beginning to see double was Dov Penzik, 37, a former county-level player who as a teenager competed for Britain at the Maccabiah Games, the so-called "Jewish Olympics". He had the idea for Bounce three and a half years ago and co-founded the place with Adam Breeden, the man who made bowling cool with his All Star Lanes clubs.
"It's a dream come true," Penzik told me after the launch. "Ping-pong was never regarded as cool. As a kid I played in dingy gyms and had to drag friends along to join in. But I always knew it would work as a social sport. People are realising how accessible the game is. It's also very theatrical to watch."
Bounce's final touch: its claim to be the home of ping-pong. There is some truth to this; the site near Chancery Lane was once the headquarters of Jaques, the posh English games company which patented one of the earliest versions of ping pong in around 1900. Back then, a trend swept Britain going on to take only 110 years to bounce back.
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