ALMANACK: Table turns for the worse

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THERE has been a good deal of controversy in tennis circles recently over the introduction of such crowd-pleasing devices as rock music and flashing coloured lights to introduce the players. We had first-hand experience of such conditions in Crew e last Tuesday: the lights dimmed, Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" (what else?) boomed out of the speakers, players appeared through clouds of dry ice and proceeded to their positions followed by spotlights. No wonder Messrs Agassi and Sampras are upset: this was just table tennis - what might they do to the full-size game?

To be fair, table tennis is only doing what every other sport does, and tarting up the entertainment side of things. Whether it was necessary to adorn last week's Test between England and Russia's finest women players with all that hullabaloo is a moot point, but the Crewe crowd clapped along and sat patiently while the mayor shook hands with everyone and the little flag-bearers marched off. Then we got down to business.

The parallels with the grass-court game don't end with the rock music controversy. The two kinds of table-tennis player, attacking and defensive, are analogous to serve-and-volleyers and baseliners, and bats are manufactured to suit the requirements of individual players in much the same way that rackets are strung to order.

The Russians are good, arguably the strongest team in Europe and the best in the world behind the dominant Asian countries. The English are in the Premier Division of the European League, but lack strength in depth: on Tuesday they were without their best two players because of injury and the young replacements looked like they were a little out of their depth.

Alison Gordon, who has made more than 500 appearances for her country, was England's heroine, beating Tatiana Shehova and Galina Melnik, who is 43 places higher in the world rankings. The Russians won the rest of the games, and took the match 8-2.

Gordon is an attacking player, reliant on speed of serve and ferocity of smash. "I played their two defensive players last night in Hull," she said after the match, "and got a bit of a stuffing, frankly. Today I played two attacking players and that suited me better." The crowd got loud in the deciding game of her match against Melnik, whooping and whistling and waving little Union Jacks. "We've played a few big matches here," she said, "and the crowd always get behind us."

Gordon was plucky, determined and self-effacing, a bit like Jeremy Bates, but our favourite was the Russian Elena Timina, a tremendously stylish defensive player. Her game depends on retrieving everything her opponents can throw at her and waiting for them to make a mistake. She had amazing agility, and the ability to chop, dink, and slice the ball back to the table from floor height: she played a couple of shots practically sitting down. "Ay, ay, ay," she would shout. Translation: "How did I do that?"

Timina and the other Russians also had an amazing repertoire of serves. One favourite involved tossing the ball six feet in the air and then cutting it, another was an almost invisibly swift backhand flick, another somehow shot out from under the armpit . . . Aces in table tennis are rare, but when they happen they are the result of guile rather than speed.

England's team were cheerful in defeat. They seem a close, supportive bunch (this is not necessarily the case, we gather, with the men's squad). Some high-up table tennis bods have suggested that our women are too nice to win, that they should spend a little less time at each other's houses and a little more at each other's throats. But then some high-up table tennis bods approve of disco lights and dry ice, so what do they know?

HEARTY congratulations to Mr Fred Jackman, the 79-year-old retired meat trader whose horse Bon Secret won the Victory Median Auction Maiden Stakes at Lingfield last Tuesday. Not exactly the Derby, but the win has a special significance: Mr Jackman has owned racehorses since 1965 - and Bon Secret is the first runner ever to carry his colours past the line in first place. Persistent, eh?

WHILE we're talking racing, we note with some alarm that today's Tweseldown point-to-point - the first Sunday fixture at which betting will be allowed - will be graced by the William Hill mobile betting shop. "It's a sort of giant lorry thing that opens itself out," explains Graham Sharpe, Hill's media man. "It has all the facilities that you'll find in your high street bookies'."

But to Almanack part of the charm of point-to-pointing always resided in rain-soaked disputes with slightly dodgy rails types liable to disappear in a twinkling as soon as the last race is over. It will be interesting to see how many Tweseldown punters seek the comforts of Hill's pantechnicon: not many, we suspect.

NEWS from New Zealand, where the newly formed Auckland Warriors rugby league team, yet to play a competitive match, have become the only organisation in any sport to publish a club history before they actually play a competitive match.

OXFAM and the cricket fanzine JM96* have come up with a nifty fund- raising idea that is bound to appeal to many cricket fans, and may even point the way forward for England. Those who donate £5 or more to the charity's Rwanda appeal can enter a draw forthe chance to turn out for their chosen county side in a benefit match (call 0272 735200 for details). But why stop there? Why not raffle a few places in the Test side? Only those capable of staying fit for five days should apply, of course.

CRAZY name, crazy dog: Hypnotic Stoat, fifth in the 3.23 at Bristol greyhound track last Saturday.