Table Tennis: Anyone for table tennis? Why half a billion can't be wrong...

<preform>Everyone has played it, but none of us seem to want to watch it. <i>Karen Kay </b>enters the world of what many still call ping pong - and finds a game ready to capitalise on its global appeal</preform>
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The Independent Online

The school holidays have finally started so it's time to play a bit of ping pong. You know the kind of thing: seaside tables with well-worn bats and a fun family tournament that has all the pace of a Formula One car running on apple juice. We've all done it: that leisurely game of clumsy lobs that idles away time during a summer shower.

The school holidays have finally started so it's time to play a bit of ping pong. You know the kind of thing: seaside tables with well-worn bats and a fun family tournament that has all the pace of a Formula One car running on apple juice. We've all done it: that leisurely game of clumsy lobs that idles away time during a summer shower.

Some (quite a few, if truth be told) even play on a regular basis: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were fans (I am told they had a table in the east wing of their home to play in morning light, and retreated to the west wing to play later in the day), Tony Blair is partial to a rally and Kylie Minogue fancies her chances of getting that little white ball Spinning Around. Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Bill Gates, Kevin Spacey and Tiger Woods are other high-profile participants, but the true stars of the game were in the spotlight yesterday in the inaugural Ocean International Cup at Croydon's Fairfield Hall.

They may not have quite the profile of presidents and prime ministers, pop stars and celluloid idols, but the Olympic favourite Timo Boll, Chen Weixing, Jorgen Persson, Kalinkos Kreanga (the aptly named Pocket Rocket) and Valdimir Samsonov are the masters of their art.

Of 500 million registered table tennis players globally, they were among 10 of the best in the world to assemble for the London event, the European - and final - leg of the Asia-based Super Circuit. The tournament boasts an unprecedented purse of $1m [£545,000] for the highest ranking cumulative scorer at the end of the season, with yesterday's event alone yielding a generous $70,000 [£38,000] for the winning player.

In a display that bore no resemblance to playful ping pong, a game of wit, skill, stamina and agility unfolded in front of the sell-out audience, arousing passion and tension to match centre court on Henman day.

It is, it must be said, rather like Wimbledon with all the elements shrunk in the wash: the playing area (2.74m long and 1.525m wide) allows no margin for error, the audience (at capacity, only 2500 fans squeezed in to the Croydon concert hall) is a fraction of that in SW19 but equally vocal, and the players' egos are, well, scaled down to almost non-existent levels. Only the talent matches that of the grass men.

To the rousing notes of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme, children, trendy thirty-somethings and septuagenarians gathered to marvel at the whirling dervishes do their stuff with a rubber-coated piece of wood and a breath of air masquerading as a ball. And if you think it's a game of reflex, I beg to differ. Personality is as strong a weapon as agility: watching Greek-born Kreanga play Persson, a Swede, is like witnessing an angry Duracell bunny trying to rattle Sven Goran Eriksson.

Opening the day's proceedings was British No 1 Matthew Syed, a 33 year-old Oxford graduate from Richmond upon Thames and three-times Commonwealth Singles gold medallist. Resembling a petite Pierluigi Collina on happy pills, Syed is a nimble-footed contortionist who thrills the home crowd with his camera-pleasing tango with the table tennis table. In his signature one-shouldered emerald shirt, he leapt and dived with more agility than Nureyev and more gritty persistence than Paxman. His opponent, Ma Wenge, hails from China where this light-footed battle of the bats is the national sport.

In just three weeks, the Chinese will stake their claim to the coveted Olympic title: there is none they value more than the men's singles gold. Wenge, based in Germany and a former Olympic bronze-medal winner, was the sole representative of the People's Republic, as their leading triumvirate of Ma Lin, Wang Hao and Wang Liqin declined to show their hand so close to Athens.

Syed, who is semi-retired from top-level competition, was knocked out 4-2 in the first round of yesterday's event by Wenge, who took a tumble early in the match and almost withdrew with a foot injury. Another English sportsman bites the dust (his compatriot, Gareth Herbert, faired no better in the ensuing match against Austria's Chen Weixing), but for the Surrey star there was more at stake than the glory of a title and a boost to the bank-balance. For the past seven months, the multi-talented sportsman, writer, broadcaster and would-be politician (he stood as the Labour candidate against John Redwood at the last general election) turned his hand to event organising as the brainchild and financial underwriter behind yesterday's event. An evolving series of rule changes in the past few years (a game is now the first to reach 11 rather than the traditional 21 points, and the ball has been enlarged to 40mm diameter, slowing spin) to make the sport more spectator - and consequently, more television - friendly.

"Almost everyone I've ever introduced table tennis to has fallen for it instantly," Syed said matter-of-factly. "It's a question of changing perceptions, because this is by no means a minority sport in terms of the number of people who play it. Staging a big money event like this and getting BBC coverage is the first step in terms of raising the profile of the game. Britain has got a couple of good kids who have the potential to be brilliant and the Beijing Olympics will be great for the sport. This is my last big event as a player, but I'm passionate about making others realise how great a game it is."

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