my own goal; Matthew Syed

WHEN England's No 1 table tennis player left school, he was told to choose between his sport and going to university. Discouraged by his inability to break into the England team, he opted to study. But all was not lost ...
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The Independent Online
IN THE 1990-91 season I had just left school and started playing table tennis professionally, very much to my father's disappointment. I went over to Sweden to play for Angby, one of the strongest teams in Europe at that time. My father suggested that I should apply to university. I had been studying - Maths and Economics - in my spare time. But I thought university was a bad idea, because I was determined to make the grade in table tennis.

The problem was that I wasn't getting selected to play for England. Younger players than me were getting selected regularly, and there was a lot of talk suggesting that the administration was against my style of play, which is defensive. I began to think that I would never have a chance to play for the full England team.

I became extremely demoralised, and I think my father was too. Eventually I told him that I would go ahead and apply for a university place. He filled out the forms, and put Oxford at the top of the list, which surprised me, because my academic credentials weren't all that impressive. But I thought that if I made it into Oxford, that would give me the incentive to go through with a full university course.

I came back to England for the interview, and I loved the college that I had applied to. I made it into Oxford on condition that I passed my A-levels, but in the back of my mind I still wanted to carry on with table tennis. I felt that I was good enough to play for England, and I wanted to combine studying and playing.

But then I got a letter from the national coach, Donald Parker, saying that he felt a full-time university degree was not compatible with playing top-class sport, and that therefore it was not likely that I would be selected to play for England if I studied at university.

I understood his viewpoint: table tennis is a professional sport, and I had to assume that getting a degree at Oxford would be a pretty demanding business. I was at a very low ebb. I had pretty much decided that table tennis was all over for me, and I was very demoralised. I thought of all the years I had played the game, from primary school through the junior years and cadet teams - and now it seemed that my England career was over before it had really begun.

Then, in February 1991, I went to play in the Czechoslovak Open. The tournament was packed with good players, and I must have been a 500-1 outsider - only two English players had won international tournaments since the 1950s. The night before I flew out I told a friend that I didn't think it was worth my while going. I had no chance of being selected to play for England in the world championships, which were being held in Japan, and it all seemed pointless. But I went. And I won the tournament, which sent shockwaves throughout European table tennis. I was more amazed than anyone else. Even today it remains my biggest achievement in the game.

The selectors had to pick me for the world championships then, and I duly flew to Chiba in April. I had a reasonable time there, and once I started at university I found that I was getting picked regularly for England. Since then, my game has gone up and up: it seems that I could combine the two after all. This year, my final year at Oxford, I became the English No 1 and got a First. It all worked out in the end.