Table Tennis: Douglas' desire undimmed by age: James Leigh on the enduring qualities of a table tennis enigma

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RETIRE as he might, the limelight would not stop shining on Desmond Douglas. Now approaching two decades of competition, still declining financial offers from abroad, and having retired from international play almost three years ago, the slim left- hander with the deceptive wrists and fingers remains a front runner for this weekend's English national championship.

If Douglas, who will be 38 in July, wins tomorrow at King's Lynn, he will extend his record to 12 titles and confirm himself as the most successful and popular English table tennis player since the Fifties. After Douglas departed from the world arena, most observers predicted the end of a legend in a game in which speed, quick reactions and sudden, subtle sleight of hand are paramount. Many players' appetite for effort would have been assuaged by helping England to two European silver medals and a world bronze medal, and himself to the European Top 12 title.

But undiminished motivation, lasting fitness and a fine record in the British league suggest he is still capable of producing glimpses of his old brilliance. It might not happen so often, but when it does it is as though the clock winds back.

Only two months ago those familiar looping forehand top spins and stabbing backhand block-hits overcame Chen Xinhua, the English champion.

How has Douglas done it? Three attributes have been fundamental to his success - enthusiasm, physical discipline, and tactical adaptability.

The England manager-coach, Don Parker, may have helped with the last of those, advising him not just to put the ball in play with a backhand on his serves, but to attempt more with a forehand serve and follow up with the forehand loop. This more aggressive approach occasionally brought more variable results, but also enduringly excellent ones.

Physical condition has been maintained not just by devotion to training but by instinct for when to rest. Douglas has never been afraid to say 'no'. That was indeed fortunate, given his popularity and the number of teams that would have paid him to compete. Many players would have burnt themselves out.

The enthusiasm is a mystery; the very essence of the man. Parker explains: 'He was on camp last week and I can't speak highly enough of him.

'He'll play with anyone. He'll play with the kids and he'll play with the best players and do everything I want him to. He has a passion for it. He loves it when the little kids are running around and they fall over. His biggest kick is to make people run around a table tennis table.'

Douglas appears as fulfilled by this basic love as by the money, glamour and big crowds he has enjoyed for so long. Yet what he is giving is different from what in the early days he received.

Not much running around and falling down for him. Instead, waiting his turn for a table down in the basement of the Birmingham YMCA, where he developed his famously unique close-to-the- table style. In there, the proximity of the walls inhibited retreat under attack. Standing close and blocking or counter-hitting, Douglas discovered he had the reflexes of an animal and the feeling of an angel.

This week the veteran has been practising with Alex Perry, the 17- year-old junior champion whom he could meet in tomorrow's quarter-finals. Douglas is seeded third, but the official tournament favourite, Chen, and another potential winner, Alan Cooke, are hampered by injury, opening up a path to the final for Douglas in the top half of the draw. Carl Prean, the second seed and the 1991 champion, is the biggest danger.

The struggle for superiority between these and others in the coming months could be greatly influenced by the exact form which the controversial ban on glue (used by players to stick rubber coverings to the blades of bats) ultimately takes. The new rule, yet to be standardised in its important details, has been suddenly imposed for health reasons. But if administered strictly, as England is advocating, it would change the game tactically, slowing down the ball off the bat by as much as 20 per cent.

That would be good for Douglas. It might lead to requests for an England recall at the World Championships in May. It could certainly extend his career yet further.

'In fact', Douglas said last month, 'it would be so good I reckon I would play for another 20 years.'

(Photograph omitted)