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Table Tennis: World in the grip of a 12-year-old

Andrew Baker meets Katy Parker, bred for a place at the top table
Keeping score is a perennial problem in table tennis, and the two youngsters playing in a school hall in Blackburn last Thursday evening succumbed to common confusion. "1-8" announced the boy, who looked about 13. "1-8!" squeaked the girl he was playing, a diminutive 12-year-old. "It's 4-8." But it was all very amicable, and the little girl need not worry when she plays her next competitive match. At the World Championships in Manchester this week, scorers will be provided.

Katy Parker, from Preston, will become the youngest player to compete for England when she teams up with 13-year-old Michael Chan, from Weybridge, in the mixed doubles. But she is bred to the role: her mother, Jill Parker, nee Hammersley, is a triple European champion, and her father Donald is a former England international who is now chairman of the national selection committee.

That last fact may prompt allegations of nepotism, but these are denied by those who know the younger Parker well. "Katy has been picked to give her a taste of the big time," her coach, Jim Clegg, explained, as his charge rattled off a fusilade of forehands. "There's a big atmosphere at international tournaments, and it takes a bit of getting used to. But the sooner she plays at the top level, the sooner she will acclimatise to it. I'm sure she'll be picked for the European championships later in the year as well."

Katy is an attacking player (unlike her mother, who played a defensive game) and it shows in every aspect of her style at the table, from a viciously chopped serve to a raking forehand, hit with extraordinary power for one so slight.

She fizzes with enthusiasm and confidence, but remains realistic about her chances of success at the World Championship. "I shouldn't think we'll even win our first match," she said, perching on a bench at the side of the gym for a mid-session break. "Michael and I have never even played together before. But we get on well and I've watched him plenty of times."

Katy reckoned that she played for seven or eight hours a week at her local club, and she will increase that when a table is set up in the garage of the new house that the Parkers have recently bought. But she is not dedicated to the exclusion of other interests, enjoying hockey, athletics, netball and lawn tennis. When she can be prized away from table, track, court or pitch, her favourite academic subject is biology, though it is reasonable to suppose that if sports science was on the curriculum for her age-group she would jump at it.

The important point is that she has not been forced into table tennis - she first picked up a bat only three years ago - nor is she under any pressure from her parents to follow in their footsteps. "I don't have to play," as Katy put it.

She clearly plays for fun, and it shows, but her skill and technique are the result of hours of careful coaching and practice. But she also has qualities that cannot be taught. "She has an excellent temperament," Clegg said. "She seems to have a sixth sense of when to apply additional pressure. She can shift up a gear when necessary, and she has an instinct for anticipation and recovery."

Are such gifts inherited? "They may be," Clegg said. "But her parents don't do a lot of table tennis with her - it's difficult for dads and mums, they always get an answer back. They have always been supportive, but entrusted me with the coaching. But she doesn't need pushing - Katy herself wants to be the best there is."

The determination is clear in the effort she puts in to basic training exercises, and her competitive streak came through in a series of practice matches against older opponents. At present her physique is bound to count against her in competition, but Clegg has no plans to adjust her technique as she grows. "You don't teach someone to play two different games," he explained. "Reach and range don't matter if you can place the ball with enough power. If Katy keeps playing the ball to the right places, and she happens to grow six inches she'll naturally become a better player."

How much better, only time will tell. But if one of Katy's ambitions is to be fulfilled this week, there are others on the horizon. "I want to play in the Olympics sometime," she said. "But I don't know when." There is plenty of time.