It is one of the laws of table tennis that you must serve the ball from a flat palm. Or at least it was when I played. They have messed about with the rules so much in the past 25 years, trying to restore a bit of interest to a game ruined by sponge bats, speed-glues and inappropriate athleticism, that for all I know you are now allowed to serve from inside your shorts. But in my day it was a flat and open palm - a rule formulated in the 1930s as a way of outlawing the lethal finger-spin perfected by the American player Sol Schiff. After Schiff, a server had to present to his opponent a palm as uneventful as Norfolk.
Whether as a consequence of my ancestors being nomads who used their hands to scoop water out of rock pools, or because I lack control over whatever muscles work my fingers, I was never able to flatten the palms of my hand as the rules of table tennis demanded. Cups were what I had at the ends of my wrists; ideal for catching or concealing a ping-pong ball but not for serving one. Thanks to my shy and innocent demeanour in those days, the curvature of my serving hand was read as symptomatic of an all-round awkwardness of personality. Clearly I intended nothing devious by it, since I had a feeble serve anyway, which opponents were content to smash back without complaint. Then, at an away match with Manchester YMCA, I encountered a pedant. Other members of my team believed he was an anti-Semite, a child-molesting Nazi bastard, a vicious brute, a savage bully and a psychopath. I just saw him as a pedant.
In club table tennis you take turns to umpire. Bad luck for me that my match fell to the psychopathic nit-picker. He called foul on my first serve, foul on my second, foul on my third, then got out of his chair, took my hand, forced open my fingers, and showed me how a ball should be served. Is it necessary for me to describe how I felt - a 13-year-old who flushed and started whenever a stranger looked at him, never mind manhandled him in front of his companions; a boy whose voice had broken strangely and who as a consequence spoke as though he were gargling chocolate; a boy who wanted only to be invisible and had taken up the inconspicuous sport of table tennis precisely to achieve that end... reader, is it really necessary for me to describe the emotions which turned my mind into a roaring cavern of confusion and shame, made the blood which beat in my heart boil to such a temperature that I was in danger - and I do not mean this fancifully - of dissolving into a volcanic soup of my own lava? And will it surprise you in the slightest to learn that I hit the ball into my assailant's face, slammed my bat down on the table, and ran from the room never to return to a YMCA again?
I was 13, Zinedine Zidane is 34, but would I be any more self-possessed today should that anally retentive anti-Semite reappear and show me how to serve? What does age have to do with it? When the brain burns and the heart boils what is experience, wisdom or occasion worth? "A man's thoughts are swifter than lightning," writes the novelist Joseph Roth, "and a brain in turmoil is capable of producing an entire revolution in the space of half a minute."
Half a minute? Half a second more like, Zinedine Zidane seemed to take about that time to consider his actions before he committed what will surely be regarded for eternity as the strangest act of self-combustion in sport. It looked, therefore - unlike the tangles of studs and testicles into which the impetuous Rooney is forever getting himself - like a decision. But I recall taking the same amount of time before descending into synaptic chaos and doing what I did. And my action bore no resemblance to a decision, unless you can decide not to decide, unless reason can order irrationality to take over.
You do something feeble because no alternative is available. Only an introvert - incapable of laughing off a tormentor or saying "Up yours, son of a punctilious Nazi whore!" - could have disgraced himself as I did. And I believe a similar introspection explains Zinedine Zidane. Part of the elegance of his game has always been that he appears to be playing it somewhere else, not just at a different level of dexterity and grace, but privately, in some inner dimension of non-communicative quiet. He is simmeringly shy, locked away, all the usual easy accesses of passion and temper stoppered. Hence the ineptness of that headbutt. Who headbutts a person in the chest? Leave aside the question of whether a head - God's greatest gift to us - should ever be used for such a purpose: if you're going to do it, then do it properly. The Glasgow kiss, forehead to forehead, and may the less penetrable skull prevail. But a headbutt in the chest acknowledges impotence in the very doing. Tormented bulls lower their heads and charge. And at that moment Zinedine Zidane acted as a baffled creature acts, lacking all other resource.
That's why he should not have been shown a red card. A compassionate referee would have put his arm around him and apologised on behalf of brute humanity. Then sent off the Italian. No one seems to know for sure what Materazzi said to provoke the assault-that-never-really-was, but he sure as hell said something. That ought to be enough. Speak and you're off. This is my proposal for fairer sport. Shut the fuck up! No grunting on the tennis court, no "You can't be serious!", no pleading with referees, no sledging in Test matches, no "Great ball, Warnie!", no impugning the morals of players' wives or mothers, no references to colour or religion, no ejaculations of triumph or despair, nothing. If you can't use your arms in football, why should you be allowed to use your mouth? One word - that's all it should take - one word and you never play again.
That way great sportsmen like me and Zizou can stay cooped up in our inner worlds, unprovoked, free to practise the sort of skills of which only the shy and unsociable are capable.Reuse content