Table tennis: Syed's game proves as shrewd as his politics

John Roberts
Wednesday 20 November 2013 03:08
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Along with displaying impressive hand-eye co-ordination, which enables him to survive as one of only three defensive players at the highest level of table tennis, Matt Syed engages his brain before speaking.

If gold medals were awarded for talking up a sport with a blend of passion and common sense, the 31-year-old England No 1 from Bromley would need an extra neck. Probably the most articulate competitor in the Commonwealth Games, Syed has used the occasion as a platform in a manner that would put the average politician to shame.

This is hardly surprising, since Syed is a politician whose potential is way above average, as he showed as a Labour candidate when challenging John Redwood for the safe Tory seat in Wokingham, Berkshire, last year, increasing Labour's share of the vote.

In view of the election, Syed had not intended to compete in the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships in New Delhi, due to take place at the same time. However, when the election was postponed because of the foot and mouth epidemic, Syed went to India, won the singles title, and then resumed electioneering.

After one political meeting, Redwood turned to Brian Halliday, vice-chairman (public relations) of the English Table Tennis Association, and said: "He's done very well, hasn't he?"

"Yes," he spoke very well," Halliday replied.

"I was referring to his table tennis," said Redwood.

Syed has certainly spoken well on behalf of the table tennis party this week, banging the drum for his sport after England's triumph in the men's team event on Tuesday evening. Syed, the only player to remain unbeaten, was quick to praise his younger team-mates, Gareth Herbert, Alex Perry, Andrew Baggaley and Terry Young. He also emphasised how important it is for table tennis to make the most of its Commonwealth Games exposure and show it is skilful and exciting enough to fit snugly into television screens on a regular basis.

To this end, the scoring system was changed last year to create more "crisis points". Instead of games being played on a first to 21 basis, they are now decided when the first player, or pair, reach 11 points, provided there is a two-point margin.

A bigger ball – 40mm instead of 38mm – has been introduced to slow the game down, a controversial move that makes winning harder for Syed and the dying breed of defensive players, who are unable to generate as much spin on their shots, which are the most spectacular to behold. Syed regards the change as a challenge and continues to prevail.

His obsession with table tennis interfered with his studies at Oxford to the extent that six months before his finals he was told by his lecturer to buck his ideas up. He did, and was awarded a double first in political science.

Syed, seeded No 2 in the singles, is due to open with a match against Trevor Brown, of Australia, at noon today. Yesterday Syed advanced to the last 16 of the mixed doubles, partnering 17-year-old Katy Parker, of Preston. They defeated Segun Toriola and Funke Oshonaike, of Nigeria, 11-8, 11-6, 8-11, 11-4.

The Nigerians could not cope with the varied spin of the England pair. Syed, when serving, would let Parker know what spin he was about to use by making a hand signal below the table, and Parker was primed to pounce on the returns.

Oshonaike, voted the best woman athlete in Nigeria in 1999, played with agility but became frustrated by her inability to read the spin of the England pair. The Nigerians, who lost a 6-1 lead in the second set, were unable to capitalise after winning the third set. Oshonaike's body language became more negative with every missed shot, and at one stage she walked away from the table with a look of disgust.

Parker, in contrast, grew in confidence as the match progressed, overcoming the embarrassment of hitting a serve under the table in the third game. The daughter of Jill Hammersley, a former European champion, and Don Parker, a former England international player and manager, Katy became the youngest player, aged 12, to represent England at a World Championship, in Manchester in 1997.

"I think we make a good combination," Syed said. "But we came together late in the day, and a medal is only an outside chance."

They next play an Indian partnership, Raman Subramanian and Mantu Ghosh. The 33-year-old Subramanian, from Bombay, seems to have a nice line in philosophy: "When life does not serve aces, then create one." But it may not be wise to bandy words with Syed, a veritable Jeremy Paxman with a western shake-hands grip.

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