Ping Pong: The tables have turned

From Dave'n'Barack to trendy club nights and Boris's wiff waff, we can't get enough of ping pong. Howard Jacobson sings the praises of a great game, while Will Dean looks at the healthy state of table tennis in Britain

Will Dean
Thursday 03 November 2011 16:22

Ping pong, a blond politician once wiff-waffled, is coming home.

But what nobody told Boris Johnson, when he addressed members of Team GB at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was that the sport which he memorably explained "was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century," was already on its way back.

The sport's most exceptional artistes may be dominated by the Chinese (they hold six of the world's top ten ranking places for both men and women), but Britain has re-embraced the parlour game a whole year before British number one Paul Drinkhall takes to the floor of London's Excel centre next July.

Thanks to imaginative club promoters, City-types looking for a way to burn some energy in space-starved central London and plucky entrepreneurs, table tennis has already come home... and is doing very nicely, thank-you. The English Table Tennis Association boasts on its website that numbers for the sport are booming, adding an extra 40,000 regular players to the 2.6m who already waft their paddles weekly.

So what's responsible for the growth? Andrew Essa is a former City lawyer whose London Ping Pong Company is the capital's first and – so far – only corporate ping pong entertainment firm.

The LPPCO offers a night of wiff-waff fun for willing employees who get free retro headbands and play doubles with colleagues in front of a DJ or between Karaoke-singing sessions.

Essa noticed the growing appetite for ping pong in both bars and companies in America and London and, since starting the LPPCO late last year, he has now put on 75 events for firms like Microsoft, Accenture, LinkedIn, Google and Bank of America.

What made him invest in ping pong? "For a start it's low-risk, inclusive and fun," says. And as for the appetite – "I was in a Hammersmith pub a couple of years ago and there were hundreds of players, all paying £50-a-head to wear fancy dress, drink and play ping pong for charity."

And as if that wasn't enough to persuade him that the sport was worth backing, the decision by US beer giant Anheuser-Busch in 2009 to move away from traditional sponsorship deals in sports like baseball and drag-racing to stick the Bud Light brand on glossy table tennis tournaments sealed the deal. Anheuser-Busch also invested millions of dollars in putting Budweiser branded ping pong tables ("Effectively billboards," Essa says) into 4,600 American bars.

The subsequent Bud Light Hard Bat Ping Pong Tournament was made in association with TV production firms Mark Gordon Co and Fremantle Media (makers of The X Factor and American Idol) who brought its Las Vegas finale to US sports channel ESPN.

Jordan Wynne, a Mark Gordon executive, told the Wall Street Journal at the time, that their push on ping pong has a chance to "take this game out of the basement and the cluttered garages... it's taking on this cool cultural space of short-shorts and retro headbands and it's kind of goofy, but it's also got people who take it very seriously. It's poker eight years ago."

This counter-cultural cool is why brands seeking to gain an edge are chucking money at the sport. German sportswear giant Puma is another.

They're sponsoring Ping!, a collaboration between the English Table Tennis Association and arts organisation Sing London which, in 2010, installed 100 tables across the capital, giving 50,000 Londoners a chance to play. This year Ping! has expanded to Birmingham and Hull and a touring pop-up Ping Pong Parlour spent July driving around the country. Half of the tables will remain in place permanently (they're made of concrete) and the other half donated to schools, clubs and sports centres. It's given 100,000 Brits the chance to play the sport over the summer. Next year it returns to London in the build up to the Olympics. Not that mass-participation schemes like Ping! are taking the cool edge off ping pong.

New York might currently be the go-to choice of social wiff-waffers, with clubs like SPiN (see right), but Britain is following in the Big Apple's wake. In Manchester in May The Ping Pong Club hosted an all-day event featuring an exhibition of related art, a symposium featuring experts from Berlin, Newcastle and Washington plus bands and, naturally, "free ping pong, all night".

London hosts a number of ping pong-themed club nights at venues around the city, including King Pong at Shoreditch's Book Club. A specialist ping pong palace, tentatively named Bounce, is currently being planned by the owners of another London venue for a launch at the end of 2011.

With the Olympics due to bring 172 of the world's greatest players – and Boris Johnson – to Britain, there's little chance that the appetite for thwacking the hollow white ball is due to die down anytime soon.

'We found other, less wholesome ways to spend our time. We lost our innocence'

By Howard Jacobson

There are few satisfactions in sport to compare with the execution of a perfect topspin forehand drive, taking the ball early on its rise, getting simultaneously under it and over it, feeling it yield to the upward caress of your racket and then swivelling your body in the final picosecond before delivery so as to send the ball not cross court as your opponent is expecting – that's if he's expecting anything – but down the line. I say "court" but I should say "table", because this is table tennis I'm describing, that great game we all used to play in youth clubs and the basements of holiday hotels and which is enjoying a remarkable revival.

The forehand drive I began by describing was one I sent down only the other day, to the consternation of Simon Kelner, former editor-in-chief of The Independent, whose house I was in and on whose table I was playing.

Modesty forbids me telling who won, but I will say that he got more points off me than I thought he would. He had an explosive forehand of his own and some nifty spin serves. And, of course, great determination.

That one finds oneself playing one's editor at all is a sign of the times. Except at the highest level, table tennis vanished for nearly half a century, along with the youth clubs and the holidays hotels at which we used to play it. Social change explains this partly. Youth clubs vanished. We found other, less wholesome ways of passing the time. We lost our innocence. But changes in the game itself have also to be taken into account. New technologies, such as sponge and sandwich bats, made table tennis infinitely faster; the parlour game for everyone became a sport whose arcane spins and athleticism rendered it remote from the ordinary player, as did the shift of table tennis power from Europe to Asia. Once upon a time we'd all heard of Johnnny Leach or Chester Barnes, but even the average club player in this country would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the Chinese player who currently holds the world title.

And yet here, suddenly, ping pong is again. Only four months ago I was touring America to read from The Finkler Question and from an older novel, The Mighty Walzer, being published in America for the first time. Not surprisingly, since The Mighty Walzer is about table tennis, my publishers thought of throwing me a party somewhere they played the game or where at least a table could be put up; more surprising was that they found the ideal place, slap bang in the middle of Manhattan – and not a sports club or a YMCA but a ping pong "parlour"; a nightspot, no less, boasting 17 tables, a restaurant and a crowded bar. SPiN it's called, and one of its owners is the film star Susan Sarandon. Whether she really was spotted, wearing red stilettoes and picking up balls the night of my party, I can't confirm. I was too busy showing my American readers my down-the-line topspin forehand to notice. But many swear they saw her.

A week later I was being interviewed in Comet Ping Pong in Washington, a pizza restaurant with three tables on the go. Modesty again forbids me saying by what margin I beat the interviewer, but winning is not the point. Table tennis is back with a vengeance in America, and the signs are that social table tennis is coming back to this country too. The phenomenon takes some explaining. Do we want our innocence back? Are we revolting from the isolated, bodiless introspection of the internet; seeking some activity in which we can move our limbs and talk to other people? Or is it conversation itself we've had too much of and need to punctuate it with a game that everyone plays a bit, everyone can enjoy and which resembles a sport, without our having to go to the gym to get fit for it?

The return of social table tennis feels like a reversion to an earlier time, anyway; everyone waiting his or her turn, eyeing up the opposition, taking a small measure of pride in a victory or accepting defeat with grace, much the way we did on family holidays in those days when the sun always shone, when we all loved one another and when we did what we did for the fun of it, not the glory or the self-advancement or the profit. That we could do with table tennis clubs and parlours to re-open in our areas of urban hopelessness and desolation, goes without saying.

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