Smash

Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson profiles ping-pongist Marty Reisman:

The big question for those of us jaded with the modern game of ping-pong—the oof-plock, oof-plock of devious sponge, no rally lasting longer than the cramped spin serve, the dabbed return, and the silent kill—was whether the great Marty Reisman, just one grey hair short of 70 but still refusing the rest owing to old age, was far enough advanced on his comeback trail to lift another U.S. Open Hardbat title.

Hardbat? The antiquated three or five ply wooden paddle covered with rubber pimples. Elegant and audible. Kerplock-plock.

The smart money was saying no. “The guy’s driving me fucking nuts ringing me up every hour of the day telling me how well he’s playing,” Tim Boggan confided to me on the first morning of the Open in Fort Lauderdale. “But he’s living in a fool’s paradise. Sure, he’s practising, but against the same opponent. Steve Berger. Always Steve Berger. He isn’t tournament-hardened. My heart says yes. But he’s got no chance.” You listen to Tim Boggan. Himself one of the game’s old hardbat lions, he is American ping-pong’s most impassioned historian, a one-time English professor at Long Island University whose specialty was Romantic and Victorian poetry but whose true love was always table tennis; a grizzled, exasperated man with an icy beard, dreaming thwarted dreams, another mariner chasing the gleaming margins of the untraveled world. So you listen to what Tim Boggan’s heart says, as well.

But then whose heart doesn’t say yes to Marty? He is the fatal Odysseus you have to follow beyond the sunset. Succeed or fail, just one more voyage. Opinions differ as to whether Marty Reisman was America’s greatest ping-pong player ever, but he was certainly its boldest adventurer, lifting the prestigious British Open title when he was only 19, enlivening a doleful postwar European ping-pong community with Lower East Side effrontery, an extrovert belligerent with one of the loveliest and most lethal forehands you could hope to see, a natural who seemed to be inventing the game anew every time he played it. And now here he is, over half a century since he first became United States National Junior Champion, wanting another shot at another title. Of course the heart says yes.