Tuesday, 28 July 2020

A Texas table tennis story


In my childhood, I lived on the same street as Ramanathan “Tennis” Krishnan, and his son Ramesh Krishnan, in CIT Colony. He was the big national celebrity of the colony. The sports I played as a kid were Hide and Seek, its variation Ice Boys, spinning tops, seven stones, and of course street cricket with worn out tennis balls. We had a large open ground across our house, which has since become a park, and we played cricket there in the evenings. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play. Tennis was the game of rich people who could afford a place to play.  Our highest ambition then was to one day play cricket with a fresh tennis ball, rather than a ball which was no longer fit for tennis.

Television had recently arrived. My neighbors bought a black and white TV, and for some months I watched cricket, whose rules I knew, and suddenly one day, tennis! Something called Wimbledon and somebody called Bjorn Borg of Sweden played John McEnroe of USA. For the first time, I watched two entire sets played, not just a three second glance of Tennis Krishnan’s court as we passed by in a bus. When we caught Wimbledon fever, my neighbor Sridhar and I marked our cement courtyard with a brick, and played tennis with our bare palms.

One day I found there was another sport which was almost as much a rich man’s game – table tennis. Instead of a lawn, you needed a table, and used very small rackets and a really tiny ball. This too I saw on television. Nobody I knew had a table, and we didn’t have one at school, and cricket kept me happy, so I didn’t think much of table tennis, except that I probably wont be very good at it. After al, I was less than mediocre at cricket, even though I loved playing.

Several years later, I went to college. The hostelites demanded a table tennis, and the management bought one and few bats and balls too! It was kept in the mess, half of which had dining tables, the other mostly open, except for the TT table and a television set. Our batch was the first in the hostel, and about ninety students and six or seven teachers stayed at the hostel. I suspect two thirds of us had never played. We had plenty of opportunity and I learnt to play. Several times a week I played with several classmates, and occasionally a teacher (I remember Mr Ravichandran, our chemistry teacher as the one who played most often). By the time I finished college, I was perhaps in the top ten percent among hostelites. I developed quite a few shots, learnt to spin and drop, and was moderately good at returning serves. The tendency for glorious smashes and spectacular spins was my weakness, which better players would beat. Several years later, the SQL Server team I worked in also got a TT table. I could never beat two guys, Amrish Kumar  and Sam Hakim, a Lebanese colleague, but I beat everyone else at least in one game upto 21 points. I was evenly matched with several guys, sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. I played only for pleasure, and as a break during work, so I was fine with that.

I haven't played TT in nearly twenty years now.

A photo from my days in College station, Texas

In between Krishnankovil and Seattle, I lived three years in Texas. In a small college town – twin towns actually, called Bryan and College Station. One of our neighbors was an Indian family, and the father, Michael invited me and any interested friends to a recreation room in a church that he attended, for games of table tennis and billiards or snooker, in the evenings. He taught me snooker and billiards, and we played a few games.  Some university students from China also frequented the place, and we occasionally played with them also. Most of them were at my level, though one or two were really good. Having seen Chinese guys on television play utterly awesome TT in Asiad games and the Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised that some were only at my level.

I casually mentioned this church recreation room to a friend from Coimbatore, Ramesh – we both attended an AI class the first semester; and he said he would love to come. So we went together a few times. And I played against him. The rallies were simple. The strange thing was that unlike every other player, he never tried anything fancy. No spectacular smashes or brilliant drop shots, or complicated spins on the ball. I guessed he too had learnt to play in college, but was conservative. After a few rallies we played some games. With no spectacular moves at all he took every set, never allowing me to cross fifteen points, before he got to twenty one. I didn’t think much of it; just some bad shots I played – I gave him his victories. And anyway it was all for fun.

Then we went there a couple of days later, and this time a couple of Chinese guys showed up. We mixed and matched and played, and while the rest of us won and lost a few games, Ramesh seemed to never lose a game. I was impressed. His conservative strategy really paid off. Next time I should try that.

Which I did. And he won again. By this time, he got under my skin, and I really wanted to win against him. So I decided to focus, concentrate and avoid rash shots. I could feel my game getting far better; I didn’t try silly or complex serves, and I didn’t gave away easy points but he still won. More confident, this time I tried some aggressive shots; and he returned several of them, impassively, unfluttered. The better I got, the more normal he stayed and still kept beating me. The only thing he ever tried was to put the ball on my side. No gimmicks. He returned even my excellent shots and brilliant spins.

Maybe he didn’t learn to play in college.

“Wow! You are excellent,” I said in admiration. “Utterly unflappable. Were you on your college team or something?” I asked. He gave a nonchalant shrug and a neutral smile. “Were you?” I persisted. He kind of gently nodded. “Wow! You played for college. No wonder I cant beat you. Did you play any tournaments against other colleges?” He gave another nonchalant shrug. “Come on, did you?” He nodded. “Did you win?” Another neutral smile. “Wow, awesome! How good were you?” He was now really being shy. I waited for an answer. “Did you make the university team?” I asked, suddenly wondering if he was that good. There were several dozen universities affiliated to Bharatiyar University, Coimbatore, including engineering colleges, besides arts and science colleges. It was one of the five big universities in Tamilnadu, each of which had more than a hundred colleges affiliated. Madurai Kamaraj University, to which my college AKCE was affiliated then, had nearly 180 affiliated colleges – which I knew because most of them competed in the Cultural Competitions every year, and I had participated in several of those. A university table tennis team would have five to ten players picked from among thousands of students from one of those colleges.

He finally dropped his mask. “I was captain,” he said. “Captain of what?”

“Captain of the university team.”

Boy, did I feel silly. How kind he was to let me get to fifteen points once in a while.

A few weeks later, we ran into a couple of new Chinese guys along with the regulars. And naturally played with them too. One of them really good, spectacular in fact, and he beat everyone of his Chinese friends comfortably.

Then I played against him.

Six points.

This was humiliation. Twenty one to six.

Wait, was this guy that good? I was not happy.

Next it was Ramesh’s turn, and I grinned to myself. Maybe this Chinese guy was a University player or something. Ramesh pretty much could beat every other Chinese player, so here was a fascinating contest. None of the others knew Ramesh was a former University captain, did they?

It was a nice contest, but Ramesh barely crossed ten points.  A couple of the Chinese guys grinned then went back to neutral expressions. I was impressed. But maybe it was a stroke of luck. But it was my turn again, against the new guy. I tried to bring full concentration, nothing silly, but quickly he was leading something like fifteen to three. Abandoning all caution, I tried a few spectacular shots. He just returned them casually, some even quite acrobatically. In fact, I too got in some spectacular returns because his placement were fantastic. A couple of the Chinese guys applauded my shots and returns too.

21 to 4.

Yeah four. Not even six points. Four.

This time I was too shocked to be humiliated. I don’t remember, but I think Ramesh played him again, and got beat again too. He just kept shaking his head in admiration after that.

I told Ramesh, maybe he is a university captain like you too. One of the Chinese guys overheard. He told us, “Don’t feel so bad.  He is a province champ.”

“What does that mean I asked? Province champ?”

“Henan province, in China. He won the state championship.”

Ramesh and I looked at each other and couldn’t help laughing. Wow, no wonder he was that good.

The Chinese guy nodded sagely. Then unleashed the final shot : “Just missed out making the Olympic team.”

Heh.

I once played table-tennis with an Olympic guy from China and scored six points against him. Cool, huh? 

(PS: It may not have been Henan province, but some other province of China. Still...)

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