From the New York Times
February 23, 2013
Ping-Pong: Head Game
By PICO IYER
A gold-toothed man of 76 polishes his $300 paddle. The tall, elegant gentleman who is used to overseeing maquiladoras in Tijuana silently pulls three-star balls out of a box. Mrs. Fukuoka, 80 next month, flicks shots into the corner at such cunning angles that she wins every other point. “I’m never tired,” she giggles, hiding her smile behind her bat, “because I never move.” At another of the eight championship tables, a bald guy and a grandmother exchange low forehand topspins with such relentless intensity they attain a rhythm that’s almost sexual.
This is not the kids’ game I grew up playing in my dorm at school.
It’s not the spring break romp that dissolves in giggles beside the pool at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood.
In Japan, Ping-Pong is how you keep your wits about you and your reflexes, limbs and senses intensely sharp. Almost every afternoon for nine years, I’ve walked 15 minutes uphill to our local health club, here in suburban Nara, or taken a bus to an ancient gymnasium in a nearby park, to engage in furious bouts of table tennis with a group of 30 or so Japanese neighbors who teach me about engagement in their retirement years as once they did with co-workers or family members.
I soon begin sweating even on mid-February days while some of my pals are swathed in jackets, mufflers and gloves and our breath condenses in front of us, indoors. When it hits 100 degrees in the old wooden space in July, I slip away discreetly after 90 minutes, while my aged friends continue for up to four hours. “Pico-san,” they say, next time they see me. “What’s up? You’re the youngest by 20 years and you’re the first to stop.” “I’m the only non-Japanese,” I want to say.
Some play tight, wily games with a Chinese “pen holder” grip mastered before World War II. Others brandish the long, cool “shake” forehands of a Western style.
With every stroke, I might be watching Japan address its central question: whether to honor the distant past or the future, Confucius or California.
It’s a sport of intelligence, of course, which is why eight of the first nine world table tennis championships were won by Hungary. It’s a game of authority, which is why it was invented, many claim, by imperial Brits in the late 19th century, perhaps as an after-dinner game for the Raj. It’s an exercise in unyielding patience: when the first point between two (defensively minded) players in the 1936 World Championship lasted two hours and 12 minutes, the umpire had to be replaced midpoint, one player started playing with his left hand, and the rules had to be re-evaluated on the spot to prevent matches that could go on for 16 days. I watch the high-toss serves of track-suited former salarymen, I hear the shouts (in quasi-English) of “deuce one!” or “all seven!” from adjoining tables, I dive for a lightning backhand drive from a toothless doctor and I think, “How can a training in attention be so ridiculously fun?”
Continue reading "Games People Play": Tennis: Love-Love by James Atlas, Solitaire: Me vs. Me by Francine Prose, Poker Is America by Charles A. Murray and Frisbee: Ultimate Sport by Jason Lucero.
Pico Iyer is a fellow at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of “The Man Within My Head.”