Table-tennis in Hastings: Enjoying a low profile
Back in the days when wooden bats came with rubber pimples, table-tennis was seen as the universal sport for youth. Tables were set up typically in youth clubs and church halls. As a miniature version of tennis which required agility and quick reflexes but no strength of muscle – and no outlay on expensive equipment – it was an ideal exercise for the physically immature.
There was the historical example of Fred Perry, who had been world table-tennis champion at age 19 before going on to higher profile domination in the world of lawn tennis. Ann Jones too, who eventually won Wimbledon in 1969 at the age of 30, had been runner-up in both singles and doubles in the world table-tennis championships at age 18. And in the mid-1960s there was the phenomenon of Chester Barnes. With dark good looks and something of a bad-boy image – the table-tennis equivalent of his near contemporary George Best – he won the British championships in 1963 at the age of 16, repeating the feat over the next two years. Television cameras followed him. The sport was booming. Youth would conquer all.
And then gradually the profile of table-tennis in British sporting life faded again. Chester may have continued to garner media coverage on and beyond the home sports pages, but he couldn’t beat the elite Japanese and Chinese players, nor even the top Europeans, in international competition. Britain, it had to be recognised, was a second- or third-class nation on the world stage. And TV, after its early flirtation, lost interest. In black-and-white the narrow focus of the table had a certain televisual appeal, but colour added nothing. Suddenly snooker or darts, even crown green bowls, looked more attractive.
The sport has searched for its lost glamour ever since. Introduced as an Olympic sport at Seoul in 1988 there was a brief upsurge in interest as the fearsome speed and spin mastery of the Chinese and Koreans, using more sophisticated rubber technology on their bats, was demonstrated anew across home screens. But the speed of the modern game was itself a visual problem for the spectator. Rallies were getting shorter and shorter, and the intricacies of imparting or neutralising spin were lost in a blur. The International Federation responded in 2000 by stipulating a marginal increase in size and weight of the celluloid ball to slow it up. They also decreed that the traditional scoring system of first-to-21 over best of three sets should be altered to first-to-11 over best of five with the idea that this would produce more frequent dramatic high-points in a match (wouldn’t that be a good idea for basketball, by the way?). But television continued to ignore the sport away from the Olympics. And although Sport England did start to channel some funding in the direction of the British squad in the run-up to London 2012, even that has been subsequently withdrawn four years later in the realisation that no medals are going to come our way from Rio 2016.
In Hastings and St Leonards there has been a steady drop-off in participation over a long period, reflecting a steady decline in the number of venues in town that can offer one or more tables in sufficient space. There has also been an inexorable rise, year on year, in the average age of the players.
Thirty years ago the Hastings and District League attracted over a hundred three-a-side teams playing each week through the winter in a wide variety of halls; in the season 2015/16 just ended this number was down to 35, spread over ten clubs. Many, such as Hollington Academy, Saints and Tackleway have led a nomadic existence over decades, switching homes more often than an expenses-maximising MP as one venue after another became unavailable. A veteran Saints player told me that over a 50-year career – he joined the club in 1965 at the age of 16 – he has played home matches in Albany Road, in Hughenden Road, in Westfield, in Bexhill Road, in Ivyhouse Lane, at both Pilot Field and at the Post Office club in Elphinstone Road, on West Hill. The one thing he couldn’t remember, if he ever knew, was why the club was so named.
Saints, who were league winners this season, still operate in five teams spread over the three divisions of the league. Latest home is the sports hall at Hastings Academy (formerly Hillcrest), which offers ample space on Tuesday and Friday evenings for at least ten tables. They share it with three other clubs. But if it was hoped that this would stimulate a junior section to be drawn from pupils of the school it hasn’t happened yet. The youngest Saints player, I was told, is 29. And this is replicated in other clubs: the number of players under 30 who play in the league has dwindled to a handful, even those under 40 seem an endangered species. Oldest is Dick Copsey aged 85 (so I am told) – playing for the C team in the second division he still clocked up more wins than losses over the season.
The league regime provides for matches to be played midweek with individual contests played out sequentially on a single table: each of the three team members plays singles against each opponent, making nine in all, plus one doubles. So there’s a lot more sitting about and watching than direct participation – good for team spirit and social bonhomie no doubt, but not so thrilling for younger players with limited leisure and more physical energy to burn. Match evenings are long, starting at 7.30 and going three hours or more – particularly in the lower divisions where lack of forcing strokes may render the play attritional.
Social bonhomie and a mature age range were both noticeable at the Hastings Closed Championships which I attended at the Hastings Academy hall a couple of weeks ago as the culmination of the league season. The number 1 Saints player Ritchie Venner who had a phenomenal 100% record in the league – played 42 matches, won 42 – didn’t compete. However 30 men, youngest around 30, oldest well into his 70s, and five women battled out a series of rounds for bragging rights over the summer recess. Rosemary Rainton topped the women. Dave Butler of Saints and Paul Barry of Hollington Academy, who had three days earlier combined as a pair to win the doubles title, fought out a close five-set match in the final.
Dave, a tall left-hander, stands back from the table and crouches low, looping heavy forehand top-spin hit from the level of the surface or below, which means that from the other end the ball may dip out of sight at the moment of impact off the bat before re-appearing back in mid-flight. Paul, considerably shorter, leans forward, aiming to take the ball early on either wing so as to hustle his opponent into error. It was an absorbing clash of styles, as far from a war of attrition as could be imagined. Dave took a two-set lead, was pegged back at 2-2 and eventually squeezed home in the fifth on a net cord.
There is, I should add, a junior league which takes place at St Leonards Academy on Wednesday evenings. The team names – “Wacky Whackers”, “Balls of Steel”, “The Smashers”, to take a sample – suggest a different ethos. I will have to investigate on another occasion.