Dick Miles watching the 2000 hardbat championships.(John Oros/Hardbat.com)

Legendary American ping-pong player Dick Miles passed away earlier this month at 85. Miles appeared in Man Booker winner Harold Jacobson’s profile of his longtime rival Marty Reisman (Miles was Jewish, as Reisman is), which Tablet Magazine published earlier this month. Miles won more men’s U.S. table tennis championships than anyone else.

I called up Reisman to get his take on his longtime friend and rival. “He was as good as the best and unbeatable when in top form,” he said. “The foundation of his game was an impenetrable, close-to-the-table defense, which imparted tremendous back-spin to the ball, taking the steam out of every aggressive player he faced with this never-before-seen paralyzing chop on both wings. He combined it with a crushing forehand attack delivered into the vulnerable gut of his opponent.”

Reisman continued: “His forehand drive was a stroke of beauty with deadly effectiveness, a circular motion requiring such intricate timing that he had lost it by the time he was 25. I saw him make Richard Bergmann, a four-time world champion, break down and cry after the beating Miles gave him in 1949 before 10,000 spectators in Wembley Stadium.”

Reisman further recalled the first time the two met:

The first time I saw Miles play was in 1943 at Lawrence’s on Broadway and 54th Street, a speakeasy turned ping-pong parlor. He was only 17 and had not even won the first of his ten national titles. During a lull in his game, I leaped over the barrier, yanked out my personal 75-cent ping-pong paddle, and said, “Hey mister, hit a few shots with me.” Dick looked at me and said, “Not now kid.” I slunk back to my seat and said to the guy sitting next to me, “With a little practice, I could beat that guy.” Thus began the greatest rivalry in the annals of American table tennis, culminating in both of us carving out a chunk of ping-pong history which became known as the Miles/Reisman Era.

Who was better? Jacobson captures their competitiveness well:

Dick Miles and Marty Reisman—they were the names to conjure with. Dick Miles the more defensive of the two, but both of them capable of taking the ball earlier than any other player in the history of the game, and generating extraordinary pace, not to say variations of pace, by infinitesimally subtle changes in racket-head velocity. Who was faster? Miles shows up occasionally at the Westside to renew the rivalry; use the phrase “best forehand in the world” in their hearing and each will look up, assuming you’re talking about him. Marty reckons there was always too much preliminary flourish around Dick’s forehand for it to have been the equal of his; Dick, for his part, opens his chestnut brown eyes, and says nothing.

Below: Ping-pong player Mal Russell’s rendering of a photograph he took of Miles (left) and Reisman (right) playing in 1949 (courtesy Marty Reisman).

Dick Miles, Record-Setting U.S. Table Tennis Player, Diest at 85 [NYT]
Related: Smash [Tablet Magazine]