Howard Jacobson was a ranked junior table tennis player in England. He is also the acclaimed author of, among other works, Kalooki Nights and The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker Prize.
As he describes in his Tablet Magazine interview, Jacobson’s many years “standing at the table” at youth clubs and basements in his native Manchester—and the foibles of its working-class Jewish inhabitants—became the material for his 1999 novel about a ping-pong aficionado, The Mighty Walzer. His research for that novel also brought him in contact with the great American champion Marty Reisman.
Jacobson’s 1999 profile of then-69-year-old Reisman—nearly 40 years after his last U.S. men’s singles championship—appeared in Table Tennis News, the now-defunct publication of the English Table Tennis Association. This represented the first U.S. publication of the piece.
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 gray 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.
Attend to Reisman himself and it’s in the bag. I too have been in receipt of some of those phone calls that have been driving Tim Boggan nuts. “Howard, I just gotta tell you my table tennis has been super great stuff recently,” he told me when I rang him from London a week before the Open. “I’ve gone to a new plateau. I’ve tapped in to a vast reservoir of talent. I’ve zeroed in. New strokes are evolving. I’m better than I’ve ever been. I feel my life is just getting started.” The ravings of a geriatric lunatic? Well, the description is his. You can’t tell Marty Reisman anything about himself he doesn’t know already. But when he shows up at the Convention Center, indifferent to the oof-plocking in progress everywhere in the antiseptic hall, an ostrich in a bookie’s cap, he is still the braggart. “My game is elevated to such a level,” he says before we’ve even shaken hands, “I’ve completely discouraged Steve. I slaughtered him last week. I have him in my back pocket now.” Tim Boggan’s words of earlier in the day din in my head: “Steve Berger. Always Steve Berger.” Is Marty basing his estimation of his form entirely on the thrashing he gives his only sparring partner, a lively player but not the toughest opposition in the world? That’s if he is thrashing him at all—because that too has to be weighed in the balance: the Reisman hyperbole. Either way, are reality and Marty on any sort of speaking terms at present?
There is an air of other-worldy confidence about him. “I’ll tell you, Howard, I’m playing strokes I didn’t know I had,” he says. He is talking about digging into the mother lode of his experience and rejoicing that what he seeks abides there yet. This overblown serenity may partly be because the singles event isn’t until tomorrow. For the moment he has only the doubles to think about. And he isn’t thinking too hard about that. His doubles partner, of course, is Steve Berger. When a message arrives saying that Steve has missed his plane and will not be able to compete, the landscape of Reisman’s countenance undergoes an extraordinary transformation. He looks beatified suddenly, as though chosen to be the site of God’s refulgence. Is the On-High whispering promises to him? Is Steve’s not coming a sign? “I’m not gonna let that wipe me out,” he says. “I got bigger fish to fry.” I express surprise that he isn’t even minimally disappointed. A game of doubles is a handy workout, after all. A nice loosener. But there is no dimming his radiance. “I hate sharing the glory,” he laughs. Except that it isn’t a joke—isn’t only a joke.
So what is it, then?
Marty wasn’t joking when I first met him at the Ninth World Veterans Table Tennis Championships in Manchester 12 months ago. He wore a wild beard then and looked unaccustomed, unsure whether he’d come to the right place and what sort of reputation preceded him, like a leftover Beat poet about to read to a bunch of contemporary kindergarten kids in a non-English speaking country. He was carrying a shoulder-bag containing press-clippings going back 50 years. Everything you needed to know about Reisman, dated and filed, in multiple copies, there on his person. A walking data base of the self. Before I’d known him 10 minutes I was in possession of a hundred sheets of photocopied magazine and newsprint, all celebrating—more or less—his genius. He needn’t have tried so hard; there was already great excitement about his presence. Those who travel the world playing veterans ping-pong have long memories, and they all remembered Marty Reisman with the sort of sweet remembrance people reserve for the summers of their early youth. He belonged to the Golden Age of table tennis, when players resembled philosophers of linguistics and prided themselves on the elegance, variety and of course the sagacity of their strokes.
Not everyone recognized him immediately. You’re not looking at other people much when you’re battling arthritis and want nothing else on earth but to take a ping-pong trophy home to Vilnius to show your grandchildren’s grandchildren. But when he began to play, competitors around him stopped to watch, first one table, then another, until finally all 100 tables were quiet, and even the most sponge-committed of the veterans—oldsters with sprung sponge mattresses in their hands, who could stamp-serve and twist themselves around the ball in the requisite Quasimodo manner of the young—had to admit that table tennis played by a master of the old game was a beautiful sight to behold. And more than that, brought back to us why players and non-players alike had once been excited by it, and no longer were.
For table tennis, in the West, is in crisis. No one watches. Television doesn’t want it because the ball travels too quickly, because points are over too soon, and because there are no charismatic personalities in the game. Although it embarrasses people to put it this way, table tennis has also become too Asianized for Western taste. First it was the Japanese, now it is the Chinese who are invincible. They are wonderfully athletic players whose speed around the table is breathtaking. But they play as though there is no room to play. They have reduced the confines of the game to a nutshell. And they play as though the world is about to end: not just winning the point but winning it immediately. So gone from the Asianized ping-pong of today are the slow, probing, witty cat-and-mouse encounters between the great lugubrious European players of the thirties and forties, lovers of labyrinthine prose and existential narrative, readers of the secrets of another’s souls—what Marty calls the “dialogue” of ping-pong, the classical drama that has a beginning, a middle, and a resolution. Once upon a time they turned up in their thousands to watch attrition table tennis, in which a single point could last an hour. In excess of 5,000 smoking spectators saw Reisman beat Viktor Barna through a tobacco mist in the 1949 British Open staged at Wembley. At this year’s equivalent tournament, held in Hopton-on-Sea (Hopton-on-Sea!—not even the English know where that is), just about the only spectator was me. And it’s me again, solus, at Fort Lauderdale. And I’m only here to write a lament for the game.
In one sense, the lightning-quick and deadly-silent ping-pong of the modern sponge era is only fulfilling an impulse buried deep in the game’s nature. Ping-pong is for the diffident. It seeks solitude. It is a touchy, thin-skinned person’s pastime. Gossima, it was once called—something insubstantial as a moth’s wing. A good name for a condom you don’t notice you’re wearing. Otherwise whiff waff—blow on it and it’s gone. It was already suffering a crisis of self-confidence when I started playing it seriously in the north of England in the early fifties, a tissue-paper boy drawn to the introspection of the game and the easily bruised natures of its devotees. There was something never fully assured at every level of ping-pong, from the agonies of individual players, embarrassed equally by their own incompetence and the smallness of the arena in which it showed, to the defeatism of administrators, who squabbled ineffectively over rules and equipment and finally allowed every last spectator to drift away, bored by the absence of plot and the lack of adventurism. Anyone in advertising could have told ping-pong it had an image problem. It was perceived to be inglorious. Hence the importance of Marty Reisman, hustler and jester, who more than any other player made a public gift of his genius, refusing to distinguish between the table and the stage. Why, in that famous 1949 final at Wembley, he not only returned Barna’s first serve behind his back but retrieved balls as though he were Nijinsky, with a leap and a pirouette. For a ping-pong masochist like me, playing in a shadowland of shame, belittled by the very sport I loved, and playing it precisely in order to be belittled, Marty Reisman offered a salvation of the sort many Englishmen before me have found in Americans. The salvation of magniloquence. Marty aggrandized what he did. He made a hero not a coward of himself. And for me he turned ping-pong from doggerel to epic.
These are the grounds on which I, like many others who cannot decide whether they love him or just suffer him, forgive the omnivorousness, and sometimes even the callousness (poor Steve!) of his triumphalism. The comedian Jackie Mason, who grew up poor with Marty, makes no bones about the self-obsession. “Marty’s a tremendous egomaniac,” he told me, “but a loveable egomaniac. He can’t get over the fact that he’s a sensational player. He’s still intrigued with himself after 47 years. Like a kid with a new toy. But I never saw him do a bad thing to anybody in his life. If being obsessed with yourself because you’re good at ping-pong is the worst thing you ever do—is that so terrible?’
Besides which, the braggadocio isn’t quite what it appears. In the end, the person who is meant to be persuaded by Marty is Marty. What Reisman is riding is the come-back trail to himself.
It’s a journey he has been on all his life. Back he has had to come, again and again, from one ping-pong fiasco or catastrophe after another—dust ups with the authorities, suspensions, inexplicable slumps in form, emotional collapses, to say nothing of that cold-hearted passage of time that has put to bed most other athletes his age. Now it’s an operation on his playing arm he’s recovering from. In a little Japanese restaurant, where he had taken me to meet his wife Yoshiko, he showed me the cicatrice—a single, silvery, horizontal stigma marking the place of the surgeon’s intervention. When was that, I wondered. He turned to his wife: “The date of my operation, Yoshiko?” Not a fraction of a second’s hesitation. “November the 23rd, 1998,” she said. A good wife bears the dates of her husband’s operations like battle scars. Especially a Japanese wife, whose lineage is undiluted Samurai. Though I have to say that as she painted word-pictures with her hands in the spaces between Marty’s ruminations on his form, it was the wives of novelists she most reminded me of, and the wives of quite a few poets I could think of as well. She had that grand, devotedly obliterated look that comes with living in the company of distinguished self-absorption.
Marty’s operation was for a floating tendon. Now it’s back where it’s meant to be, attached with two titanium screws. And now Marty’s almost back where he’s meant to be as well. “When my game kicked in after my operation,” he told me, “I realized what a rare skill I had. I woke up in the morning and I started to cry with pure joy.” Another question for Yoshiko: “You remember when I came home and I told you ‘It’s back!’ ” Oh yes, she remembered. I didn’t doubt she remembered the very hour of the very day.
But I was in danger of giving into craven discipleship myself that evening. Earlier in the day Marty had worked me over for several hours at the Westside Billiards and Table Tennis Club, corner of 50th and 11th. As a boy I’d read about the new aggressive game that was exploding out of America. 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. Anyway, whether Marty’s was the best or the second best, there I was facing it. Partly, I think, because of the smallness of the playing area, partly because power is generated close to the body and is therefore suggestive of intimacy, there can be an imperious wit about great attacking shots in table tennis. And Marty’s forehand is over and above witty, not only by virtue of its classical follow-through—the bat cleaving the air like a sword that has unseamed you from the nave to the chops—but also because of the pleasure it takes in making space where there is none, in finding corners of the table that do not exist. Set yourself the task of retrieving Marty’s forehand and the table changes shape before your eyes. So this is no merely dry wit I’m describing: You actually catch yourself laughing appreciatively while you’re chasing.
“Here’s something else you might find funny,” Marty declared, mid-rally. “I’m desperate to get back into competitive table tennis. Do you know why? I felt I was in a life and death struggle with old age. It was horrible. Then I went to bed and said I wasn’t going to let him get me. And I haven’t heard a peep out of him for weeks.”
“Don’t you think it’s terrific that Marty’s still going?” I say to Jackie Mason later, knowing I’m talking to a man who exercises by reading papers in a chair.
“I think it’s more than terrific. I think it’s remarkable. Most people his age can’t even walk straight, and he’s doing somersaults round a table.”
Dick Miles wonders why he doesn’t call it a day. Go to the country for weekends. Put his feet up. But then Miles was always a more reclusive figure, isn’t driven as Reisman is, and doesn’t appear ever to have felt what Reisman feels—that a world title was once stolen from his grasp. Another piece of ping-pong news kept us excited at about the time Dick Miles and Marty Reisman were making a name for themselves: sponge. It was sponge that removed the two New Yorkers from the front page. And it was sponge that broke Marty Reisman’s heart.
Marty is dressed for the kill in Fort Lauderdale, like no other player in the history of table tennis. A black and white cap, suggestive of Las Vegas. A silky black shirt. Maroon pants and matching sneakers. It turns out that the sneakers are new and too tight for him, but it is important he looks color-coordinated at the table. Even the shoe laces have been considered. You don’t catch Reisman in dirty Reeboks. Or in shorts. Nothing to do with age; Reisman has always cut a queer sartorial dash. This is because he likes to give off the whiff of the poolroom and the late-night poker school when he plays—but you can bet your life it is also because he has never much cared for his legs. He is thin as a string bean. A switchblade is how he thinks of himself, a murderously slim weapon concealed in a hustler’s fancy vest. His logo has his slippery silhouette, bent at the knee to retrieve a lowdown ball, forming the S of ReiSman. He is no longer as sinuous now as he was, but in motion he still makes me think of Kokopelli, the mythic Indian Dionysus you find graffito’d on rocks all over New Mexico and Arizona. Call him Kokopelli, Coyote, Reynard the Fox: every culture throws up its own trickster. Ping-pong has Marty Reisman, sacred by virtue of his extravagant contortions, his vagabondism, and his bravado.
To this extent he has been a victim of his own magic: It hasn’t always been necessary that he actually win. In ping-pong, as in all sports, it is often the journeyman who triumphs, the calculator, the percentage player, the grubbing chiseller. There is a beauty and extravagance of stroke that befits only the loser, which only the loser has the leisurely grace to indulge. In Reisman’s case there was an emotional pay-off, in spectator affection, as a consequence of the compact he made—however we are to understand it—with defeat. So that when his great disillusionment with competitive table tennis set in he was able to play the fool and get away with it. People who know nothing of his astounding promise, of the excitement he generated in other parts of the world, remember him vaguely as someone who hustled for a living, toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, could make the balls sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” could hit any ordinary mortal off the table with a bar stool, could spot you 20 points and still beat you with the heel of his shoe or the lens of his spectacles. Marty Reisman? Isn’t he that guy who taught a chimpanzee how to play ping-pong?
In this way does America remember its heroes.
But in this way, too, did one of America’s heroes choose to be remembered.
He was in trouble from the very beginning of his career. Look at photographs of him as a horse-faced teenager in chess-player spectacles and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. But at 15 he was already being escorted out of a national tournament in Detroit—by uniformed cops, is how he likes to tell it—for trying to lay a bet of $500 on himself. First lesson if you’re going to be a sportsman and a gambler—don’t mistake the head of the association for your bookmaker. And certainly don’t count the notes out one by one into his palm. Graham Steenhoven became famous for leading the American “ping-pong diplomacy” team to China. But maybe his most significant contribution to American table tennis was looking like a bookie and putting Marty Reisman on the wrong side of the law. Another veteran player, Freddie Borges, told me how he found Reisman in tears outside the tournament venue, escorted him back in and raised merry hell to get him reinstated. “Gambling?—ha!” Freddie told me. Everyone in ping-pong was betting then. There was no other way to turn a buck. The thing Reisman had against him, in a game that was administered from the Midwest, was that he was a smart kid from New York. A smart Jewish kid from New York. Don’t forget, Borges reminded me, this was the time someone in the U.S. Table Tennis Association nearly got away with banning “Negroes” from the game.
The $500 is probably an exaggeration. And in The Money Player, his ghosted autobiography published in 1974, Reisman says nothing about the tears. It’s more fun, on the page, to be the dude who roughed up the Establishment. In conversation, though, he doesn’t pretend that the wounds caused by his fallings-out with authority have healed. He was suspended, or simply “not picked,” as a consequence of disagreements over gambling, expenses, or just decorum, more frequently than was good for his career. He was denied the opportunity to play in all the tournaments he should have played in. Officialdom stood in the way of his destiny, which was to be world champion. Except it wasn’t any official who stopped him dead at the 1952 World Championships in Bombay. It was Hiroji Satoh and his magic sponge.
Hard to tell from this distance in time precisely how fancied Reisman was to become World Champion in ‘52. There were certainly others in the running, not least Dick Miles, who had just won the U.S. open. But that Reisman was among the three or four players considered likely to win, that he was tipped to win it sooner or later (and that he considered himself hot favourite to win it sooner), is unarguable. He had won the English Open in style. He was U.S. doubles champion. He had the form. He had the cheek. The only thing he didn’t have was what Hiroji Satoh had.
Losing to Satoh in Bombay put Reisman in good company. Satoh swept the board. No one could handle the diabolic spins and dead floats that came off his revolutionary racket. Nor the insult of seeing this hitherto unknown player simply jabbing his bat in the direction of everything you threw at him and having the ball come back at you faster than you’d hit it. Satoh became world champion. His sponge demoralized everyone and changed ping-pong forever. But most players made their peace with it. If you had to be spongeiform to win, then spongeiform you became. I remember cutting up a foam bedroll to make my first sponge bat. I doubt there was anything in the rules to have stopped me playing with the bedroll itself. An interregnum of modification and restriction followed—no sponge thicker than so thick, then no sponge which wasn’t sandwiched between rubber. Whichever way we cut it, though, we were all now little Hiroji Satohs in the making.
All except Marty. For him, the significance of Bombay was not only that he had been cheated of his title—“There I was at the height of my career and they brought in a piece of equipment that had a skill of its own”—but that ping-pong had lost its aesthetic. No longer was it beautiful. No longer was it sensuous. No longer was it a contest ordered by hearing and touch. So what was it ordered by? Well, it wasn’t ordered at all—there precisely lay Reisman’s objection. Like an 18th-century aristocrat beholding the beginnings of revolution, he stepped back aghast at the spectacle of unrule. To this day he can be comically precise about the horrible sensation of playing against sponge; “It’s like scrambled eggs out here,” he calls to me during some side-event in Fort Lauderdale, his opponent an especially unpretty and ham-fisted sponger. But his objection at the last is a societal one. It’s harmony he’s missing. Harmony and methodology and order. One word crops up again and again in Reisman’s critique of post-Satoh ping-pong: chaos.
And that, really, should have been that. To the victor the spoils. To the loser—oblivion. And although Reisman did win another U.S. title in 1960 (his one faithless shmooze with sponge), oblivion, as far as tournament table tennis was concerned, was where he was heading. He opened his own ping-pong parlour on 96th Street. Played for money. Turned up as a ping-pong clown on television. Made a bit of a fool of the game which he felt had made a fool of him. Then suddenly he was back, “lured out of retirement,” as he puts it, by the reinstatement of a hardbat event at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in 1997. Which he won. Won with dash, according to all accounts, won magnificently. The comeback kid. And having won, he was now ready to challenge the whole world. Not just fellow 5-ply-and-rubber-pimple-players, you must understand, but every hated thieving sponger out there. Roll up, roll up! At last, fired by a 40-year-old grievance, determined to prove once and for all that his pocket had been picked in 1952, he was staking his own money on a showdown with any player in the country bold enough to disarm, toss in his sponge, and slug it out with Marty, hardbat to hardbat. No fool like a resurrected fool.
It was Jimmy Butler, three times national champion, not yet 30, who took up the challenge. Romantics bet on Marty. Promptings of the heart again. More realistic punters went for Butler. Secretly, Marty’s admirers held their breath, fearing an annihilation. But there was no annihilation. Nothing like. Yes, Butler won it, won the re-match too, but the fight Reisman made of it—looking like a possible winner himself there for a while—made friends even of his detractors. Now not only was Reisman back, the old game too was recovering its glory. Top players were rumoured to be taking up the old-fashioned paddle again, if only for the fun of it. Today there is a Classic Hardbat magazine, put out by a Hardbat Committee peopled by poetical hardbat diehards, publicists and polemicists of the classical game, and at their centre, tricky as a spider, only more garrulous, Marty.
Outside the Convention Centre in Fort Lauderdale players are glueing up. For glues too are now part of that technology that, in Marty’s words, “covers up shortcomings in a game the way gravy covers up bad meat.” The modern ping-pong player begins his day reaffixing his rubbers to his blade, selecting from glues slithery, glues speedy, glues that will leap out of his hand and play his ping-pong for him. And he glues up outside the hall because if he glues up in it he risks damaging the health of other players and spectators, except that there are no spectators. At the World Championships there is a glue-sniffing machine which tests bats deemed too toxic to play with. At the U.S. Open they are more trusting.
Inside, on the practice tables, young kids are getting last minute coaching in the modern mechanical game, hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. They stand with their feet apart, bouncing, automatons treating every ball the same. They could be asleep. But their bats are deadly. Inverted pimples on sponge. You don’t buy them like that; you start with a blade made of whichever blend of plywood, carbon and fibreglass your game demands, then set about assembling the weaponry you fancy. You choose the sheets of rubber, packaged like CDs: Salvo, Samba, Zenith-G, Tackiness, depending on how you like your surfaces—spinny, slippery, sticky—and how you like your pimples—in or out. You’re making decisions about speed, spin, silence. When the kids with the closed eyes hit the ball you don’t see it or hear it. Chaos.
A switchblade is how he thinks of himself, a murderously slim weapon concealed in a hustler’s fancy vest.
There’s been another change to the bashful, introspective game I used to play. Now, when you win a point, you raise a fist, stamp the ground, and make a noise identical to Homer Simpson’s self-denigrating D’oh! The difference being that your D’oh! is an ejaculation of personal triumph. “Offering to make drama,” Marty mutters scathingly to me, “where there isn’t any.”
For those of us hoping for drama from Marty himself, the worry is whether he is as confident as he says he is. There is the arm to take into consideration, the double loss to Jimmy Butler, and the inadequacy of what he has the gall to describe as “rigorous four-hour training sessions” with Steve Berger. I watch him bumble through his early rounds, tentative and out of touch, complaining about the light, the space, the floors, the conditions of modern life, but always doing just enough to get through. “I’m in a struggle to the death,” I hear him saying to himself, “with someone I could once give 15 points to.” And the truth is it’s that same knowledge on the part of his opponent that allows him through. Eye to eye with the possibility of beating Marty Reisman, most opponents cave in. He is the object of an almost universal veneration. Players from all over the world cross the hall to watch him, to beg an autograph, to tell him he is their lifelong hero, the reason they took up ping-pong in the first place. One by one, seeing me with a notepad in my hand, they repeat the tribute: “This guy’s a living legend, you know.” Wanting to be certain I’ve got that, Marty says, “You hear that, Howard? A living legend. Nice, huh?”
Yeah, nice. The fear, though, is that sooner or later he is going to run up against an opponent who doesn’t give a shit for living legends. And he does. Barry Dattel from New Jersey, in the quarter-final. This is Marty’s third day of play in Fort Lauderdale. He is already out of all the any-old-surface Micky Mouse events he had entered, as befuddled and maddened by sponge as he was in 1952. But this is the big hardbat one. Beat Barry Dattel in the quarters and he meets Ty Hoff, the canny chicken-boned holder from Georgia, in the semis. That’s a match everyone has been looking forward to. When Steve Berger, who has finally arrived, learns that Marty has only Barry Dattel to knock over before he makes the last four, he makes a gesture of dismissal. “Joke city, Marty!” The rest of us are not so sure. Marty hasn’t been attacking well. He’s been playing safe, pushing, trying to chisel his way through his matches. What will happen when he has to hit?
Because Marty Reisman is a living legend in Puerto Rico too, he has a legion of Puerto Rican kids cheering for him. Every time Marty gets one past Barry Dattel, the kids cheer. But as the match progresses they have less and less to cheer about. In dribs and drabs they leave the playing area. You can feel it going Dattel’s way. It’s a petulant contest, all stops and starts and quibbles about perspiration on the ball. But that suits Dattel. He doesn’t have to do much. Just stay in there. Keep the ball in play. Let Marty make the running if he dare. Because it’s obvious now that Marty dare not. He has one of the best forehands in the world in his locker, but he won’t bring it out. Does he fear failure suddenly? For years he has been mouthing off about his hardbat prowess, throwing out challenges to the best players in the country, wagering his own money on his forehand. What if it means to make a liar of him in the end? So he keeps it under lock and key and plays pat-ball.
A great sadness descends on the arena. Only Barry Dattel is in good spirits. Many of Marty’s supporters cannot even bear to commiserate with him. Yoshiko mops him down. I can tell from her expression that she doesn’t know the result. She follows him faithfully from match to match, pinning his number to his back, wiping the table—an exquisite apology for Satoh from the people of Japan—but she has never understood how the game is scored. Maybe he wants her to stay in ignorance. Maybe tonight he will tell her he has won.
To me, in stream of consciousness, he says, “Finished … that’s it … where does this leave me? … washed up … this is the worst loss of my career… career … ha! … it’s now nothing but a shambles.” For the first time since he arrived in Fort Lauderdale he looks his age.
Tim Boggan comes over, wildly jubilant. He wears a gold table tennis bat stud in his ear, the ball a diamond. He blazes so furiously it is a miracle the stud is not molten. His eyes seize mine. “That’s the end of the article, huh?” he says, like a man vindicated. I am speechless. Sure, they’re all rivals, these old stagers, but can he be pleased, can he feel somehow justified, that Marty’s lost? And then I see that I have it wrong, that he is furious with Marty for proving him right about lack of match-fitness, for letting himself, for letting all of us, down. “There’s a big difference, Marty,” he snaps, almost pitilessly, “between playing Steve Berger every night and going into a tournament!”
But already Marty is starting his repair work on himself. He returns to the table he has just lost on, to inspect the net. “That’s the crap they pull in the so-called modern game,” he says. But whether he means the net is too high or too low, too loose or too tight, I cannot tell. “I was bothered by the mushiness of the ball,” he says to an anguished fan. “The conditions are terrible. You can’t do any kind of fine play out there.” Then, after another 10 minutes, to me he says, “I’ve still got a whole life in front of me.”
I sleep badly that night. This must be what sport is for: to absorb all the cruelties and injustices of life. After some sporting losses—Ali to Spinks, Rosewall to Connors at Wimbledon in ’74—I have suffered the desolation of the dying. When you recover you are stronger, but first you must lie in pain. That’s the deal. God knows how Marty is doing. Tomorrow I will fly home and think about something else. But what else does Marty have to think about?
He is there the following day for the finals of the Hardbat, looking stronger than I expected him to look. But then I was expecting Methuselah. The final is between Ty Hoff, who did in Barry Dattel in the semis, and Lily Yip, who plays for the Women’s National team with her sponge but likes to mix it with the old guys using hardbat. After a five-game thriller, Ty Hoff takes it. By general consent, this is the only final to provide excitement. Every other event climaxes in spin serve, silent kill and D’oh! So it’s a win for the enthusiasts of hardbat, whoever they support.
I am pleased that Marty is able to be generous about the match and leave himself out of it. He does have one demur, though. There is hardbat and hardbat. The only pimpled rubber that should really be allowed is made by Leyland in Britain. He doesn’t know what Ty Hoff and Lily Yip are using, but it definitely isn’t Leyland. I become short-tempered hearing this. Enough is enough. It seems to me it’s one thing wishing sponge away, but that the hardbat movement will make a fool of itself if it fetishizes a single product used at one particular moment in the history of the game. Not all change is beneficial, but no change is paralysis. Marty isn’t swayed by this. He hasn’t yet finished hunting down illegal substances. The long day wanes, but still he is pursuing order. A little later I see him deep in conference with Ty Hoff, inspecting Ty’s bat and comparing it with his own. At the dinner celebrating his defeat of Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer tried to get his opponent to run through some of their games on a pocket chess set he was carrying. The obsessed never want it to be over. But Fischer at least was obsessing from a position of strength. Marty is talking his way back into contention as a loser. Why would Ty buy into this? Then I hear that Marty has issued another of his challenges—roll up! roll up!—and that Ty Hoff, 1999 U.S. hardbat champion for only two hours, has accepted it. He will play Marty using one of Marty’s Leyland spares.
I have a plane to sanity to catch, challenge or no challenge. I am, though, able to stay just long enough to take in the first game, to watch Marty drilling majestic forehands, finding angles that don’t exist, driving Ty Hoff further and further back from the table, and yes, yes, winning. He is as limber as a teenager. He is leaping like Nijinsky again, and doing pirouettes. And all at once I realize I have been nursing too dark and heroical a conception of him. He isn’t Lear. He isn’t Ulysses. He is Wilkins Micawber, never to be cast down for long.
Before fortune has time to redistribute her favours once more, I wave goodbye. The last I see of him, Marty is ahead one game, punching the air and, for all I know to the contrary, shouting D’oh!
Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.