I'm not saying that I'm a fanatical follower of ping pong, but if I happen to catch a match on TV I'll watch it for a moment or two, and because it's on TV in Asia a hell of a lot more often than it's on the air back home, I've noticed something important over the past few years: the players get no, I mean no respect.
Here's what I mean.
In the west, table tennis has mostly been relegated to the rec-room of middle-class suburbanites, Friday night fodder for the almost-tween-and-under set. (If you were a Canadian in your mid-twenties who was freakishly adept at ping-pong I'd be slightly worried.) In the east, however, for some reason, at some point in the dark and distant past (because of the famous Nixon ping-pong diplomacy of the seventies, perhaps?), table tennis has taken off as a genuine, unabashedly intense, fiercely competitive,well, sport.
But here's the thing.
The sad thing.
The almost almost pathetic thing.
So unbearable that it hurts to write about it.
These professional athletes, competing at the highest levels of their chosen craft, have to go and pick up their own ping-pong balls when they fly off the table.
Which they do after each and every point, because have you ever seen the way pros play ping-pong? Forrest Gump's got nothing on these guys, let me tell you. Balls are flying everywhere all the time, in all possible directions. The rallies in table tennis are unbelievably short compared to tennis, two or three back-and-forths between the players at the most, whereas a good volley in tennis can sometimes go on for twelve, fifteen whacks before the ball finally hits the net.
And what happens when that happens, the ball hitting the net?
Well, in country-club tennis, a young boy or girl races from the sidelines and grabs the ball and gets it out of the way, or throws it back to the players, or hands them a towel, a wet one. They might even fetch a double-latte from Starbucks for Serena for all I know, or a muffin for Mcenroe. A coffee for Conners, perhaps.
The ball flys off the table.
And the player himself has to chase it around the court, waiting for it to stop bobbing.
Think about it.
The, I don't know, indignity of it all.
Remember how often John Mcenroe (my favorite tennis player) used to flip out and go berserk? Imagine how often it would have happened had he had to chase the freaking ball around the court after every, single, point.
Or Roger Federer. Look at his graceful rhythm, his improbable, unstoppable dominance of the game. Would he be so cool, so calm, so collected, so Swiss, if he had to worry about wasting valuable energy scrambling after the freakin' ball three hundred times a match.
You may laugh.
You may scorn.
But somebody has to stand up for the rights of professional ping-pong players, goddamnit.
Get them a ball-boy, I say. (Or a ball-girl.) There's a lot of spectators in the audience. Couldn't they pass around a baseball cap, collect some coins, and give the cash to some little tyke for an hour or two's worth of work?
Then the table-tennis titans would be able to focus on the majesty of their sport. The strategy of their technique. The intensity of their ferocity.
Soccer is known as 'the beautiful game'.
But get some ball-boys to work in table-tennis, and within five, ten years, tops, ping-pong would be a serious rival for the sporting world's affection.
I'm telling you.
There would be parades, riots, hooligans. The whole deal.
If we write to our governments. If we unite as one. If we maintain solidarity.
Change can come. Change will come.
Am I asking for too much?