Ferenc Sido, the Hungarian, joined Alex and me at our table. Even when he was world champion in 1953, his 200 pounds on a lumberjack frame refuted the popular notion that table tennis stars are shrimps, but he had widened and he settled into the chair cautiously. Sido and I had split about eight matches over the years, but we never had a disputed point. He was not a hanky-panky artist who would accidentally step on the ball if he didn't like it or make his sneakers squeak on the floor during a deuce point. The closest we had come to a rift was when his team photographer happened to catch my picture measuring the net with a dollar bill (the net is 6 inches, a dollar 6?) and it ran in a Budapest newspaper above the caption, "Capitalist puppet Dick Miles judges even the net by a dollar bill."
On a court near us the men's singles world champion, Chuang Tse-tung of Red China, was dispatching a Nigerian. They were exchanging frenzied counter-drives with such haphazardness that a stranger at quick glance could not have guessed which player was champion—yet the score read 19-5 for Chuang. Sido shook his head sadly. "Ach! It's crazy," he said. "It's too fast. There is no play. These spongers, they ruin the game with their speed." Alex Ehrlich disagreed. "Nein! Nein! Das ist voonderful. These Cheenamen, how they attack! Just look. Toujours l'attaque!"
The King of Chiselers defending a style so opposed to his own seemed self-contradictory, but in a negative way he regards himself as its founder. After his famous long point in 1936 and other endurance contests (there had been a 7�-hour match that year that ended only when the players agreed to toss a coin) a cry went up for a time-limit rule. In 1937 the International Federation set a maximum of 20 minutes for the completion of a 21-point game, and to provoke attacking play it lowered the net from 6� inches to six inches.
These two changes advanced the sport to its middle period. The six-inch net particularly vitalized the sport by creating attacking champions. Bohumil Vana, the Bouncing Czech, Ferenc Sido of Hungary and Martin Reisman and I were among them. But pitted against the attackers were the defensive greats, such as Richard Bergmann and Johnny Leach, those incredible ballet dancers who ranged 15 feet behind the table.
The clashes between these opposing styles—attack and defense—produced the sport's most spectacular play. I remember a typically stunning match of the period: Reisman against Bergmann in the 1948 World Championships in London's Empire Pool. Ten thousand people watched it.
Marty Reisman is a tall, cadaverous New Yorker with a bird's face and black-rimmed glasses. His only muscle is an overdeveloped biceps. Nevertheless, his forehand drive was the most explosive shot in the game, and during the 1948 World's the crack of his bat echoed all over the hall. If the ball breaks during a volley the point is replayed but, even so, if Reisman blasted a winner and the ball flew apart he held up his arm to the crowd and delightedly flexed his biceps. He insisted his heart was weak. Once, playing doubles against two poor players, he murdered a setup needlessly hard and with the same follow-through fearfully clutched his chest. Turning to me, he whimpered, "My God! My heart!" "Well," I said, "slow down. Don't hit so hard." "Are you kidding?" he gasped. "I'd rather die!"
Reisman's opponent for the memorable London match, Austrian-born Richard Bergmann, four times world singles champion, was the greatest defensive player of all time. Bergmann was a colorful character as well, and his flair for dramatics usually spiced his matches. If he expected a time-limit encounter, he placed three clocks under the table whose successive alarms were set for 12, 17 and 19 minutes. A wristwatch would have done the job, but "wearing one," he said, "impairs my rare balance." The protests of startled opponents eventually got the alarm clocks banned. At the start of every match the ball is chosen by mutual consent after both players spin and squeeze it to test its roundness and resilience. Bergmann, the perfectionist, once made headlines in Tokyo when he delayed a match two hours by rejecting some four gross of balls. Another time, against Japan's Tomita, he charged in for a drop shot with such momentum that to avoid crashing into the table he leaped on it, bounded across the net, and there brandished his arms like King Kong while he glared menacingly at his opponent.
The Reisman-Bergmann match was a thrilling spectacle of defense vs. attack and, though Reisman lost, for a kid playing in his first World's he gave Bergmann a fright. In that presponge-racket era the court was 40 by 20 feet. The barriers were 15� feet behind the table and 7� feet from the sides. To return a hard-hit drive a defensive player must retreat and allow the ball to decelerate to a speed more reasonable than the 120 mph at which it crosses the net. His return must be kept low. If it is not, his opponent's subsequent drive will have a steeper trajectory and force him to retreat still farther so that the ball can fall into the pocket between waist and knees from which the defensive chop shots are most comfortably stroked. Reisman was hitting the ball so hard against Bergmann that it was still rising when it reached the barrier, and Bergmann, having no more court behind him, had to intercept it at the awkward, shoulder-high level or get passed entirely. To return one drive, Bergmann actually hopped over the knee-high barrier and, on another, running backward, he toppled right over it. Thereupon, to protest his narrow confinement in a court 40 by 20, the grand Bergmann stomped on and flattened the barriers at his flanks and rear. The crowd cheered, and Bergmann bowed loftily. When the umpire had reset the barriers Reisman flexed his muscle.
Though we took only one cup away from London that year, we routed the favored Hungarian and English teams with such celerity that the English were appalled by the American style. "It's too fast," said Ivor Montagu, head of the English TT Association. "It's detrimental to the Game." And strangely enough, despite the history of chiseling and long points, they paid us the paradoxical tribute of proposing to the International Federation that the net be raised again. While this was debated we lost in the finals of the Swaythling Cup to the Czechs who, incidentally, outhit us, and the six-inch net stayed. If the British thought the game had become too fast, they, and indeed the whole world, had yet to learn about real speed.
A shot unheard around the world heralded the modern game. Doug Cartland, the American star, came back from the Bombay World Championships in 1952, and at the table tennis club in New York he described it: "Everyone was watching the Japanese players. It was their first appearance in a World's, and they looked pretty good. Especially Fuji and Hayashi. Crisp penholder grip forehands—" "Penholders?" someone asked. "How can they hit that way?" Displaying imaginary chopsticks, Cartland continued, "It's their natural eating grip. Anyway, their first two players were all right, but their third player, Satoh, looked like a joke. Little guy. Pigeon-toed, glasses, looked half dead. Like he came for the Indian sun. Couldn't drive, couldn't chop. Just kinda blocked it back. Wasn't even in the first 10 in Japan, but they brought him over because they thought his style might give some trouble. But he had this weird bat, see. Carried it around in a special wooden box. Wouldn't let anyone touch it or look at it except when he played. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. Sponge rubber it was. Foam an inch thick. He'd hit the ball and there was absolutely no sound. So naturally you never knew when to start moving for the shot. The ball was on top of you before you took your backswing.