"And talk about crazy spins! The ball sunk in his bat and came catapulting out of there like he'd had a slingshot. He didn't seem to be doing anything at all, but he had the best players in the world going crazy. Bergmann was missing simple push shots, and Sido was Gott-im-Himmeling all over the hall. Two players actually ripped the rubber off their bats and tried to play against his spins with bare wood! But he just kept winning. He'd bow humbly to his opponent before the match, and after he won it he'd bow apologetically. But the big match was Satoh-Lanskoy. Everyone was waiting to see that one." "Michel Lanskoy? The Frenchman? Why him?" asked an eager junior. "He's not so good." "He's not good, but he's deaf," Cartland continued. "Can't hear a thing without his earpiece, and he always turns that off when he plays. Claims he concentrates better that way. So everyone figured Satoh's soundless bat wouldn't make any difference to Lanskoy. Sure enough, when they played, Lanskoy took the first game. Well, boy oh boy, they were rubbing their hands. 'See! That's the answer,' they said. 'We'll plug up our ears with wax and practice. Next time we'll cream him.' Only trouble was that Satoh turned around and creamed Lanskoy in the next three games and won the match. Then he goes on to win the world title. Satoh was as surprised as anyone else. He seemed almost embarrassed. He didn't mean to cause so much trouble. Even the Japanese were sorry they had brought him. They didn't want to get a bad reputation after their first World's, and they were actually coaching Satoh's opponents. They can all beat him."
In Japan, Satoh had been regarded as a crackpot, and his sponge was old stuff and ineffectual. He couldn't win a tournament. But in Bombay for the first time in his life he was a hero. People whispered he was a scientist who had perfected the ultimate substance with which to cover a table tennis bat. Actually, he was a watchmaker. When he flew home to Tokyo with the cup, 16-year-old kids jeered and hurled challenges at him. He couldn't take it. Satoh was driven to sake, and this abused, apologetic homunculus who had wrecked the game in 10 days was never seen again in international play.
But sponge was. Despite the furor it provoked—at tournaments players carried placards reading "Ban the Bat"—the ITTF shilly-shallied. Mr. Montagu said grandly, "First we must beat it: then we can ban it." Meanwhile the spongers turned the sport into a crap game. Upset followed upset. Strokes, footwork and touch became obsolete terms. All a player needed was a thicker, faster sponge than his opponent: the bat did the rest. Standing close to the table, he could produce spins and drives impossible to duplicate with normal rubber. The effect was like a tennis racket strung with heavy rubber bands. Reisman, who didn't switch, said it was like "fighting against a machine gun with a bow and arrow." Nobody really liked the new game, not even the spongers. They gleefully scored upsets against normal rubber but hated playing each other. At a practice tournament in New York I remember two class-C spongers, who got paired against each other, both screaming, "C'mon, lemmee play that Miles instead."
The sponge offered new hope for class-B players and veterans, and they were the first to switch. Yugoslavia's Zarko Dolinar was seven points off the top with normal rubber, but with his new artillery he was the best in Europe in 1954. At the London World's that year, he swaggered around with his sponge bat in an elaborate wooden case, � la Satoh. He had painted a skull and cross-bones on it, beneath which 28 of his star victims had signed and, since he and I were scheduled to play each other in the singles, he'd already reserved a space marked "29" for me. Whenever we happened to pass on the playing floor he'd wave the grim box at me and ask, "How's No. 29 today?" But I chopped him down three straight and asked him to autograph my primitive rubber bat. It was the first hint that plain rubber and a defensive chop could contain sponge and the attacking game.
Five years later, in 1959, nearly every tournament player had switched to sponge. The Red Chinese wizards were sending players rather than "observers" to the World Championships, and they were picking the lock the Japanese had kept on the game since Satoh's appearance in 1952. That year, at the World's in Dortmund, Germany, the Chinese captured the men's singles title, but only just, for the draw created a personal war between them and me, pairing China's three best players against me in succession. Result: I slew two Chinese dragons with my "bow and arrow" before the third one got me in a five-game semifinal thriller. Despite their eventual victory, the Chinese were stunned. They played the same bashing, sponge style as the Japanese, but I was almost the last holdout clinging to normal rubber, and my ancient equipment was so novel it confounded them just as Satoh's sponge had confounded everyone in Bombay. They banged into my defense, and my chops sent their drives to the heart of the net. I was dubbed the Sponge Tamer. As a result, the Chinese went home and invented their own chopper, Chang Shih-lin.
I got my first look at Chang in a Prague arena in 1963. Alex Ehrlich and I were perched in an aerie euphemistically described by the tournament committee as the "players' section." On the tiny green rectangle far below us the finals of the Swaythling Cup between Japan and China were being played. China had lost the first match, and a new Chinese player was at the table warming up to play the second. No one knew who he was.
"They must be dumping," I shouted to the King of Chiselers. "The Chinese are dumping to Japan and I've got $200 on them." The 400 experts who had studied the Chinese players for a week were also stumped. Out came 400 programs, as everyone tried to find out who the unknown player was. To the rest of the 9,000 fans we must have seemed like a rooting section waving flags, but we were trying to identify the mysterious player by the number on his back. It was difficult at that altitude, but a German with Japanese binoculars finally got it. "His name is Chang Shih-lin," he called out. It was not frightening that I didn't recognize the name...the Chinese bashers are all good. But Chang was not bashing in the warmup. He was practicing, of all things, his chop! And then from our seats we picked up a refrain as nostalgic as Deep Purple, the unmistakable click of his plain rubber bat. In the modern game the anomalous figure of a plain rubber chopper against the best spongers in the world was unthinkable. How could they possibly send him in? That's when I screamed, "Dump." But Chang's dead bat controlled the sponge spins, and the more the Japanese "juiced" the ball the more spin they got back themselves. Chang was the byproduct of my victories in Dortmund, and the gentlemen of Japan got a humiliating lesson in spin.
Spin, of course, is the ingredient in table tennis that eludes even the sophisticated fan. So subtle is the wrist action that a player can hit a slow, tip-spin drive that's easy to return and then follow it with an apparent duplicate that will zoom crazily off the bat of an unwary opponent and shoot 20 or 30 feet straight up. A basement player in the U.S. would have no more chance of returning a "loop" by Chuang Tse-tung than he would have of returning a serve by Pancho Gonzales. Indeed, tennis players themselves are baffled by the spins of the smaller game. A few years ago Kenny Rosewall and I met unexpectedly in Hong Kong at a party given by a rich tailor. There was a table handy, and our host arranged a game between us. I would have been kinder to Kenny, but the tailor had sold me a tight suit, so I punished his guest. Rosewall proved what I always had known: he's a great fighter. But he scored about five points a game and went off muttering, "Boy! I wish Lew Hoad were here."
Once a table tennis player is hooked by the game, he seldom strays. At Ljubljana I saw the same faces I had seen for 20 years. In what other sport can a man so easily vent his spleen? I've seen tennis players bobble a lob and go from rage to insanity when they couldn't destroy their rackets. For frustrated golfers, wrapping six-irons around trees is expensive. But a table tennis bat? Even a weakling can splinter it, and the satisfaction is worth the $5 he'll pay to replace it an hour later. In fact, some find this too light a penance for missing a setup. A player I know in Chicago has to bite the sponge off his bat and chew it to shreds before he feels absolved enough to shatter the bare blade against his thigh. When our club in New York was at 55th and Broadway, a passionate member liked to throw his sneakers at his opponents. His aim was as poor as his backhand, and if the windows were open the pedestrians below got bombarded. When his rage subsided he'd run down the stairs in search of his shoes, and he once got arrested for stopping traffic in gym socks on Broadway. Yet they play on.
A tournament player is used to living on a low budget. Several years ago Marty Reisman and I were suspended when we demanded that the English association give us more than six shillings a day for meals and move us to a better cell. I'll never forget that hotel and those beds. The morning after the first awful night I was surprised to see my roommate, Reisman, hop off his pallet refreshed. "How did you sleep?" I asked. "Not bad, Dickie boy," he said cheerfully. "Not bad. Of course, I had to get up a few times to rest."