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At 13 I was already a hotshot at table tennis, and a bit of a hustler besides. For two years I had roamed New York City seeking action, a racket in one hand, a ball in the other and a brazen challenge in my teeth. Behind me lay a wake of bankrupt playgrounds. But I got my comeuppance when an ill-fated sortie led me to the Broadway Table Tennis Courts, which, though I did not know it then, was America's premier table-tennis precinct. Housed in a rundown loft in mid- Manhattan, it was the mailing address for U.S. champions and, as I soon found out, a snug hustlers' lair as well. When I climbed its dingy stairs I was a cocky wizard with six bucks looking for 12; within minutes I was wiped out by a Fink named Herb.
Herb Fink was America's finest table-tennis hustler. He had a lamb's face, a hawk's heart, a spider's limbs and a wasp's amiability. Twenty years of playing his game in a close-to-the-table crouch had permanently hunched his back and immutably fixed his eyes on a coordinate in space nine feet in front of him and net high. As a hustler he was ingenious. His repertoire of gimmick games was irresistible. He would play you left-handed or right-handed. He would play you standing on one foot; or no feet (sitting on a chair). He would play you on no feet with no hands (sitting on a chair, racket clenched in teeth). He would play you carrying a bucket of water in his left hand—and you won if he spilled any. But his most fruitful hustling asset was his grotesque strokeless style. He had no forehand attack, no backhand attack, no serves, no spin.
Yet Herb Fink was tough, for he was that nemesis of all amateurs, the steady, get-'em-back blocker. He would plant himself tight against the table in his shell-like stance with those fixed, unblinking turtle eyes, and without ever trying to really earn a point he would block the ball back metronomically, his sandpaper racket going clack clack clack, until, despite your graceful and obviously superior strokes, your agility, your power, your fighting spirit, your sneakers and your shorts (Fink played in vest and street shoes), you missed.
Though Fink was far from a champion, he was still beating me long after I had won my first shelf of trophies. It became obvious that strategy was called for. But it took hundreds of losses and a fortune in coin before I discovered a tactic that would beat him. And I never got my money back. Like all good hustlers, Fink was egoless. "Yur gettin' too strong, kid," he told me one day. "I'm packin' you in," and he sought other sheep to shear.
Fink was a master at his game, but his style is far from unusual. Anyone who has ever lifted a racket, home player or champion, has run into a Fink type. So let me offer this small primer on how to beat him.
To begin, two quick suggestions. First, chances are you are using a sandpaper racket or one covered with rubber pips. Modern table tennis is played with sponge rackets, infinitely faster and deadlier. Switch. The change should be worth about seven points to your game. Second, use the conventional shake-hands grip. Deviations from a sound grip, no matter how small, usually magnify themselves into gross errors. True, the Orientals, who dominate the game, use the penholder grip, but unless you are as adept at eating with chopsticks as they are forget it. Now on to strokes.
The most elementary shot in the game is the push shot, backhand or forehand. It is simply a stroke used to keep the ball in play and, though not a point winner, it is necessary equipment for beginner and expert. To execute the push, stand about two feet behind the table, knees slightly bent, arms relaxed and hanging, shoulders slouched. Hold the left hand high for balance. As the ball approaches, assuming a medium-speed serve down the middle, the back-swing—either forehand or backhand—is made by drawing back the racket in a smooth horizontal motion. Racket, wrist and forearm go back in one piece merely by allowing the forearm to swivel in the elbow socket. The angle of the racket should be slightly open so that on contact you will impart a bit of backspin to the ball. When the racket reaches the limit of its backswing, the forward motion begins. There is no pause. The motion is fluid, continuous and rhythmical. Most important, at impact there is no feeling of tapping the ball. Have the feeling that you are carrying the ball over the net by prolonging its contact on your racket. The spin is applied only by your open-faced racket, not by any wrist snap. This is a shot for consistency. Do not try to win points with it.
If you practice your push shot and add nothing to it you may soon get so steady that you can actually outrally your particular Fink. But don't bet on it. The decisive, irrefutable and most satisfying answer to Fink's shell-like block is to overwhelm him with pure power. It is the punishment that fits his crime. And in table tennis, power means the forehand drive.
World-class players seldom bother to develop a backhand putaway. They use their backhand attack only when necessary, and even then only as an interim positional weapon to maintain the offense during a point until they can get into position to kill the ball with their forehand, for the forehand can be hit harder and more accurately.
The forehand drive is a combination of two motions, a forward motion that produces power and an upward grazing motion that produces top spin. Top spin is necessary on all attacking shots, even high setups. Without the downward tug of top spin, which forces the ball to sink as it crosses the net, hard-hit shots would fly yards off the end of the table.