Can't recall her
name, but it was chock-full of ks and zs. Matsuzaki, Fukuzaki—something like
that. The name is unimportant. What mattered was that stroke attached to her
arm. Unforgettable. First loop I ever saw.
The year was 1962
and I'd flown into Tokyo fresh off a six-week tour of U.S. military bases in
the Far East. Table tennis exhibitions for boondocked troops, compliments USO.
Standard tour (I'd done many); standard places (except for a new spot called
Vietnam); standard act, trick shots and fake grunts as my partner and I made
easy shots look hard.
starved, we reached Tokyo, where there was plenty of it. A 10-yen phone call
set it up. Former world champ Ogimura was coaching some "promising"
teen-age girls that night and, "O.K., O.K.," he said, he'd bring his
own racket. Pleased to get a workout himself. Naturally. Standard gracious
reception for visiting hotshots. Table tennis protocol, worldwide. But would I
mind, Ogi added, hitting some balls with his girls? "They've heard about
your chop." "My pleasure," I lied. I wanted to trade bullets with
Ogi, not puffballs with girls.
When we arrived at
the "club"—a 40 by 80 room, bare except for some benches and a few
tables—preparatory ceremonies were already underway. Dressed for play, shorts
and sneakers, a dozen Japanese girls were limbering up. Ogimura supervised:
knee bends, back arches, torso twists. Toy ballerinas, made in Japan. Clever.
Next, Ogi, in shorts and sneakers, too, I was glad to see, set the dancers
shadow-stroking. Not much promise there, I thought. Those forehands are too
long, too sweeping. What is Ogimura teaching them, to throw the discus?
I positioned myself
at a table and hid my impatience under a smile. Finally, at Ogimura's signal,
the corps de ballet, gliding silently, arranged itself in a line alongside my
table. As if on cue, one dancer disengaged herself and flowed into position
across the table from me. Frail and graceful, she bowed to me. Excellent
choreography—but let's get on with it.
I displayed the
ball to her (the international query, "Are you ready?"); then I
It was an ordinary
serve, nothing fancy, no spin to trouble her. I was being friendly. Her return,
a forehand top spin, seemed (apart from that silly discus-throw stroke)
ordinary, too. It traveled slow and high, clearing the net by a foot or more.
She, too, apparently, was friendly, but for me instinct overruled friendship,
and as the ball approached I drew back my arm to do what I had done a zillion
times before, to do what I always do against a new opponent: show 'em who's
boss on the very first point. Timing that ballerina's forehand, I projected in
my mind my downward slice through the ball, mean and vicious, my zillionth
net-skimming chop whose back-spin would cause the ballerina, as it had caused a
zillion he-men before her, to dribble the ball feebly into the net.
And that's where
the dance ended.
The ball hit my
racket and shot straight up. It hit the 15-foot ceiling directly over my head.
It had a will and life of its own and it was still spinning crazily when I
trapped it on the floor before me. I looked toward my exhibition partner. Our
eyes met and mine asked his, "did you see what we saw?" I examined the
ball. I was looking for a corner or an edge. I had never seen a ball with
either, but I was hoping for a first. The ball was round, so I served again.
Same serve, same place, same discus-throw return. Same result. My chop, trusty
net-skimmer, hit the ceiling. The toy ballerinas tittered and with cupped palms
covered their teeth. Ogimura frowned them into silence. The silence was
I never did get to
play Ogimura that night. Nor did my partner. Instead, one by one, the entire
corps de ballet destroyed us.