Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ping Pong

I suppose that most people watching, say, an NFL football game are well aware of how impossible it would be for them to step on the field and even pretend to play with the pros.  Not only are the small NFL players bigger than the vast majority of us, it's pretty clear from watching them play that they're incredibly skilled and focused, not to mention propped up by countless mystery medicines and steroids and assorted body armor that they barely even count as people any more.  And for good reason; the sport they play is far too brutal for any sane human being to participate in.

Nevertheless, because it's so ingrained in our culture, there's a kind of natural intuition as to whether a football player is doing it right, with the result that fans and pundits alike are quick to point out who sucks, who's good, who messed up, and who is so bad that he earns the adjective 'mediocre.'*  The same is true in baseball, and generally speaking, while no rational fan honestly believes he or she could do just as well as the pro, there's kind of this latent, subconscious feeling that, yes, in fact, player X is so bad and messed up so much that I probably could do better.

* Is it just me, or had mediocre come to mean something even worse than awful, terrible, or bad?  I mean, every team in every sport has lots of 'terrible' players, but only a particular kind of talent earns the moniker mediocre.  While certainly a player everyone calls mediocre is probably better than the guy they say sucks, odds are the mediocre guy also plays an important role on the team.  No one ever calls the back-up safety mediocre, for example.  Mediocre is reserved for the QB, for the clean-up hitter, for the ace of the pitching staff, for the coach.  I guess, all in all, mediocre is more damning because, while its fine to have a bad assistant special teams coach, a mediocre head coach in a world of good and great head coaches spells doom.  Or at least mediocrity.

A classic example of the "I could do better" notion that immediately jumps to mind is the USA's goal against England keeper Robert Green in the World Cup.  In case you don't remember, here it is (along with other highlights from the same game) in glorious LEGO:

Anyway, the point is, this is the kind of event that most sports fans look at and say, "Well I could do better than that."  Fair or not, we have enough acquaintance with the game to believe that we could execute the basic fundamentals with as much precision as a pro.

Not so - and we're getting to the post title - in ping pong.  Now I know the serious ping pongers out there will tell you it's supposed to be called "table tennis," and we'll get back to that.  For now, the important thing is that, even though ping pong is a game almost everyone has played, and an extremely simple one with much more straightforward rules than, say, football or baseball, I think it's pretty much impossible to watch a professional ping pong match and feel like you could do better.  Even a good amateur ping pong player generally approaches the game in a way that is so different from the way the pros do it that it's hard to imagine matching up.

Of course, that is true in other sports, too, but the odd thing is that in ping pong the illusion of being able to perform at a high level would take, it seems to me, a much higher level of self-deception.  I don't even hold the paddle all backwards and upside down, and can't imagine that I would play better if I did.  And yet, that's how the real ping pongers do it.  I can't imagine serving with any degree of accuracy the way a real ping pong player serves.  I certainly can't imagine hitting the ball from so far away from the table.

I think the key here, however, is that even someone like me who has been playing a fair (ok, perhaps alarming) amount of ping pong for the last two months now, can't even really follow what's going on in a serious ping pong match.  The points are so fast, the strategy so blurred, the reactions so automatic, that it doesn't exactly make compelling viewing.  Consider this video of the "Top 10 ping pong shots of all time:"

I can't even tell what's going on in half of these!  Who's winning these shots?  What makes them so good?  I don't understand!

This is a chicken and egg thing, of course.  We don't understand ping pong intuitively because we don't watch it, and vice versa.  What's more, we find ping pong impossible to watch because it's too fast, but if we watched it enough maybe it would start to make sense.  Then again, it might just stay weird and impossible to follow (what with the tiny ball and speed of the game), which might be part of why it has never been all that popular to begin with.  That is, popular to watch.  It's extremely popular to play by comparison.  I think ping pong, darts, and pool are probably the three most prominent game-sports* that more people play than watch.

*As opposed to sports like running or skiing or swimming or surfing, which aren't really games.

Which all brings me to the name "ping pong."  My extremely cursory research tells me that ping pong - the term - originated with Parker Brothers around 1900, around the same time as the name "table tennis."  Apparently no one wanted to stick with the game's original name "Wiff-Waff," and I can't imagine why not.  Regardless, the name ping pong seems to me much more appropriate, because table tennis makes the whole thing sound like tennis on a table.

Which, you're probably thinking, is exactly what it is.  Except it's not.  Sure, there's a passing resemblance to tennis, but ping pong is as much like tennis as volley ball is, I would argue.  The differences are far more pronounced than the presence of a table.  For example, the ball is plastic instead of felt and rubber, the paddles hard instead of strung, and the game is played from outside of the playing area (instead of inside).  Serves have to bounce on the servers side of the table, but don't have to go cross court.  Players have to pivot a lot, but rarely do they ever have to run.  Most of all, the strategy is completely different.  Oh, there are analogies, just as there are between other net-and-ball games and tennis, but trying to play like Rafael Nadal won't make you a better ping pong player.

Which is why ping pong needs a different name than tennis, and table tennis is so much less inventive.  Ping pong is colorful, absurd, and impossible to take seriously.  Which is how it should be.  After all, this is no sport of gridiron tactics and bone-crushing hits, nor is it a sport of last at-bat high drama.  It's just ping pong.

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