Tik, tik, tik. I’m able to make contact with the small ball for three shots and then …whiff… I miss and the ball goes bouncing across the room. I turn to retrieve it but my opponent is already serving. Zip! It goes past my ear. Playing ping pong is kind of surreal. The ball moves so dramatically – and for me – unpredictably. The lightest touch with the paddle produces a seemingly disproportionate response. I want to blame physics, but it’s poor hand-eye coordination and a backhand that’s more like flailing.
I can’t remember the last time I played ping pong, but I remember learning to play tennis in college. It was the first time I’d picked up a racket, and I enjoyed learning the basics. Serving, returning a serve, running all over the court to try to be where the ball would be, staying in the lines. In class we almost always played doubles (lots of people, limited court space), and the game seems somewhat easier that way as we each had less space to cover. Emboldened, I tried to keep playing once I was home for the summer, but it was hard to find a consistently available partner on a weeknight, and also find an open court somewhere in the park. I’m sure I improved my ability to make contact with the ball and get it over the net, but I was never so committed that I bought any special tennis clothes.
That was about the time that running was getting popular. Maybe I was attracted because it seemed achievable, being able to set your own pace and distance. I also liked it because I didn’t have to hit a ball. I could throw on shorts and a shirt, and feel satisfied to make it back home in 30 minutes, all sweaty. The only thing requiring hand-eye coordination was getting a cup of water to your mouth during a race, but if you spilled some, it still seemed like it could have been on purpose.
I can eat without missing my mouth, but smacking a ball and actually directing where it will go seems like a kind of magic. Athletes make it look easy. Three-point shots from mid-court, long football passes, baseballs over the walls of the ballpark. These aren’t flukes, but the result of hours and days and years of practice. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s important enough to put in the hours to win at ping pong. It’s fun to play for a while, and I don’t mind “letting” the other guy win.