Ping-pong with the FT: Harry Evans

The laundry room is New York’s great leveller. Through some quirk of plumbing, even the city’s most desirable buildings balk at washer-dryers in apartments, sending residents (or maids) down into the basement to wash their socks together.

I am in need of some levelling as I greet the doorman of a stately address off Sutton Place on Manhattan’s east side, take the private lift down a floor, pass the janitor and weave my way along a corridor of ancient gas meters to a communal laundry room. I have come here to play table tennis with Sir Harold Evans, who with his wife Tina Brown occupies a residence upstairs.

A spot of ping pong with the legendary former Sunday Times editor seemed like fun – until his assistant e-mailed to ask if I would give him time to warm up: “He has asked former table tennis champion Marty Reisman to come by and hit the ball with him, if that’s OK.” As a teenager I played a lot of table tennis during school lunch breaks, but a quarter-century later my only warm-up had been to buy two paddles and improvise a net on the dining table with some CD box sets.

Evans was a fanatical teenage player, too, playing in the Manchester YMCA. But he kept it up, playing in the Royal Air Force, at Durham University and even at London dinner parties at the height of his editorial fame. He and Reisman met in 1948 at the English Open championships – “the Wimbledon of table tennis” – and resumed playing in New York 45 years later.

I find the two of them hunched over the full-sized table that Evans persuaded the building’s co-op board to let him install. Ancient coin-slot washing machines are squealing with each spin. Evans is in tracksuit trousers, Reisman a straw hat. I have rushed here in a suit. As I shed my jacket and roll up my sleeves, they cast a despairing glance at my paddle. The Halex Reflex 4.0 promised “premium pip-in rubber” and “1.5mm sponge for enhanced speed and spin”. What I had not realised when I handed over $9.99 for it is that Evans and Reisman believe sponge rackets are ruining the game.

Reisman won the British Open in 1949. “Then,” says Evans, “the Japanese came with the sponge rackets and beat everyone.” Ever since, Reisman has led a campaign against sponge. He says that by keeping rallies short and by muffling the pleasing click of paddle on ping pong ball it cheats beginners and spectators alike. “The average player spends more time picking the ball off the floor than they do volleying,” Reisman complains.

This is true for me, though I had not thought to blame sponge before now. Evans hands me his alternative – what looks like two pieces of sandpaper glued to a wooden bat. “Marty devised this racket down in this room,” says Evans, as Reisman explains that its carbon fibre technology took a year to get right. The two men are investors in Table Tennis Nation, a company hoping to commercialise the paddles.

As I prepare to be humbled, Evans says that he has not played since he had his left knee replaced in February. An operation to replace the right knee is due in three weeks, and he is worried that a leak from the washing machines has made the smooth basement floor slippery. For a moment, I allow myself the ignoble thought that a few shots to the sides of the table might prove unreturnable for an 81-year-old with two dodgy knees. But it wouldn’t look good, and besides, I am not so sure this strategy would work. I serve, and have no time to register my relief at getting over the net before the orange ball is zinging back at me. Flustered, I hit it long.

Trying again, I manage a rally of half a dozen exchanges. As we get into our stride, I attempt to start the interview, asking Evans where his passion for ping pong began. There is no answer. Always slightly stooped, he is focused intently on the ball and looking a little cross that he has not found a better match.

I hit a wayward return and the ball bounces behind some chairs, where a black-and-white photograph is propped up, showing Evans, while editor of the Sunday Times, taking on a team organised by the Chinese embassy in 1977 – a footnote to the history of ping pong diplomacy.

“It was neck-and-neck until the last game. I think I was leading 19-16, but this guy produced four totally unreturnable services, every one of them different, which he served up with his sponge racket, and I lost,” he recalls, still aghast.

Evans is hitting quite hard as we resume. Remembering I never had much of a forehand attack, I fall back on a dull, defensive backhand. As I’m played from one corner to the next, the airless basement suddenly seems warmer.

I have seen players throw the ball high before a serve of seemingly impossible speed and spin, but Evans favours a no-nonsense delivery. “You can’t do too much with the serve with this racket,” explains Reisman. “It boils down to more of a chess game. The serve is the beginning, then you’ve got a middle game and a resolution. With sponge you don’t have the middle game. It’s a game of the serve, the return and the smash.”

Right on cue Evans delivers the smash, sending me scurrying. I slip a little, but Evans is also looking unhappy as he rubs his knee.

With time running short, Evans breaks off and tells me about a neurological study that found table tennis helped brain-damaged patients to walk. It also has echoes of the newspaper game, he says: “The quick ricochets in table tennis are like journalism in the sense that you go after a story, you get rebuffed, then you start again.”

And start again he does. Evans says that Reisman used to give him a 14-point start in games of 21 points. Now it’s more like six points. “I really love it, because I sometimes surprise myself what I can get back. He’ll wind himself up so you won’t even see the bloody ball. It’s a thunderbolt,” he marvels. “I’ve never had more fun in my life than in playing here with Marty.”

Evans has to leave, but I stay behind for a game with Reisman. I am both stung and relieved that he offers me an 18-point head-start. Within minutes, the score is 18-11. We level at 19-19 and I lob a ball to the far left corner for a 20-19 lead. Reisman is gentlemanly, but he is not going to let this last. Soon enough it’s 20-20, then 20-21, and as I drive one last ball into the net, I lose 20-22 to the man who once styled himself America’s greatest hustler.

“It’s a game of skill, fraud and deception,” he laughs, which sounds to me like journalism.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

Top five: Ping-pong joints

Spin New York

With backing from the likes of Susan Sarandon and Edward Norton, Spin’s 2009 opening symbolised ping pong’s new-found celebrity appeal.

Spin Hollywood

This west coast branch, in LA’s Mondrian hotel, offers coaching from table tennis champion-turned-fashion model Soo Yeon Lee.

The New York Table Tennis Club

Former champions Alex Tam and Deng Yaping are among the members at this Flushing venue.

The Fleapit

Micro-brewed beer and “tunes with a certain bounce” go with the regular table tennis nights at this bar on London’s Columbia Road.

The Book Club

Tuesday night is “King Pong night” at this Shoreditch bar. Entry is £1 – with £30 worth of drinks to be won.

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