I found a very thoughtful and descriptive story about Marty Reisman and hardbat vs sponge ping pong written in 2000 by Steve Zeitlin, WNYC’s ping pong correspondent. Here are some excerpts:
“In the world championship today,” Marty says, “the ball goes no more than three times across the net. In the old days, rallies would be 30 or 40 strokes. There was a dialogue between two players that even a child could understand.” The beautiful sound of”kerplock-plock, kerplock-plock” was reduced, according to table tennis writer Howard Jacobson, to “squelch-plock, squelch-plock.”
Steve continues: “I should prefer the old racket. But I love the sponge foam racket. That racket transformed the game from a miniature version of tennis to a far more complex game of finesse, touch, and subtle spins. As player Phil Perelman put it, “to see what Marty can do with that primitive racket is like watching Itzhak Perlman play a concert on a ukelele…”
“You see, Marty, the great shots come from the foam. The foam gave us the flawless chop, or slice. Perfectly executed, it makes no sound. Then there’s the chop slam. A slam is hard to hit back, but trying to hit back a chop slam is like trying to return a balloon with the air rushing out of it…
Ping pong players also talk to each other with their shots. Tuesday nights Stefan Kanfer and I hit backspin to top spin. His backspin reads as topspin on my side of the table. So defensively, a chop can be countered with a chop that negates the topspin. But I relish countering his chop with my loop. The loop starts at the knees and moves up to take the opponent’s spin and double it; when he chops it back, the spin quadruples. It’s as if we’re trading jokes with classic one-upsmanship. Marty would never approve…
Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi once asked why Americans enjoy activities that offer little or no material reward. He concluded that play provides a feeling characterized by an unself-conscious sense of absorption. In the full experience of play, we act within a dynamic that he called flow. “Action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next.”
Mastering the neurophysiological skills of a sport is not just learning the game. It’s attuning yourself to the inner life of the sport, to the poetry in motion. A player masters the game the way a thief opens a safe: ear to the combination lock, breaking into the inner chambers through the subtleties. Players become part of a community that knows what it feels like when the shot is hit right.
When I’m playing ping pong, I often feel that a particular spot on the other end of the table is in my hands. It’s as if I could stretch my arm seven feet across the table to touch the place where I know the ball will hit. That may be a bit the way Babe Ruth felt, when (according to legend) he pointed to the center-field wall before he hit a home run.”