I think I first picked up a table tennis bat in May 1981 at the age of ten. It wasn’t at the obligatory Silverwell Street or Horwich Leisure Centre – they came after – but in the forests of Yugoslavia. I was instantly mesmerised. What a simple, eloquent sport – how could anyone not enjoy this titanic game?
I felt like hanging around for six, eight, ten hours. Let my parents bring me lunch, tea and the occasional snack, but leave me be. I had a paddle in my hand, the soft winds of the Balkans cooling me down and a variety of opponents including my elder brother. I had found the centre of the universe and needed little else to be satisfied.
Unbeknown to me, the great John Hilton had become European Champion the year before – slaying the previous two winners, Gabor Gergely and Jacques Secretin on his way to the title. In many ways it was the beginning of a new craze. The Swedes took over the European stage not long after, but people were starting to care about this little game.
By the time I started secondary school I was half decent – trips to Silverwell Street augmenting my play and making me feel like an astronaut bridge-walking to his rocket. Arriving at the table via the notoriously long entrance at Silverwell, past reception and the badminton courts, I felt alive – ready to trade shots and do battle.
My elder brother, Stephen liked to encourage my attacking play but was essentially toying with me, demonstrating the power of his defence. Eight, twelve, fourteen feet away from the table and he would frustratingly return my every smash – fling the ball up in the air only for it to parachute down on my side of the table.
Although very much working class, our parents managed to buy a table for us in 1982 which we made use of in the back garden weather permitting. Such an investment proved effective. I was busy turning over most people my age at Withins including the Adidas Samba-wearing games teacher, Mr Smith while my brother went on to win three table tennis titles at Smithills College while taking his A-levels.
A different forest – the film, Forrest Gump was released in 1994, and together with Commonwealth hero, Matthew Syed (1997-2001) no doubt inspired the generation after us. What inspired you?
By Jeff Weston