The Bolton Table Tennis Summer League is less intense than the winter season. There is an air of gaiety inside the Hilton Centre which hosts the 20-team tournament. Mirth seems to breathe easy in this Mecca which often bears witness to fraught encounters. Losing is treated with a shrug rather than mental torment.
The sardonic team names represent the pairs taking part; the best of which – Coffin Dodgers – neatly describes the oldest entrants, Alan Bradshaw and Barry Walsh (combined age, 150). Tonight, however, I am here to examine Coburg’s Bob Bent & Mark Speakman and Flying Bats’ Roger Bertrand & Scott Brown. There is a slight gulf in class, hence the handicaps given to the latter of three and six points per game.
First on court are Bent and Brown. Bent has the look of a slightly grizzled and stout Tim Robbins from The Shawshank Redemption. His piercing eyes set him apart from his affable team mate. Brown, built like a Washington Redwood, with the stubble of a hobo, knows this match will be tough.
The first eight points go to Bent – his forehand rampant. One courageous effort from Brown but it wasn’t telling enough. Finally, a backhand down the left deceives Bent (8-7); a score line worth tuning into. Normality resumes though: 11-8. The second game is a replica (11-8); far too many loose shots from Brown. Bent’s bulk and menacing disposition seem to intimidate opponents. Despite encouraging top spins from Brown, his prosaic shot selections do little to rattle the experienced Bent and so the match ends 11-9 (3-0 Coburg).
Next up is the bearded Frenchman, Bertrand. Sweat glistens from his forehead before a ball has been hit. Speakman, the struggling Div1 player should have enough in the locker to fend off the Div3 champion.
Wild forehands and net shots punctuate Bertrand’s early play. He is a notoriously slow starter. 11-7 Speakman. Bertrand dips into his stash of bananas and manages to find some form: 6-11. The following game is full of hard hitting – a strongman’s circus. Bertrand, failing to read Speakman’s spin, hits it long: 12-10. The diminutive Speakman is beginning to hypnotise his Gaelic opponent. It is too much. 11-8 (6-1 Coburg).
Flying Bats salvage a modicum of respect after the 3-0 doubles defeat (Brown nicking a game off Speakman / Bertrand pushing Bent to five), but it is a slaughter. 15-4 Coburg.