Summer League Final:
Ivory Toasters 12
Hilton C 10
In the panoramic slide of action inside the Hilton Centre, it is as if a rainbow has fallen. The coloured tops are many, the mannerisms assorted, the styles like a succession of rival comedians.
On the top wall are pinned seven notices: IMPORTANT REMINDER ABOUT SHOES; PLEASE REMEMBER – TURN ON ALL FANS; etc. One imagines they were last read many years ago. One imagines that even if they were waved around by an air stewardess pre-match, the players would still be singularly focused – not bidden by the flat charms of instructive words.
The summer league final is an important marker of talent. It defines a limited field of entrants, affords them the chance of playing against loftier or dubious opposition. And yet the winners are neither recorded in the annual handbook nor engraved on a panel out of reach of sticky hands.
They should be – if only to attract a deeper body of competitors.
No matter. The finalists are of good calibre. Representing the Ivory Toasters are Krishna Chauhan and Wilson Parker – combined age 33; players pulled from a whippersnapper enclave. Hilton C – Chris Naylor and Annie Hudson – are veterans by comparison (73), although mostly loaded up with Naylor’s fifty years, keen reptilian eyes and quick-talking mien.
He kneels and chats beforehand with Division One foe, Mark Speakman, toys with a bottle of water, thinks not of the matches about to unfold but of something more serene.
Hudson, his playing partner, pretty feet bound up in green-trimmed socks and purple Nike, has an air of cross-legged relaxation about her. The kids opposite are nothing she has not seen before.
‘Are you ready?’ comes the prompt from Parker, his hair quiffed to the side, looking dandy – surely washed less than two hours ago.
He steps up. Opposite is Hudson, the tormentor, the British League doyenne – not to be fazed, not to be out-swaggered by the pumped-up game of Parker.
Except, Parker leads 11-9, 6-0. Hudson appears ragged – hitting too many long; a slight look of disgust permeating her face. Composure rarely leaves her, troops out of town, yet she seems wounded by the Parker artillery – unsettled and faint.
A nick of the table reduces matters to 6-2, Parker ‘net and off’ 7-5, a trademark Hudson positional shot: 10-8. Then comes the Hudson resilience, the know-how: four straight points – Parker tossing away the second set (10-12) as if on an agitated horse.
Naylor calls a tactical break – has a word with his recovering lioness. We then see the new Annie, the old Annie – whichever makes this game look so easy. Barely moving, it is as if every ball TomToms to her blade. Parker falls, loses sets three and four 10-12, 9-11.
‘I just choked – whole game went down the drain.’ A glimmer of honesty beneath the often tart mouth – a player’s fortune reversed within minutes. This is not football, or cricket or any of those ‘long’ games. It is table tennis – judge, jury and executioner; the swing of a bat critical and unforgiving.
Parker “The Rottweiler” is fortunate to have the calm, southpaw Chauhan in his camp. Apoplectic tirades suggest otherwise during their doubles loss (2-3), but Chauhan “The Labrador” – two singles wins (3-2 versus Naylor and Hudson) – is instrumental despite reigning champ, Parker’s timely skinning of Naylor (3-0).