10 Apr 2017

The Liebherr 2017 World Table Tennis Championships is less than fifty days away. Why not take some time to think about the serves that found their way to the top of the podium.

by Wade Townsend

Making a serve is like telling a joke. Dunking the ball in to the net or placing it three foot over is the punchline. It’s also the one time in the match the opponent is part of the audience; but they probably won’t laugh.

But there is something bigger at play.

The ball and the earth work together; planet dragging down plastic. Two spheres on differing scales but with the same intention, rotation on an axis. With the ball and the earth such close allies, how can we ever forget the serves that won the world?

How about the Herculean wrist of Werner Schlager. The centripetal force he produced was inhuman. For a moment picture yourself inside the ball. I could be bounded in a ping pong ball, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that it spun like a demon. Or Ding Ning turning the serve in to an acrobatic pursuit. A windmill service that Don Quixote sitting in the bleachers would confuse for a giant. Her crosseyed concentration a photographer’s Christmas morning.

Then there is the aesthetic Wang Liqin. That wrist, that pose with the ball at rest for once in its life. But I’m not talking about his right hand, watch his left; the free arm, the forgotten half. The service is an agreement between both sides of the brain. Wang’s service was a marble sculpture. Complete trust between creativity and calculations.

Then there are those that cower behind their serves, like a swordsman lunging to make a killing blow on their first move. They rush, afraid of what’s to come. Not Zhang Yining. She gave a subtlety of expression. No one else has walked to the table with such a quiet confidence, unafraid of the rally. She understood that everything builds towards a couplet, where the third ball must rhyme with the serve. No crass soundbites for the highlight reel, she looked for poetry.

But then there are two above all others.

Liu Guoliang, the quantum magician with slight of hand and misdirection. His serves are real life proof of Schrödinger’s cat. Until you open the box the cat is both alive and dead. Until you make contact with the ball the serve is both backspin and topspin. Every serve a large question mark coming at you from over the net.

Then there is the artist, Jan-Ove Waldner. A revolutionary that stormed the bastille armed with a serve that brought the world to its knees. He was matador, waving the muleta in front of the bull. The beast charging head on so sure of itself. Yet when the red cloth is pulled away, the bull is left embarrassed it charged at nothing. And behind the muleta the matador hides his sword, waiting.

Illustration: Kayla Coombs Facebook and Instagram.

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