Table Tennis Mastery
Photo/Gene X Hwang

In one moment, I had thought of table tennis as a pedestrian pursuit: fun, but with an easy learning curve that allowed you to make contact and win points in no time—nothing like the self-loathing that comes with developing a graceful tennis swing. Then I faced a barrage of celluloid spheroids, smashed with a mix of wicked pace, treacherous spin and impossible-to-defend placements. And my view of ping-pong changed forever. Being schooled by a 14-time Swedish table tennis champion will do that to you.

I happened to be at the mercy of Malin Pettersson at SPiN, a hip Chelsea ping-pong bar, because I was somehow scheduled to play the tennis great Rafael Nadal at an upcoming cocktail party in his honor. Despite my low estimation of the game, I thought it prudent to take a lesson with a master.

Rafa, who sometimes unwinds in the locker room playing table tennis, had a more realistic view: “It’s not very difficult at the beginning to hit the ball,” he says. “That’s why everybody thinks they can play well. But when you play with somebody who really practices it’s impossible.”

Tell me about it. The modest Pettersson allowed me to believe I possessed natural talent as I smashed balls right and left. She even let me win a few points. But I wasn’t there for ego stroking. I asked her to turn it on like she would in a tournament. I watched helplessly as plastic projectiles flew by at dizzying speed.

My lesson in humility did, however, include a few helpful tips such as: move your feet (table tennis is a real sport, not a variation on beer pong); and for better placement and control hold the racquet as if you were shaking hands with it—your forefinger on the back of the paddle—rather than wrapping your hand around it like a tennis racquet.

Finally, supreme self-confidence can’t hurt. Ms. Pettersson said she frequently plays men who assume they can defeat her. “I’m sure Nadal would think he could beat me,” she boasted. “No way.”

She was right. She agreed to accompany me to my game and served as a human backboard in a spirited doubles match against Rafa and his uncle and former coach Toni Nadal. We didn’t keep score, but the clear winner was Pettersson. And for the rest of us, the consolation prize was a newfound respect for a game that’s a lot deeper than it seems.

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