The Swaythling Cup arena, c. 1930s
When I first heard about “The Point,” I was having lunch with Dick Miles, the legendary 10-time U.S. Table Tennis Champion. I doubted his tall tale at first, but, in time, I would discover that the event he described so fondly, as inconceivable as it sounded, was, in fact, true. I’ve remained in awe ever since.
You have to go back a few decades, to 1936, when the Swaythling Cup at the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, brought together Alex Ehrlich of Poland vs. Paneth Farkas of Romania in the most remarkable ping-pong rally ever played. All the more remarkable considering the modern-day version of the sport on view at the 2012 London Olympics, where the best players on the planet tended to complete points in mere seconds, over and done with after a few swings.
Now imagine a single point lasting 2 hours, 12 minutes, the ball traveling back and forth across the net some 12,000 times without error. That is precisely the trial of stamina that entangled Ehrlich, “The King of the Chiselers,” with Farkas, the “Prinz of Sitzfleisch,” neither one of them willing to back down from their trademark defensive style of play. The King, already a medalist in World Championship competition, zeroed in on his opponent’s forehand, pushing the ball to the same corner again and again. The relentless Farkas countered exclusively to the backhand, the metronomic shot placement of both players eventually taking a victim — the umpire — whose head had toggled so many times after an hour or so into the point that his neck seized. Grimacing in anguish, he had to be replaced and escorted off the court. The Point, meanwhile, went on and on and on.
Some 50 years later, in 1989, to be exact, I was preparing a long-form magazine article that would trace colorful moments in the early history of table tennis. For insight, I turned to Miles, now deceased, and Marty Reisman, whose book “The Money Player” examines his own life as a ping-pong virtuoso and hustler. Both lived in New York at the time, and both had a lot to say about the Ehrlich/Farkas encounter.
What stood out to Miles was the second hour of The Point, Farkas tiptoeing through puddles of his own sweat and breaking down incrementally with every slashing stroke. Ehrlich, incredibly, had switched from playing right-handed to left, and, in order to keep his mind off the nerve-punishing monotony, he struck up a sideline chess match with the team captain. Between returns, he’d glance over to the board to call out his next move.
For Reisman, the spectacle of endurance dramatized the sport’s glory days, when racquets — or bats, as they were often called — were made simply of pimple-out rubber glued onto plywood, which produced a lot of dazzling points and required honed skill to impart the spins and speeds that distinguished top players. In the early 1950s, however, a Japanese player named Hiroji Satoh arrived on the scene sporting a new style of blade covered in thick outer facings of pure sponge.
Satoh was a so-so player, but the sponge greatly intensified the catapult of his shots and confounded the timing of opponents with the relative silence in which it batted the ball. During the 1952 World Championships, Satoh spanked the competition, running away with the Men’s Singles title and forever changing how players equip themselves and approach the game. All for the worse, if you ask Reisman, who had insisted on meeting up for our interview over a game of billiards rather than ping pong. By the time we retired our cue sticks, he had hustled 50 bucks out of my wallet and stuck me with the bar tab. I loved every second of it.
Recently, I asked my own table-tennis coach, the venerable Richard McAfee, to weigh in on the epic clash of Ehrlich and Farkas. Turns out that McAfee knew Ehrlich personally, having coached with him for a spell at a facility in the French Riviera. The way McAfee heard the story, Ehrlich and Farkas had traded insults leading up to the World Championships, each cocksure in his ability to out-chop, out-push any opponent. Little did they know they’d face each other right off the bat and have to put their claims of superiority to the most unimaginable test.
The last 12 minutes of The Point must have felt surreal. Most of the 3,500 spectators in attendance had left, too exhausted themselves to watch any further. One woman went into labor and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. She claimed later that she was not even pregnant when the match began. Down on the court, meanwhile, the Polish team had rolled out sleeping bags as if to say, tauntingly, we’re in this for the long haul. Now it looked like the sleeping bags may be put to good use — the combatants forging ahead into the late night.
But then it happened. After a continuous barrage of under-spin to the Farkas forehand, Ehrlich abruptly went to the backhand. The cramped-up Farkas could not make the sudden adjustment and reply. And just like that, the ordeal was over. The score: 1-0.
Imagine the psychological burden. The game, at that time, was to 21. If, for example, a player went on to win, 21-19, it would encompass 40 points — a daunting consideration, especially if your first and only rally had just exceeded two hours.
Comparatively, the next point flew by at 20 minutes. Farkas lost that one, too, desperately attempting to smash a couple of balls, a tactical change that did not suit him. He also had the misfortune of glancing over to the Polish bench, where one of the hungry players had decided to make sandwiches for the team, pulling out a knife, a loaf of bread and an immense kielbasa from a workout tote. The piquant scene and corrupting aroma proved too much for Farkas. He forfeited the match and fled the stadium, apparently screaming like a lunatic on his way out.
Many of these glorious anecdotes went into the ping-pong opus I eventually finished writing as part of my coursework at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But something had run amok with the finished product, the spirit, perhaps, of Ehrlich and Farkas unleashing my own chiseler’s passion for the subject at hand. I had gone nuts myself. The sheer abundance of my output — the superfluous detail in particular — left my sports-writing instructor, Sandy Padwe, a little underwhelmed. He applauded the exhaustive research, but came away feeling that I had crafted the unpublishable.
Devastated, I sought out to prove Sandy wrong, peddling my prose to every likely magazine in the Northern Hemisphere, and a couple in the Southern. I did get a sniff from American Heritage, an editor there interested in the ping-pong angle, but after laboring over the verbiage, he mailed off a rejection letter that said, in effect, that reading me was like chewing through a slab of pimento loaf: hard to swallow … with an occasional highlight.
Sadly, my article would never reach an adoring audience. Yet, at 47, I remain an avid ping-pong player, chopping, pushing and blocking my way around several Southern California clubs. I play with a junk rubber known as long pips, which is as maligned as the spongy material that Satoh introduced so long ago. The most arduous point I’ve ever played went about five minutes, my errors typically coming fast and furious. In my greatest achievement in the sport, I won the Gold Medal in the Colorado State Games for players rated 1700 or below. Before the final, coach McAfee instructed me to try to keep the points alive for at least three or four times over the net, which I did pretty well.
Not Ehrlich-well, mind you, but pretty well indeed.
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