October 10th, 2020
Ten/TenTen Ten, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Twelve Ten. He takes a hard-drawn breath. If he can break one back, he’ll be on serve and will need both to get clear. They’re preparing to start the point, the same technique, so exquisitely simple, the turn of the paddle, the gentle lift of the wrist. Two sets of eyes track the pearly white surface as it rises just above the surface of the table, an intake of breath and the paddle swings, red side in across the body in a sharp slicing motion, striking the ball perfectly in the centre, sending it spinning trough the air with just the hint of a wobble. The second it hits the table it changes direction, bending over the net to fall neatly onto the return side, where it spins again, curling further away, flying dangerously wide, but a paddle is there, as instinctive as the breath he takes as he strikes, his arm moves, shoulders relaxed but powerful, face lined with intent, knees bent, springing into action to bring him a half step to the right and his hand is swinging at arms reach to make contact. The ball catches the top of his paddle, not quite as clean a strike as he had hoped but with a twist he sends it skimming over the net towards the server who has moved from their serving position to a central hold, ready in an instant to bounce sideways and they’re there, hand cocked, paddle swinging, and it’s coming back at blistering pace towards your back hand. It was a good return, but not quite enough to set them off balance, and the rally begins, each player settling into a wider stance, a metre or so back from the table, sending shot after over the net, the ball pinging back and forth like lightning, the regular rhythm of paddle table paddle table beating out the point’s soundtrack. Fourteen Fourteen, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Sixteen Fourteen. The pressure is starting to rise, the danger of always chasing, needing the break to make a difference, constantly on the back foot, working hard to survive only to be broken back twice, fighting for two, then back twice again. If only he could find a chink in this impervious armour, but across the table his opponent stands resolute, ball in hand, paddle swaying back and forth in preparation for the clinical overhand strike which would ping perfectly into position, setting him into the familiar routine of half step, tense, swing, release. He sways himself, bent knees and legs wide, a strong stance ready to spring. The ball rises, the paddle comes forwards and the point begins with terrifying speed. He barely makes it but feels the satisfying connection and watches as the ball sails back into the far corner of his opponents side of the table. It’s better than expected, he had only aimed to get it back across the net but the length of the shot catches his opponent of guard and they take an awkward step back to bring the ball onto their backhand, the ball coming back slowly and wobbling. He takes his chance and leaps to the net, bringing his paddle down in a satisfying thwack, the ball striking the table and careening off to his right, where his opponent lets it fly, conceding the point in favour of conserving energy. A hole perhaps? The slight mistake, not easily made, and shaken off. Already they line up their next serve, though for a second now their gaze flicks from the ball upwards, and their eyes meet. Is that fear? Or defiance? Either way, something has slipped and the game moves on with the shared knowledge that something has changed. Eighteen Eighteen, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Twenty Eighteen. The hole is widening, no clear daylight yet, but a few more clicks that spell an opening. Twenty-Four Twenty-Four, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Twenty-Six Twenty-Four. Thirty-Six Thirty-Six, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Thirty-Eight Thirty-Six. Forty-Eight Forty-Eighty, and two clear points to win. They’re back on serve and two clear points to win, Fifty Forty-Eight. Serve, point, break back. Broken, Serve for level. Serve, point. Break back. Broken. Serve for level. Sixty-Seven Sixty-Six. Sixty-Seven Sixty-Seven. Sixty-Seven Sixty-Eight. Sixty-Eight Sixty-Eight. Serve, point, break back. Broken, Serve for level. Serve, point. Break back. Broken. Serve for level. Sixty-Nine Sixty-Eight. Sixty-Nine Sixty-Nine. Seventy Sixty-Nine. Seventy Seventy. Serve, point, break back. Broken, Serve for level. Serve, point. Break back. Broken. Serve for level. Seventy-One. Seventy. Seventy-One Seventy-One. He wondered if it would ever end. Seventy-Two Seventy-One. Seventy-Two Seventy-Two. The rhythm, the rhythm was everything. Seventy-Three Seventy-Two. Serve, point, break back. Broken, Serve for level. Seventy-Three Seventy-Three. Down to the individual shots. Seventy-Four Seventy-Three. Robotic in their accuracy. Seventy-Four Seventy-Four. In their consistency Seventy-Five Seventy-Four. Show any deviation, the smallest crack. Seventy-Five Seventy-Five. Risk everything on the slightest shift. Seventy-Six Seventy-Five. Seventy-Six Seventy-Six. Would they reach a hundred, he thought. Seventy-Seven Seventy-Six. He could see the scoreboard over his opponent’s shoulder. Seventy-Seven Seventy-Seven. All sevens. Seventy-Seven Seventy-Eight. And an eight. Seventy-Eight Seventy-Eight. Wait a second. Seventy-Eight Seventy-Nine. Something had changed. Seventy-Nine Seventy-Nine. It was imperceptible. Seventy-Nine Eighty. Like a trick of the light. Eighty Eighty. But he was ahead. Eighty Eighty-One.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale