Off the bat

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

It may be a minority sport, but the passion and skill driving Ireland’s leading table tennis players means the national team punches well above its weight, writes SIMON JUDGE

THE FIRST THING you notice is the sound. Walking into the sports hall, players on 16 tables fill the room with an irregular click-clack as the ball is served and returned, accompanied by the high-pitched screech of feet quickly turning on the hardwood floor. The pace of play and subtly of control and spin of the top players is something television cameras struggle to recapture. Witnessed first-hand, the skills of the best table tennis players in the country are what the National Championships are all about.

The sport in Ireland is long-established. Overseen by the Irish Table Tennis Association (ITTA) since 1937, as with many minority sports, it is entirely run by a team of volunteers. With over 2,000 members and nearly 100 competitors taking part in this event, things look decidedly peachy for this admirable little organisation.

Hopes are high for the World Championships which begin this weekend in Dortmund, Germany, with a team which includes players competing at this tournament in John Murphy and Paul McCreery in the men’s event and Amanda Mogey and Ashley Givan in the women’s.

Theirs is a frenetic sport. The proximity of your opponent combined with the athleticism and reflexive speed necessary to get around the table is best described as like trying to outwit someone at chess on a board as expansive as a tennis court. The Dublin-born Murphy is considered one of the senior players on the national team, yet he is still only 25. Having picked up the bat at the age of ten, his four national titles in the previous five years testify to his dominance in this demanding sport.

As Murphy explains, many players get their first experience at school: “When I was in third class at Sacred Heart (Ballygall, Co Dublin), everyone was given a bat. We had a teacher, Jimmy Brennan, who was big into it. It’s just something the school is known for. To this day, it’s still said that anyone who went to Sacred Heart knows how to hold a bat.”

For him, table tennis became an obsession. “When I finished school, I played for a year in France, another twelve months in Germany, before spending a further three years in Sweden. I played with a club and took part in the league in each of those countries.” For the top players, playing in European leagues is the only option. Sparring with competitive opponents is simply not a possibility in Ireland presently.

“In Sweden, I joined a training group which included Jörgen Persson (regarded as one of the greatest players to ever hold the bat). Around the time he got to the semi-finals of the Olympics in 2008 he was 42,” says John. “I remember practising with him the morning before he flew out to Beijing.”

This is an indication of the commitment these players give to the game. While many of his school friends went to college, John spent the next five years honing his skills with the bat, shoulder to shoulder with some of the best players in Europe.

Many regard Paul McCreery as the young pretender to Murphy’s crown. At 19, the Belfast-born talent is a wiry and intense sort, but already has years of experience at major events all over the world. Like John, as soon as he finished school, he moved to Montpellier in France to pursue his passion, so he could practice “all day, every day”.

Back at the tournament, both players power through early rounds, setting up an inevitable final. As it happens, they also play as doubles partners. “Myself and John have been friends and competitors for a while,” McCreery explains, “but we have been playing together for the national team for about four years now. It’s just natural we play together.” When it comes to their final, all niceties are dismissed, and both players suddenly up their intensity, and as McCreery prophetically reveals prior to their face-off: “It’s about switching it on at the right time.”

In a similar twist, both Amanda Mogey and Ashley Givan stride through to their inevitable duel in the final. Again, they are partners in the doubles event, and from the evidence of any spare time they had this weekend, practice together at every opportunity.

At 16, Givan is even more of a sporting wunderkind than McCreery. The tiny teen from Co Tyrone was just 14 when, in 2010, she took home the title in this tournament, becoming its youngest ever victor along the way.

Like John Murphy, the 26-year-old Mogey is a veteran, having first started playing 18 years ago at her father’s table tennis club in Carnmoney, Co Antrim. As with many of the top-ranking players in Ireland, playing at league level in Europe is an inevitable experience.

“I travel over to France every other weekend,” she explains. “Between playing, practising and now coaching, it pretty much takes up all of my time.” For Murphy and Mogey, coaching the younger players is something that is becoming increasingly important to the future of the game.

Having returned to Ireland at 23, Murphy began passing on his skills to younger players. Initially this was twice a week, but, as he explains: “I’m now coaching and practising 12-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.”

As John O’Donoghue, chairman of the ITTA, explains: “John is a driving force behind how the game is being advanced here. He identifies tournaments and training camps to best improve them. The youngsters spend solid hours with players of a similar or better standard.” Coaching is also a full-time role now for Mogey, so finding practice time for this tournament and the upcoming World Championship should invariably prove a tall order.

The ALSAA Sports Hall in Santry, North Dublin, is silent now as the much anticipated women’s final gets underway between Givan and Mogey. Having beaten her in last year’s final, Givan’s star would appear to be in the ascendancy. From the off, it is clear who wants this more. Mogey powers into the lead, leaving Givan, who never seems to get going, in her trail and ultimately storming to victory over her doubles partner and friend.

If the women’s final was one-sided, the men’s is anything but. After a cagey opening, McCreery eases into a lead. A switch appears to be thrown by Murphy. After an unending series of rallies, Murphy claws it back to set up a tight finish. The final set proves a step too far this year for McCreery, with Murphy retaining his title, to win his fifth in six years.

Despite losing on the day, Ashley Givan and Paul McCreery are undoubtedly future champions to watch out for, while Amanda Mogey and John Murphy clearly have the enthusiasm to train the next generation of players.

Final word goes to ITTA chairman, John O’Donoghue: “We could win gold medals at table tennis. All it takes to be competitive is to give them the right coaching and training. It is an indoor sport – which obviously suits our climate – so it really wouldn’t take much to give a talented few a serious shot at some medals.”