At six points into the game I'm absolutely crushing the ball with my racket. It's taking the entire mass of my body to return each shot, but somehow they keep coming back. Finally, three points later, the right ball falls at my backhand and an errant slice lumbers awkwardly across the net.
"Good!" my opponent says, soothingly, meaning "finally!
" and then he rockets the ball over my shoulder.
I've heard that voice before though, that same voice, used in that same playful tone. It's the puzzle master, Will Shortz from NPR
, that same voice that shepherds lost radio listeners through the weekly puzzle challenge, the same mind behind the New York Times
Crossword. An eight-letter word starting with "T" and describing your skill at table tennis. Good!
Only this time, Mr. Shortz isn't working on puzzles, he's casually returning the missiles that I'm firing, one after another, across the table, four feet behind the line, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP. If the sandwiches that I brought for lunch were nearby, I think he'd be snacking on them to pass the time.
That same voice happens to own a table tennis club in Pleasentville, New York, the Westchester Table Tennis Center
, where rows of tables symmetrically divide players along columns of furious play. When David and I reach the center late that morning, two young men are lounging behind the front desk, rackets in hand, watching YouTube videos of famous players and games. We take the hour to warm up.