October 19, 2019

Table of Dreams

In a world of cryptocreative fitness classes like flamenco yoga and aerobic pole-dancing, Ping-Pong seems pretty old school.

Still, on a Tuesday night at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center at the Westside Jewish Community Center, there’s little doubt this game is cardio. A guy named Leon is on his third shirt. He tells me he’s lost 30 pounds this year playing at the center four to five times a week.

I am here to meet former Bellarussian junior champion Mikhail Zaretsky. Now in his 40s, he runs the Ping-Pong center and provides coaching. While I wait to get started with him, I take in the scene.

It’s nothing fancy, just a room with seven Ping-Pong tables, but there are corners of real intensity.

At one, a good-looking British photojournalist is sporting a headband, knee brace and game-day scowl as he battles Bella Livshin, a 56-year-old and the current reigning national champion in her division.

Watching her play, sometimes volleying from 10 feet behind the table, smashing, lobbing, hopping on her toes, is to think good old Ping-Pong is the fountain of youth, simple, cheap and time-tested. There’s also my Uncle Ray to think about, the best player in my family, who could easily pass for 45 — though he’s older than 70.

I know my game is a little rusty as I meet Zaretsky, the former champion.

The soft-spoken Zaretsky, who almost resembles a young Ed Asner, also worked as a coach back in the former Soviet Union. He started playing at 8 years old because his older brother was already playing and because table tennis there is almost like baseball here — everyone plays.

That isn’t the only difference, he says, pointing out that world-class Jewish Ping-Pong players couldn’t leave Russia without special visas and “the KGB checking you out. There was a double standard for Jews.”

By the time he left 16 years ago, Gorbachev was in power, and things were different for athletes but not, he says, for Jews in general.

It’s difficult for Zaretsky to explain in English. He’s trying to convey the overall sense that Jews had to be much better at anything they did and that only a small percentage of Jews would get into a university.

“When you lived there, you felt anti-Semitism all the time. You had to be tough. You couldn’t tell people you were Jewish openly and safely,” Zaretsky continues. “Immediately when I arrived here, I felt the difference. Here, you can say, ‘OK, I’m Jewish,’ and you feel different when you say it. You aren’t scared, you’re proud.”

On the downside, though, Ping-Pong was not happening. The sport just isn’t as popular as in Europe and Asia; there was no way to earn a living as a coach.

So, Zaretsky got a job cleaning a deli in Queens, earning minimum wage. He figured his coaching days were over.

Eventually, he moved out West and began selling cars for a living. He also raised a daughter who is on her way to the Junior Olympics in rhythmic gymnastics.

So how did his life Ping-Pong back to coaching after so many years? The story is uncanny, involving an aging mogul and a few coincidences.

Before we cover all that, it seems to both of us that playing Ping-Pong is the thing to do, so I set up against the Ping-Pong robot. It’s a machine that swats balls toward your side of the table at varying speeds. Though couples and buddies show up at the center (great date idea and cheap at $7), if you happen to be a loner who needs practice and maybe hates people, the robot is the answer.

Zaretsky leaves his small office, the walls lined with paddles, special shoes and other gear on display, and heads toward the robot, setting it on slow. My sloppy, loping swing hits ball after ball into the net or off to the side.

Zaretsky patiently gathers them up. I figure I’m just cold, but the robot is a squirrelly opponent. For some reason, a small pebble of shame inside me is becoming a boulder.

As far as my family goes, I’m a mediocre player. But against outsiders, I have enjoyed my only moments of athletic glory.

Take for instance, a wrap party for “The Man Show.” Tucked away in a corner was a Ping-Pong table, where I beat six straight male opponents.

I barely remember the fancy hotel, the strippers in tiny, pleated schoolgirl skirts or the crab cakes circulating on trays. I only remember my complete dominance.

Sure, I was facing drunkards and guys who had never touched a paddle, but I was a winner. No one could touch me. I have nothing snazzy in my arsenal, I just return everything until you get bored, try something hotshot and lose the point.

At summer camp, I would play for hours with my brother at a warped outdoor table in the woods. I couldn’t score a single point off the guy, who was older and far more coordinated. He would torture me with his precision lobs, and I’d go scurrying after the plastic ball, his voice in the distance shouting, “Shutout.”

Yeah, it would have been nice if he had let me score one stinking point, but it made me stronger. The summer I was 12, he won the boy’s championship, and I won the girl’s. I got a certificate. It’s my only athletic trophy.

As the robot humbles me, Zaretsky says nothing, but I feel the need to impress him. I ask if he’ll play me. Maybe I’m not the problem, maybe it’s the robot.

As I saunter toward one of seven tables at the center, I am haunted by a nagging memory, something that could present yet one more embarrassment. Once at a pool hall, I was playing at the lone Ping-Pong table when a guy walked by and casually said, “Nice serve, but it’s illegal.”

Turns out, he was right.

A legal serve is a complicated thing, according to my new coach. You have to hold the ball in an open hand, thumb away from your fingers, not cupped. You have to toss the ball at least six inches in the air, not taking your hand with the ball as you toss it. You must be well behind the table as you throw up your serve.

Just when I get one or two of the elements right, I botch the rest. Keeping all of these rules in my head and hands is elusive. Serving takes so much concentration; it’s impossible to think of all the usual things. The brain clutter goes. Ping. Pong.

My first legal serve is lumbering and high, easy pickins’ for even the lamest of players. Still, it’s legal.

We rally awhile. I think of playing my dad, a fierce competitor who when playing his daughter hits every ball right to me, nice and slow.

“Mikhail, how can I learn if you play easy on me? Give it to me. Run me around.”

That’s when he pulls the old hit it to one corner hit it to the other routine, and within five minutes, the back of my neck is drenched with sweat. He explains there’s no “reaching” for far away balls, you have to shuffle your feet as fast as a basketball drill.

His coaching is economical. With every couple words, I’m a better player. This isn’t surprising. It’s his coaching skills that built this center, in a way.

Long story short: An 80-year-old real estate mogul named Arthur Gilbert wanted to beat his lawyer at table tennis. He called a local club looking for a coach and was given the choice, “Chinese or Russian?”

He chose Russian and was referred to Zaretsky who had recently bought a table from the club. Thus began an eight-year relationship with the Russian coach that lasted until Gilbert died, leaving a large trust. Funds from the trust were donated to build the center at the JCC on Olympic Boulevard, which opened more than two years ago, returning Zaretsky to his original profession.

As we volley, I wonder if I might score a single point. It seems doubtful, until he turns to say goodbye to someone and, in so doing, hits the ball into the net. Score one for Strasser. I’ll take it anyway I can get it.

“Show me some tricks,” I say, and that’s when he brings out the spin.

“When you return the ball, it will go into the net,” he says hypnotically. He spins it against the side of the table, and when I return it, it whizzes smack into the net. He can point to any place on the table and tell me where my ball will land when I return it.

It’s like magic, I tell him.

“Any sport at a high level is magic,” he points out.

That cliché about playing with a good partner making you better? That’s the real magic. I’ve never played this well and never will again.

The Gilbert Table Tennis Center, located at 5870 W. Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, is open Monday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Private and group lessons are available. For more information, call (323) 933-3751.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.