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Memories of the little green table

Published: Sunday | December 14, 2008

Tony Becca, Contributing Editor

THE ANNUAL Caribbean Table Tennis Championships serve off in the auditorium of the University of Technology (UTech) tomorrow evening.

For those of my vintage, the very thought of the tournament - now celebrating its 50th anniversary after first seeing the light of day in 1958 in Port-of-Spain - brings back not only memories of some brilliant action and exciting contests, of great players but also visions of the chop and heavy backspin and of smashes and flicks.

Top of the heap

Today, Jamaica - in neither the men's nor the women's team contest, in neither the men's or women's singles, is top of the heap.

With five women's team titles (two behind Trinidad), seven women's singles titles (one ahead of Guyana) in the years between 1958 and 1975, Jamaica's women, led by Joy Foster (the little eight-year-old with pony-tails and ribbons who went on to win two singles titles before departing the scene in her mid-teens), Monica DeSouza (the lady with the booming forearm smash and four singles titles) and defensive Anita Belnavis (one singles title), were outstanding.

As brilliant as the women were, however, they were not as good or as dominating as the men.

With 11 team titles (including the first six, including 11 out of the first 14), 13 singles titles (including the first six), Jamaica's men were devastating.

Led by the colourful and versatile Fuarnado Roberts (the first champion with three singles), defensive Glen Mitchell (with one title), the bubbling, attacking Leo Davis (with one title), superb, attacking Dave Foster (with three titles in four years) and the master, Orville Haslam (with five titles in a row between 1967 and 1971), Jamaica's men were simply magnificent.

Outstanding players

To this day, I will never forget Dave Foster in his first tournament in 1959, at age 14, on the stage of the Ward Theatre, defeating Winston 'Reds' Mulligan, his teenaged counterpart from Trinidad.

Also, I will never forget that night in the National Arena in 1967 when, after a close and exciting duel with Mulligan, after reeling off some fantastic smashes, backhand and forearm, after winning the match, the final contest of the team competition, to give Jamaica a close victory over Trinidad and Tobago, Leo Davis jumped on to the stage and, to the surprise of the full house, hugged National Hero Norman Manley, then Leader of the Opposition.

In my mind's eye I can still see Roberts, far away from the table and playing with a racquet of board sandwiched between two pimple-faced sheets of rubber, bending low and chopping back the ball almost off his shoe lace, or running in and, from the backhand, flicking it past his opponent.

I can still see Mitchell, solid as a rock and playing with the same kind of racquet, retrieving almost every ball from the distance.

And I can still see Davis, bouncing around the table and firing off forearm smash after smash, or, after spinning the racquet in his hand, flicking from the backhand to either side of the table.

Cricketer Maurice Foster was around in those days also, and playing a game almost like Roberts, he was, arguably, the most gifted of all Jamaica's players.

After the early days came players like Cornel France, Richard Stephenson and Michael Tenn, David Marchalleck and Colin McNeish, Garfield Jones and Carl Morgan out of England, and, of course, two-time men's singles champion Stephen Hylton.

This year's ambassadors

For Jamaica, out in the cold and without a title of significance for many years now, this year's ambassadors are likely to be Dale Parham, Joseph Gibbs, and Peter Moo Young representing the men, while Yvonne Foster, Shanique Clair and Christian McKenzie are expected to represent the women.

Although none of the men are in the class of Roberts, Davis, Dave Foster, Haslam and Hylton, or even Stephenson, Byles, Marchalleck and company; even though none of the women is yet in the class of Joy Foster, DeSouza and Belnavis, or even Ingrid Mangatal and Sandra Riettie, we wish them well as they strive to recover the glory which Jamaica enjoyed in the past.

In fact, we remember not only the Jamaican giants of the past but also men like Tony Byer (the defensive maestro and champion from Barbados), George Braithwaite and the left-handed Errol Caetano, two champions from Guyana, Omar Alba a champion from Cuba, Mansingh Amarsingh, a champion from Trinidad and Tobago, and Mario Alvarez, the three-time champion from Venezuela.

Also women like first champion Marjorie John of Trinidad, three-in-a row champion Petal Lee Loy of Trinidad and the Harris sisters, Claire and Margaret, of Guyana.

The hope is that this year's renewal of the championships at UTech will be a tremendous success and one filled with excitement.

Hope for brilliance

Down the years the racquet has improved, the chop, the backspin, the smash and the flick have been replaced by livelier racquets embellished with sponge, by tricky spin-loaded serves, by the topspin, by the drive, by fast, close-to-the-table attack and with the counting now stopping at 11 instead of 21, the scoring system has also changed.

With a racquet, the same kind of ball - albeit a bit larger - the same size table in terms of measurement and a net the same height as from the beginning, the game, has not changed significantly, however.

So, apart from wishing Jamaica good luck, the hope - the real hope - is that the championships will be as good, as brilliant, as many of those in the past.


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