Rivalry can demoralise, panic or excite a table tennis player. To know that there is one specific person out there who is your nemesis can be disheartening or revelatory. The relationship is usually borne out of a lingering stare, a reluctant acknowledgement of your opponent’s skills or mutual respect. Wilson Parker/Roger Bertrand, a McEnroe/Borg-type affair, sits between reluctant warfare and ever-so-necessary victory. The match up is many things: The Ashes; Froch/Kessler; Real Madrid Vs Barcelona.
In this instance, it is a precocious and fiery young Englishman versus a proficient and dogged Frenchman; a Wellington/Napoleon re-enactment 200 years later but without the satin breeches. Three points separate them competitively – Bertrand winning in Nov 2012 at Victoria Hall (11-8, 11-5, 11-9) but Parker gaining revenge in May 2013 at the Hilton Centre (11-7, 10-12, 11-7, 13-11).
I ask the black-clad Wilson Parker what strategy he plans to adopt tonight. He looks puzzled for a moment. “Play,” he then calmly mutters. It is dismissive and bold – the monosyllabic answer in keeping with his intransigence, yet somehow embodying the essential shrift of a broken intercom (the suggestion being that his body will know what to do – it will throw itself on the battlefield without inhibition and see what transpires).
What happens, what actually transpires is barely recognisable. I write the words ‘long’, ‘net’, ‘any ammo?’ repeatedly in relation to Bertrand’s play. His backhand is not functioning. He looks ragged, tired, far from the great, tactical genius I know. It is disappointing. Like watching Lord of the Rings without Gandalf. 11-5 (an intense, but futile Bertrand-winning-rally pulling it back to 9-5). 11-2 (a nasty nadir). 11-5 (a brutal ending – more punishment from Parker).
There is a huge, collective intake of air. Can it really be over? Already? A 3-0 whitewash? Sometimes table tennis bludgeons you, refuses to follow the script, the form guide, expectation levels. It cavorts on the horizon and laughs at your game plan, your execution of shots.
Let us not take anything away from Parker though. His chin, at times, was almost down to table height so keen was he to see the opening, thrust the ball back with extra spin on it. Despite the panache, however, I believe the subtler side of Wilson’s game is the real difference; the elegant nudges over the net; the masked concentration.
Will Bertrand return from this harrowing experience? Undoubtedly so.
* This piece will be published in The Bolton News on 25 June 2013