Hilton ‘A’ 1
Hilton’s Andrew Michnowiec is a man from a time machine. In his old, yellow Joola T-shirt, Umbro socks, and shorts evidently hired from Nomads’ Paul Brandwood, he represents a flashback to a better era – one without polish, without modern gizmos that empty our minds.
The Polish name, perhaps anglicized (formerly with three ‘i’s), would seem to emanate from the south-eastern corner of that tough region. It is one of many fine, European appellations to bless the league; Maciejewski, Cicchelli, Dobrzanska, Dumpelnik and Szorcz the others.
The first pairing tonight is Flixton’s Paul Cicchelli and the man himself – Michnowiec. The venue – best car park on the circuit, Tibhar Smash 28/R table, wood climbing the green walls – is ripe for an intoxicating encounter, an Italy versus Poland spectacular and more.
There is a pink sheet of paper on the far wall’s tiny, cork noticeboard. It announces: NO SWEARING OR UNSPORTING CONDUCT. Cicchelli will struggle. There will be a few bejesuses that pass his lips before the night is out.
It begins. Michnowiec succumbs to a slender Cicchelli lead (4-3) in the first set at which point Flixton’s secretary, Phil Biggs interrupts. “Can you just throw the ball up a bit, Andy?” It is a clear hint regarding the legality of the Hilton player’s serves – the minimum ‘6-inch toss’ rule being ignored.
Michnowiec has an old-school serve – a low-swooping, swallow-like trajectory with the grace of a pinball. He addresses the ball hurriedly – catches opponents off guard. Cicchelli is too experienced, too big in the chops, to fall for such a ploy, however. 11-7: It is going to plan.
Watching Cicchelli you come to realise that it is at times like observing a craftsman in his shed, a woodwork maestro using a plane. One can almost see fine shavings from the ball such is his bat’s phenomenally thin contact with it.
There is a problem though: his stamina. I count the points before his breathing changes; thirty – at 6-6 in the second. Cicchelli’s natural rhythm and bounciness are affected. Despite the whipping forehands, his game becomes littered with mistakes – a grating inability to finish inferior talents off quickly and tellingly.
8-11: Michnowiec sees the disparity. He then manages to turn around a 5-1 deficit in the third, pulling it back to 8-7. Something in Cicchelli snaps. Abound with comment after comment, slating his own play, he becomes the mad Italian at work in the kitchen – saucers and pans crashing to the floor, minions running for their lives. An almost echoing and desperate cry of ”Jesus Christ!” helps him take the third set (11-7). And the fourth follows: 12-10.
Phil Bowen steps up. A gold chain dances at the neck of his black, Arbory T-shirt. He is a no-nonsense southpaw celebrating his 61st birthday at home with his Flixton ‘family’. Jordan Brookes, navy and white Le Coq Sportif jersey, is the table tennis thief – happy to roll up, take what he can, make a grab at the points and then return to his palace. Not tonight alas. It is a late present for Bowen: 11-8,11-3,11-9.
John Hilton finally trots in. His face dons a permanent smile. “Golfing all day. Won it – the doubles.” He squeaks past Mark Gibson (11-9,11-9,14-12) and demolishes Brookes (11-5,12-10,11-7) but then comes Michnowiec, the Polish slugger.
Low, flat, bruising forehands race over the net. 10-12, 9-11. John’s panache seems to have disintegrated. At 4-9 down in the third a comedic line bursts from him: “He’s not missed any!!!” It is true: a giant, giant scalp for Michnowiec (8-11).