Justin Irwin talks to Britain’s most famous table tennis player, Desmond Douglas, about his history with table tennis and its place in schools.

Many billions of balls have pinged and ponged their way over the net since table tennis was invented more than a century ago. What began in Victorian Britain as an after-dinner amusement for the upper classes is, behind football, now one of the most popular sports in the world.

The game made a debut appearance at the Olympics in 1988 and, with London 2012 guaranteeing British participation in the four Olympic events for the first time since 2000, renewed interest in the sport is to be anticipated.

The huge worldwide popularity of the game is due significantly to table tennis being a national obsession in China. There are, however, more than 6,000 table tennis clubs in England alone and every year in excess of 10,000 young players participate in the UK’s various school teams and individual competitions. The popularity of the game may help to explain why 4,000 tickets were sold earlier this year for a table tennis event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Alongside accomplished European players, such as the 1992 Olympic champion Jan-Ove Waldner, the event featured the two new hopes of British table tennis – Paul Drinkhall and Darius Knight. Currently ranked numbers one and two respectively in England, both are 18 years old.

Watching on at the Albert Hall was Britain’s most famous player. Think table tennis, think Desmond Douglas. Known for his scissor-jump smash, Douglas represented Team GB in the Seoul Games and peaked at a ranking of seventh in the world. He was an English champion a phenomenal 11 times in a period spanning 1976 to 1990, even reaching another national final when well into his forties in 1998. Recently listed as one of 100 great Black Britons, Douglas is still involved in the game, coaching at the college and elite level.

You began playing regular table tennis while a teenager at Gower Boys Secondary School in Birmingham. How did you initially get involved? My main sport was football, and then cricket, but we used to play table tennis for half an hour or so during dinner hours. When it rained, we played more, and very quickly I got the bug.

How did learning to play at school affect your style of play?

There wasn’t any money for gyms or proper equipment, so we played in the classroom. Our table didn’t have legs, so we would rest it on top of the desks but with the blackboard only a yard or so behind, we couldn’t step back to play. That style – standing very close to the table – remained with me for the whole of my career.

When you were at school, was there a particular teacher who motivated or inspired you?
There were two teachers, both called Mr. Evans. George was the geography teacher who first encouraged me, then, as I progressed, it was Adrian who started to accompany me to local tournaments. The two Evans were the biggest influences on my life really.

Did being the dominant figure in British table tennis for so long add to the pressure on you to succeed?
There was always pressure on me. It was difficult to find a balance between playing matches abroad [like many professional players, Douglas played his league table tennis in Germany] and playing for, or in, England. Everyone would want a piece of me and it was very hard sometimes. With a great deal more money in the game now, there is more pressure than ever before. Handling it must be even more difficult.

What was your greatest sporting success – and setback?
The tournament that really stands out was a round-robin event I won in Europe in 1987. Over three days I played each of the 11 other top players in Europe. There was no hiding place and no luck involved.

As for the setback, in the early 1970s, I lost to a lad called Steve Cowley from Manchester. For all my victories and defeats over the years, this is the one that always stuck in my mind – everyone presumed that I was going to beat him, and getting over this defeat was all part of growing up.

Games are now the first to 11 points rather than 21, the ball is slightly larger, and regulations concerning bats and rubbers are very strict. What else has changed since you played?
There are many more demands on the body now – players must be fitter and stronger and accept that they can’t possibly peak for every event.

You now work as a coach, both with top UK players and locally. What do you think makes a good coach?
For the very top players, it definitely helps if you’ve played at a high level – you’ve gone through the same issues, you can relate to the problems. But the people I coach are not the same as me and it is important to remember to coach everyone as an individual – some need a kick up the behind, some need a cuddle!

I’ve seen psychologists help players, and they are good up to a point. But I’ve never met a psychologist who is a good player! My aim is to give players the confidence to know they can do better – but ultimately they can only do their best.

In 2012 there will undoubtedly be a peak in interest in all Olympic Sports. What can the governing bodies do to capture and develop that interest?
Firstly, we need more sports facilities. There are talented kids who need to be given a chance and this requires more funding. With nobody qualifying for the last two Olympics, we haven’t had the kind of success that gives a boost in the public interest – so we need some success. Hopefully, we can find a pool of about six or eight players who can challenge to be the best in the UK. In the meantime, there’s a lot of pressure on Paul and Darius to do well. They both look fantastic prospects but I didn’t develop fully as a player until 21 or 22, so let’s not judge them too much until 2011 or so.

You mentioned our top players. What does it take to succeed at this level?
You need unbelievably high ability but you need to work at it. I always think of the old days of football players like Kevin Keegan and George Best. Keegan would work his socks off, giving 110%; Best would only occasionally seem to put his heart into it but if he turned up on the day, he would do something that you couldn’t believe. These days, to be a truly top player, you need the ability of Best and the work rate of Keegan.

What words of encouragement would you give to people thinking about playing table tennis in their school?
Have a go, get a feel of it, see if you like it – not everyone will and it would be wrong of me to say that table tennis is the best sport ever, as it will not be for everyone. I would encourage young people to play as many sports as possible and see which they have a feel for. Enjoy sport. That’s what matters.

I wish all teachers could come to a training session, however. They would see that this isn’t ping-pong, it is a professional sport. Table tennis is an incredibly fast game. You need to be extremely fit and have brilliant hand-eye coordination but people sometimes need to see the game live to fully understand that.

Justin Irwin is a freelance journalist and broadcaster