“I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is for me,’ ” he recalls. “The sensuousness of it … the ball hitting my racket and that marvelous vibration coursing from my fingertips to my cerebellum every time I struck the ball. I can’t recall ever being inept at playing. You might say it’s an accident of birth. Of course, I had to develop it. But I’ve always had that uncanny feeling, reflexes, touch and timing. Some people are born to be dancers. I was born to be a pingpong player.”
Reisman won U.S. championships in 1958 and 1960. But he’s perhaps best known for gobsmacking the table tennis world by winning the 1949 British Open at age 19, topping legendary Hungarian player Victor Barna before 10,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. Reisman is the only American to ever win the British title, and the win stands as a seminal, Ali-over-Liston-type moment in the sport’s history.
“I was the forerunner of the fiercest ?attacking smash shot in the game — picking the ball up on the rise to deliver the hardest forearm smash in the world,” ?Reisman recalls of his heyday. “It brings tears to my eyes when I remember how well I used to play. I had no qualms about bullying my way through an opponent. Now, I play more strategically.”
Reisman says he stopped competing for international championships in the early 1950s when sponge rackets (made with a layer of sponge under the paddle’s rubber face) changed the game — for the worse, in his opinion.
“It curtailed my chances of ever winning a world championship,” he says. “Players could suddenly do crazy things with the ball. It favored players who heretofore were relegated to secondary and tertiary positions. Sponge rackets introduced fraud, deceit and deception to the game. Points are made or lost with a flick of the wrist — no long volleys. The average rally in championship games now is 3.5 times across the net. The game has lost its spectator value because players now spend more time picking? the ball up off the ground than they do playing.”
That’s why Reisman is so gung-ho about promoting the hardbat game, a movement he jump-started in 1997 by winning a national hardbat title at age 67. He currently uses a paddle fashioned from Finnish birch by the late Bernard Hock, a premier paddlemaker in the 1950s.
“I resurrected a game resigned to oblivion by winning a national title 39 years after I first won it,” he says. “You could say I’m the father of modern hardbat table tennis. It’s not very often when someone who’s 70 years old, ready for a rocking chair on a porch in Miami, resurrects a sport.”
Is Reisman a hustler? “Absolutely. But people don’t look at me disparagingly. They look at me admiringly. It’s not like I’m springing from a dark corner and taking lunch money from unsuspecting kids.”
As for how long he plans to keep on playing, well, let’s just say that rocking chair in Miami should remain empty for a while — just like the wallets of those he’s hustled.
“I’m a total optimist,” he says. “I feel like my whole future is ahead of me. I have no plans to retire. They’ll have to carry me off the table.”
Ken Wysocky is a freelance writer in Milwaukee who wants to play a money game against Reisman — but only with a sponge paddle.