James Harper: My Secret Vice

The former Reading player explains his love of table tennis.

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It started when Reading got a table last season. I hadn’t played since I was about 18 at Arsenal, but it was something I picked up straight away. Me and Gibbo [Reading coach Nigel Gibbs] started playing regularly and it’s just gone from there.

Playing every day, you get into it and you get better and better. There’s a lad here called Alex Pearce who’s a perfect example: he’d never been near a table-tennis table before this season but has improved massively by playing every day.

I wouldn’t say I’m the best player at the club but I am the most consistent. Trust me, there’s some poor players down here. I’m not naming and shaming, but there’s a few lads who you don’t mind coming up against when your confidence has taken a bit of a knock. Most of the time though, it’s always the same faces around the table.

We had a local TV crew down at the training ground with Matthew Syed, a three-time Commonwealth champion. I’d heard he was useful but before he stepped up I took on Marcus Hahnemann for the cameras and destroyed him. I gave Matthew a decent game – he beat me 11-7, he certainly didn’t run away with it.

He threw in a couple of serves with some crazy spin that I didn’t have a clue how to deal with. When we play among ourselves we try to get it in and keep the ball on the table so that we can get some rallies going, but he was on another level. I got a few smashes past him but in the end he had too much for me.

At the end of the game he was full of praise for me, but that’s easy to say when you’ve just beaten someone! Having said that, it was a great experience to come up against someone that good.

You’ve got to have a hell of a serve in table-tennis. If you’ve got a good serve and your opponent can’t get the ball back, it’s job done. When I play Pearcey, for example, I know just what to do: if you put a bit of spin into his forehand, he can’t handle it.

Putting spin on the ball isn’t hard at all and if you sense that the person you’re playing doesn’t fancy it then you can exploit that. If I’m playing against someone who has a shit backhand then I’ll be putting the ball there all day long. 

Hand-eye coordination is important, which explains why a lot of goalkeepers are so good – because they’re quick with their hands. And even if you’ve got no technique you can get away with a lot in this sport if you’ve got good reactions.

Finding the angles is important and that comes the more you play and the more comfortable you become around the table. A bit of gamesmanship never goes amiss either; it’s amazing how you can grind your opponent down with a comment here and a little dig there.

It definitely burns calories: the other day I saw a TV interview with a top weightlifter who said he used the sport to keep his weight down. It didn’t surprise me, because you get a sweat up when you’re charging around the table.

I’ve heard there’s some top players at other clubs – Rio Ferdinand is supposed to be pretty useful – but I’ve never played anyone outside Reading so it’s hard to tell how good I am in comparison to other players. 

I’m not a great follower of the sport on the television or in the newspapers; it’s only ever onJ when the Olympics are on anyway. Whenever I do see a game I’m always impressed by just how good the top players are – they stand about a metre away from the end of the table with sweat-soaked shirts going at it like there’s no tomorrow – but if you asked me to name another table-tennis player except Matthew I’d struggle. 

The training ground table is great but I think it’s time the club invested in some new bats: half of them look like someone has tried to eat them! I’m playing in a celebrity tournament at the Royal Albert Hall in March so I’m thinking of investing in a bat of my own for that.

I’ve no idea who else is involved the tournament but I’m looking forward to it. Obviously it will be totally different to anything I’ve ever done before and apparently they’re expecting about 5,000 people to turn up so I better make sure I’m at my best!

I don’t care if I get battered, I don’t care what happens, I’m just going to enjoy myself and make loads of noise. Every time I get a point I’m going to go crazy – I’m there for the craic and the banter and, who knows, maybe I’ll get the chance to take on Rio and see how he measures up.  

In the run-up to the tournament I’ll be working on my serve and a few other tricks. I’ll be hitting the table like you wouldn’t believe and by the time I get to the Albert Hall I’ll be on fire...

From the April 2008 issue of FFT