Merchant – from table tennis to tennisChallenge matches, like chewing gum, have a uniquely American flavour. And like most things uniquely American, they have a ready market in India. When professional hustler and onetime Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (now a venerable 60) challenged Aussie virago Margaret Court to a his,Merchant – from table tennis to tennisChallenge matches, like chewing gum, have a uniquely American flavour. And like most things uniquely American, they have a ready market in India. When professional hustler and onetime Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (now a venerable 60) challenged Aussie virago Margaret Court to a his vs. hers, age vs. youth tennis match six years ago, he didn’t realize that he was opening up a Pandora’s box.Anyway, history reveals that Riggs, quite ungallantly but entirely characteristically, whipped Court (then 29), in straight sets. A few months later, Billie Jean King, the queen bee of world tennis, now full-time editor of a sports magazine and part-time roving feminist, sought and gained revenge for her sex by thrashing the ageing hustler in a match that was televised live on three continents.Worse (or, if you like, better), was to follow. Their imaginations fired by the financial prospects, sponsors, promoters, players, hustlers and professional show biz veterans got together to arrange boxing-style heavyweight contests between the world’s top male stars.Connors, Newcombe, Orantes, Vilas and Nastase were soon challenging each other to $100,000 winner-take-all matches. The spectators loved it, the media loved it, and the sponsors, promoters, players and hustlers, loved the money it brought in.Challenge matches have made their debut in India, albeit in a watered down form, rather late (on August 1, 1978 to be precise), and in the most unlikely sport – table tennis.Challenge: The story goes back three weeks when Indian expatriate Virendra ‘Monty’ Merchant returned from the United States, where he has been a national table tennis coach and, more recently, as a tennis professional. A few days after landing in Bombay, Merchant buttonholed a media man and through him issued a challenge: he would take on the best table tennis player in the city in a winner-take-all match.advertisementMerchant, 32, is a former national table tennis champion and so his challenge was not taken lightly. However, he was tersely informed that Bombay has not one, but three, players who could be considered the city’s no. 1. Shrugging his shoulders, Merchant said casually: “I’ll take them all on-at the same time.” The three concerned, Atul Parikh, Suhas Kulkarni and Kamlesh Mehta, readily accepted the challenge.A sponsor was quickly found, the venue and date chosen, prize money fixed, and publicity arranged. Since Merchant was taking on all three men, the organizers (the recently formed Bombay Table Tennis Players’ Association), decided to adopt a straight league system. On August 1, the Bombay University Pavilion was packed to capacity for the big event – the first of its kind in the country.Blitzkreig: And like Bobby Riggs, Monty Merchant came, saw, and was conquered. The dynamic and flamboyant star of yesteryear couldn’t match the aggressive and fast Bombay trio. Kulkarni blitzed him 21-10, 21-17. Parikh brushed him aside 21-15, 21-19. And only 18-year-old Kamlesh Mehta, the youngest of the four, lost to him, 21-11, 16-21, 18-21.For the connoisseur, Merchant’s defeat was not unexpected. The former champion’s current preoccupation is tennis, which is big business in the United States. After coaching the US national table tennis squad and appreciably raising the standards of the sport there, Merchant drifted into tennis coaching. According to him, table tennis does not have much of a following in the US though it is picking up slowly.Though abortive, Merchant’s challenge and its prompt acceptance served a dual purpose: it generated interest in a sport which has been bedevilled in recent years by player-official wrangles and waning spectator support; and it raised nearly Rs 10,000 from gate-collections. The money will be siphoned back into the game via the Bombay Table Tennis Players’ Association who plan to use it to improve playing and training facilities.Though much older than his opponents, Merchant was the fittest of the foursome. The reason: in the US, table tennis tournaments are completed in a day. In India, they are stretched over a week, sometimes two. Despite often possessing more innate talent than their Scandinavian, Japanese or Chinese opponents, several Indian players fare poorly in international tournaments because of their woeful lack of stamina and adequate preparation.