Marty Reisman, Ping-Pong Hustler
Credit: Dario Cantatore / Getty Images
A couple of weird things happened along what should have been Marty's road to geriatric oblivion. First, he came out of retirement in 1997 to win the new U.S. Hardbat Championship, at 67. "Maybe you saw the film of the semifinal, when I wiped one guy out 21–0?" Marty asks. "I was wearing pink." Actually, he was wearing a pink polo shirt with fitted salmon-hued trousers – and doing so, as he would say, with panache. A year later, Marty challenged the 27-year-old phenom Jimmy Butler to a $10,000 hardbat game and, according to Marty's slightly Reisman-centric recollection, lost by two points after "the longest match ever played in the history of table tennis." The event brought both Marty and ping-pong a reinvigorating dose of media attention.

Then, a few years ago, to the surprise of virtually anyone who wasn't Marty Reisman, ping-pong started to become cool again. It makes sense that a generation whose devotion to authentic stuff they never experienced – spiking a resurgence in artisanal pickles and hand-knit cardigans – would take an interest not only in table tennis but also in its most legitimate old-school practitioner. Suddenly I was seeing ping-pong everywhere: Arcade Fire challenging Pavement to a backstage throwdown; millennial literary It boy Jonathan Safran Foer and NBA MVP Derrick Rose gushing about their love of the game; NBC developing a ping-pong comedy with the director of one of the Fast and the Furious movies; the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog hawking a $45,000 ping-pong table inspired by the sport's "recent comeback among hipsters, families, and competitors alike."

The epicenter of this revival has been Spin New York, a nightclub-cum-ping-pong-parlor on Manhattan's 23rd Street that's co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon. Marty had agreed to take me to Spin for a lesson, since, by his own estimation, he is "the best teacher in the world." But a serious back injury had put him in the hospital. Then the phantom documentary team from Britain showed up – I can verify their existence because Marty dispatched them to my office to talk about him on camera – and ate up several weeks. Marty and I had first discussed a lesson in late spring. It was now autumn, and I had yet to see him hit a single ball.

Spin is, appropriately enough, a gigantic basement filled with ping-pong tables. (Though it is the first basement I've seen decorated with a life-size portrait of Marty Reisman wearing leopard-skin pants.) Skinny dudes in V-neck T-shirts were whacking balls at each other and sipping drinks brought by pretty waitresses in black cocktail dresses, all of whom smiled and said, "Hi, Marty," as we walked through the room. A flight attendant from Singapore who'd seen Marty on YouTube asked for his autograph. Marty and I sat down on a low-slung sofa near the bar and watched two muscular, twenty-something Asian athletes whale the ball at each other, leaping and diving around the table like fire dancers.

"You think you could take these guys?" I asked Marty.

"Oh, absolutely," he said, but with less bravado than usual. Marty seemed tired and was wearing a rubber surgical glove on one hand, à la Michael Jackson, to protect a nasty gash he'd suffered. For the first time since I'd met him, he looked like an old man.

Marty pulled two hardbats out of a brown paper bag, and we took our places at the opposite ends of the room's only empty table. Marty moved stiffly (arthritis? I wondered), with compact motions, as he gingerly guided me through the basic ping-pong shots, occasionally giving advice or encouragement. "Play by touch and feel," he said. "Don't force your shots." Plick-plock, plick-plock. "Stay to your left so you can set up your forehand. That's your money shot." Plick-plock, plick-plock. "You know, I think you've really got a talent for this game."

Within minutes we were volleying – Marty really is an outstanding teacher – and as he dropped one pinpoint shot after another with his elegant strokes, I thought I saw his shoulders starting to relax beneath his Savile Row suit. Ten minutes went by, then another 10. In the way that a ballpark full of fans will unconsciously turn toward the bullpen when a great relief pitcher starts warming up, people at nearby tables paused midserve to watch Marty in action. The more spectators he drew, the more gracefully he moved. The more gracefully he moved, the better I played. Before I knew it, we'd been in Susan Sarandon's basement for three hours, and I had to go home.

"You sure you want to leave, Mark?" Marty asked. "Things don't really get going around here until later." It was 9 pm. My arm ached.

We shook hands. Marty strutted off between the tables, hardbat tucked under his arm. I thought of something he had told me months before, how a man's ping-pong game reveals his character "better than handwriting analysis. This guy's reckless. That guy's careful. Cheap bastards are stingy players. A 10-year-old can understand it."

"So what does your game say about you?" I'd asked.

"Me? I'm an eternal optimist."