O Heckle, Where Art Thou?

Master the heckle and you’re a hero among your fellow fans, and instantly lambasted by those of the opponent. But forget them. For your comrades, for that fleeting moment, you are wise, hilarious and audaciously disruptive. Carry him on your shoulders! You are one of them and the rewards are rich and deserving.

Pause, here. Bask in that golden light as if you just heckled like nobody ever heckled before. The affirming laughter, the craned necks from the rows down below. Who is this purveyor of fine, timely humour? Nobody will ever know as the sea of anonymous faces absorbs all admiration.

Now, back to reality. Sure, the heckle is not ideal for the player, but enough about the player. Always about the player. They already get the limelight, the plaudits, the money, the awards, the defined calves, the post-career opportunities, the famous people friends. For these reasons we must heckle. We must ALL heckle.

But with that chalice comes great risk. Mainly of bombing the heckle. Sad face emoji to the unoriginal, the lame, the outdated ‘Uptown Funk’ reference and the mistimed heckle that takes off just as the announcer belts out an update on all 216 speakers. To misfire on a heckle makes you memorable in the worst possible way. You will be immortalised for missing a shot you really didn’t need to take. Hungry, much?

“THIS WAS THE GUY THAT SHOUTED “OBJECTION!” WHEN HIS KINDERGARTEN TEACHER POURED ORANGE JUICE, HAVING SPECIFICALLY JUST ASKED FOR APPLE JUICE.”

But wait, anonymity! Ha! Back in the game. Now, proceed with caution – there are also risks of going too far, too venomous, too personal or worse – plain wrong and mean. The heckle is not a licence to be a dick and think you can get away with it. The heckle is an opportunity to ignite the flame of a real human who has been re-wired as a professional machine; to break a train of thought; to tease out a smile from a tired, dry-humour parent on a family day out. The heckle is the opportunity to get the people going. Two hip hop references; one story.

Remember Robin Ficker? No? Wow. Robin Ficker was the heckler who was so good that the NBA named a rule after him; the Ficker Rule. Lawyer by day, real estate broker by night. No, wait. Lawyer by day, real estate broker for the fun of it, and heckler come game time. This was the guy that shouted “objection!” when his kindergarten teacher poured orange juice, having specifically just asked for apple juice. An avid Washington Bullets fan, Ficker occupied enviable seats behind the visiting team’s bench for 12 straight years. He would research opposing players and coaches and then on game day, through a self-fashioned megaphone, unleash a barrage of biographies, statistics and plain English heckles. He laid such brutal devastation without fear or favour (he was widely regarded as the Bullet’s sixth man) that the NBA introduced a ‘no verbal abuse’ rule during timeouts.

Getting sidetracked. Hey, ping pong, your heckling sucks!

Is it the etiquette thing? Still trying to be like tennis? Clapping suffices? Clapping does not suffice, ever.

Supposedly, the logic behind it is that TT players need to concentrate really, really hard, because, you know, it’s really important to stay focused. If you’re that good, shouldn’t you be zen at focus, anyway?

Figured that was worth ending a paragraph for. Moving on. To the fact that there are at least two of you out there. A masterful heckle has the power to incite anger in the subject and laughter in the ally – both distracting so, does it really matter? Do the benefits of the heckle outweigh the risks of distraction?

Stadiums are built for thunderous crowds that cheer, chant and sing as one. Be immersed in a Merseyside Derby at Anfield and try hard not to to feel the emotion in your marrow. The witty retort, the artistry of context and the sage advice to a player all meaningfully fill the time between monstrous double head choral sets. Not only does the heckle sustain momentum, “it’s provocative!” No, it’s not. Yes, it is! (3x) To be swept up in the electrifying atmosphere of a sporting spectacle – player and fan alike – is to experience unbridled passion. It is not to sit politely and stand at the appropriate time. That experience is reserved for the courtroom, hey Ficker?

The best TT has mustered in recent times was the 2016 Summer Olympics led by a passionate Brazilian home crowd. Local hope Hugo Calderano faced Hong Kong maestro Tang Peng. When Calderano served, the crowd erupted. When Tang missed, the crowd erupted. When Tang won a point, the crowd hissed and slurred. When Tang let his frustrations boil to the surface, the crowd had found what they were looking for, and turned up the volume to 11.

“NOT ONLY DOES THE HECKLE SUSTAIN MOMENTUM, “IT’S PROVOCATIVE!” NO, IT’S NOT. YES, IT IS!”

With an infectious irreverence, the Brazilian crowd showed the world that table tennis was no different to the round ball game when it came to barracking for a win. Born and raised on a passion for winning, Brazilians showed us that table tennis needs this unfiltered passion for the sport to come alive. Heck (ha!), maybe the sport should take a leaf out of the NCAA’s book “Breaking New Ground: The Untold Story Of College Tennis”? (Not a real book.) To boost lagging attendances at their tennis matches, the NCAA amended the rules on audience participation to allow the crowd to make “non-abusive disruptions” during tennis matches. Blasphemy!  was the first reported heckle.

Granted, college tennis is not the pinnacle of world sport. But college, and the years leading to it, is where young people become invested in sports. The real opportunity to breathe life into TT exists at the grassroots level. Imagine a Sunday afternoon league with a few beers flowing, some beats, players wearing EQTs and fans – young’uns, families and the old firm of TT, getting their ping on courtside. “My grandmother smashes harder than that!” (Ideally shouted by a grandmother). Create the atmosphere and you create the experience.

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