Keith Lesser tells the story of his near-20-year racketlon career and how he fell in love with the sport.
So fortunately in my life, I have stayed away from drugs and other usual addictions. However, undoubtedly alongside social media (who would have guessed given my former use of UK Racketlon Twitter), one of my biggest addictions is Racketlon.
In the year 2000, I met a Swedish guy called John Nilson who was studying in London and joined my table tennis club. He was a top player. I visited John and competed in a Swedish Table Tennis event where he introduced me to Bertil Wegmann. Bertil and John both played a bit of tennis and Bertil was part of the Swedish racketlon community.
I was intrigued, but as an 18-year-old rather foolishly ignored this information for the next three years and went to university whilst only practising table tennis and a bit of squash. What an error! Could have spent three years practising all four sports instead of procrastinating and this plagued me for several years thereafter.
Somewhere in a pub, playing table tennis, sleeping or studying.
My student teammate Ray Jordan calls me at 3am on the day I finished my university studies and exams. His last exam was the following day. What on earth he wanted, I have no idea. Five minutes later, we had agreed to enter the Scottish Racketlon Open in August 2003.
Pulled out of the Scottish Open due to affordability as train tickets were £100.
The 2003 English Open
My first tournament. The first-ever match played an Aussie guy called Andrei Wall who was a tennis player and lived near me in West London. We went on to become great friends and I gave him a lot of table tennis coaching which meant he reached a reasonable level. A good friend coincidently of Niclas Larsson who had, in turn, introduced Andrei to the sport. I won before tennis. That was it, hook, line and sinker. The next 20 years of my life and beyond were and will be obsessed with racketlon.
On reflection, had Andrei given me a beating, I wonder if I would have fallen so in love with the sport. I have spoken to so many people over the years who have not fallen in love with the sport presumably down to losing or other indifferent experiences. I reckon I still would have fallen in love with racketlon for reasons stated below.
The final was between a Frenchman and a Swede. The dominant Magnus Eliasson who I quickly became acquainted with and a top national standard badminton player who could play a bit of squash. Nicolas Sene had defeated English hopeful John O’Donnell in the semi-finals which by all accounts was an upset at the time.
This was strange looking back as not only did French racketlon not exist at this point, but it would take about 15 years before it took off in France! Let’s say Sene in 2003 was what Arnaud Genin is in 2020. However the main difference being now, I am fairly certain, the Nicolas Sene of 2003 would be ranked outside the UK top ten in 2020.
2003 World Championships
Well, the English Open was such great fun, I flew with my old mate Mr Ray Jordan (can’t stand the bloke, to be honest), to Gothenburg for the world champs four weeks later. Had a job by then so why not spend all my money to go to one of the most expensive countries in the world.
Again, rather foolishly, I have no idea why we did this, Ray and I decided the night before the tournament to practice table tennis for at least two hours continuously before the event. Sharpening every single type of shot and perfecting our form before the starts of the Men’s C. An important moment.
I don’t know if this was pure ignorance or just showing off our abilities but it was pretty dumb. We could have at least hit a tennis ball for five minutes given at this point I had probably played 2,000 hours of table tennis in my life and less than 10 hours of each of the others (approximately).
So up first was a Greek badminton star called Christos Poulios who was a great character and national level at badminton. Badminton was my third sport at this point which proved key in this exchange. Looking back with a smile, I was so nervous. I massively messed up the table tennis and was gripped by massive pressure and intensity I had never experienced. I mean, given the difference in level it should have been a straightforward 21-0 but I played completely the wrong game and went for huge winners instead of playing solid and only won 21-10. Mentally this was tough to take and I went into the second sport at the time (squash) really angry at my awful table tennis performance.
The tide then switched as he had never picked up a squash racket in his life and I had played a bit at school and university so won 21-3. The fact that he made seven more points in table tennis than in squash given the difference in level relatively was about ten times was mind-boggling but that’s racketlon for you. We went onto badminton and, as predicted, I struggled. I think I might have actually got three but can’t remember, it might have been one or two. He was a bit too nice and the psychology of playing someone far worse than you at your best sport was something I think a lot of people struggled within the early days.
Mr Poulios could play a bit of tennis. Somehow I hacked and scraped to 12 or whatever I needed. A pattern that would repeat for many years until I learnt how to play tennis properly. Mr Poulios, heartbroken and a nervous wreck, struggling to understand how he let me get so many points. I think in reality after the table tennis abomination, he was favourite to win. I benefitted from what we now know as profile by dishing out a second beating in my second sport.
So we sit here today and had I lost to Wall and Poulios, who knows if this special adventure would have continued.
Magnus Eliasson, An Inspiration
I think a big factor that got me really addicted to this sport was the remarkable story behind Magnus Eliasson. A former professional ice hockey player who, at the time, had only been playing squash for five years and reached a strong level. It was well documented that his style was not pretty but he was strong and fit and practised four hours of racketlon per day which set the benchmark.
I was fascinated by this story and when I chatted with the world No.1, he related that he had over 30 practice partners. A telling statistic whilst being based in the Stockholm racketlon hub.
I lost count of the number of people who would claim he wasn’t that good. Particularly squash players who would moan about his technique. I rarely saw him lose a sport, let alone a match. The good squash players would go on court and lose to Magnus (again and against and again). The fitness element played a massive part and the rallies went on and on and on.
It’s hard to place his squash level in the spirit of the website squashlevels.com. I don’t think he is as good as Calum Reid or Jesper Ratzer at squash in 2020 but would be around the 5,000-6,000 mark I would think so would lose to Dan Busby at squash but would beat the vast majority of the field at squash.
We rarely even saw Magnus play tennis but this was his best sport according to racketlon sports fans. Given my tennis ability at the time, I’m not sure I am best judged to comment.
The story of this man was inspiring and I think several elements contribute to this including the amount he practised, the structure and discipline, the fitness and the winning through sheer grit and determination as obviously also a very high skill level and generally very consistent level of performance.
I always thought Magnus had decent table tennis and enjoyed practising with him at tournaments.
I spent 2004 playing lots of world tour tournaments 9before the UK Tour was launched in 2006).
Train Journey Home from 2005 King of Rackets
Who knew a Eurostar 15 years ago would have changed my life. Stuart Foster, who has organised the first three English Open wanted to hand over the reins and apparently I was a good candidate to take over. So there we have it. 12 years later as Tournament Director alongside my old mate Ray Jordan who remarkably is still Chairman of UK Racketlon today. I expect this is because he was less addicted than I was for many years and therefore still has the energy and dynamism to carry out the role with esteem. Not to mention these days there is an excellent team of people running things in the UK.
So, the 2005 English Open and a new Tournament Director. A new addiction, kind of the same thing but a different element.
In the 2005 English Open, I went to such great lengths to do a good job. We got sponsorship, we hired a band, we got the best table tennis referee in the UK to help us out and we got a Turkish Restaurant to drive across London to deliver a feast to Hounslow Town Hall.
However, my favourite part of this is that I decided to travel to a Swedish Tour event in the summer of 2005, masquerading to three university pals that Stockholm would be a great destination for a summer holiday. They, of course, said why not. Needless to say, the Vasteras Open, which was one hour from Stockholm in a small-ish town, did not go down too well with my pals (mysteriously two of the three guys never managed to book their flights).
So there I was, with a non-racketlon playing friend in a small Swedish city. We didn’t even go out partying as I had made it to the semi-finals and wanted to be in good shape (shouldn’t have bothered as I got destroyed in the semi-final).
Regardless, I was chatting to lots of Swedes that weekend about the English Open in October and was pleased that eventually, we had well over 140 players (from memory) and 32 from Sweden! A lot of these guys were people I had spoken to at the Swedish Tour event in August. So that’s some tournament marketing for you. I guess social media may not have existed back then. I can’t remember to be honest, but I think this was all pre-Facebook and Twitter so marketing was old school.
So my second addiction with racketlon was I became hooked on organising. I then had this strange battle where organising and playing constantly at every event you were at became quite stressful. Thankfully, over time, with more and more people helping out the burden lightened and the enjoyment heightened.
Fortunately, which I love, the sport was built on the internet. This made organising more efficient from day one.
These days I don’t play much able tennis but enjoy mainly squash and particularly tennis. It’s really fun when you get good at your worst sport, especially when your opponents don’t understand how you beat them and start losing their cool.
I think some people thought when I stopped organising events, I would never be seen again.
Not a chance, I’m not going anywhere. I can see how fit people can stay even into their 60s, so this is inspiring and shows there is a great future for this sport, particularly with so many racketlon addicts.
Keith Lesser / Racketlon Addict