Steve Braunias thrashed Jacinda Ardern at table tennis during the election campaign. Would things be different in a rematch now that she's Prime Minister?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern walked into the Auckland Table Tennis Stadium like a gunslinger. Her arms hung low and loose, and there was a swagger to her step. I felt afraid.
A split-second later – possibly too late, only time would tell - I felt something else, something familiar and reassuring: rage.
It's the only thing I have going for me as a table tennis player and possibly as a human being, and I knew I'd have to call on it during the next hour as I took on the PM at the noble sport of ping-pong.
I duly called on it. I had great need to call on it. It was a game for the ages. It was a game that could have gone either way. It was close, tense, and ultimately shocking.
It was a rematch. We'd played during the campaign trail, as part my series of games with six party political leaders.
I beat everyone senseless except for Maori Party co-leader, Te Ururoa Flavell, who scraped a narrow victory when we met at the beautiful playing fields of the Manurewa Table Tennis Club opposite the Homai train station.
I beat two Labour leaders senseless: Andrew Little, then his successor, that beaming assassin, Jacinda Ardern.
Okay so actually I scraped a narrow victory against Ardern in August. I won two games to one. Her skill was kind of non-existent but she quickly realised the great truth of table tennis: it's a contest of wits.
She thought her way out of a certain thrashing – I won the first game with ease – and got better and better. It still wasn't good enough, and it was with great satisfaction that I paid her some patronising compliments and saw her off the premises.
But she turned up to our rematch the other day as Prime Minister, and a change had come over her.
Power improves; absolute power improves a person absolutely, which is to say she looked stronger and more confident than I'd ever seen her. The stardust had gone. It wasn't about Jacindamania. It was about the mana and authority that comes with being the most powerful person in the country.
Even Bill English had a little bit of it when he served as interim Prime Minister. And now Ardern had it, in spades; it filled me with fear, then hatred.
Still, it was nice to see her again. The last time we'd met was in Wellington, during the coalition talks, when I was at a loose end and popped by her office for a cup of tea.
Back then she was in the spacious rooms of the Leader of the Opposition and there seemed every chance she'd have to continue to occupy that office for another three years.
But then Winston Peters went with Labour, and I began to wonder: what would it be like to play her at table tennis now she's Prime Minister? Would there be any difference? And just how sweet would it feel to beat the Prime Minister of New Zealand senseless?
Not all of the questions would be satisfactorily answered.
We met on a Saturday. I'd actually arrived at Gillies Ave the previous weekend because her chief PR trout Mike Jaspers mucked up the dates.
I called him a few choice names down the phone and made the best of it by walking from the stadium to Newmarket, where I watched the tennis movie Borg McEnroe.
The film is prefaced with a quote from Andre Agassi. "Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence…Every tennis match is a life in miniature."
Interesting. But table tennis is tennis in miniature, broken down into fine, beautifully formed components – everything is smaller, the ball, the bat, the net, the playing surface and the brute strength required.
Much of the sport is all in the mind. Bobby Fischer, the chess genius, also excelled at table tennis. You can easily picture that eccentric, offensive American, with his head full of ideas driving him insane, making instant, inspired decisions at table tennis, executing fast shots and instantly anticipating his opponent's return. Speed chess, played standing up.
There was something of that going on at the other tables when Ardern showed up at the stadium in Gillies Avenue.
Most of the players were Chinese. Mao popularised and downright institutionalised table tennis in China in about 1952; the diaspora have taken the game with them, and all of the top 10 ranked mens and womens players in New Zealand are Chinese.
Teng Teng Liu is the reigning mens champion. I watched him slaughter anyone who stood in his way at the 2017 Auckland Open in August. The guy is a beast, a hard-hitter, merciless.
The women's final was won by the unsmiling Man Wang, from the North Shore; I recognised her stylish, imaginative opponent, Gina Liu, when I got to Gillies Ave to play Ardern, and all but begged her for an autograph.
I showed Gina an action photo taken of Ardern at our match in September. She pointed to Ardern's hold of the bat, and commented, "Nice grip."
It was at that precise moment that the gunslinger c/- Premier House, Wellington, walked into the joint. We shook hands. Nice grip! Ardern has a hell of a handshake on her – very firm, very sure of itself.
I felt the fear and then I felt the rage; the two emotions jostled for supremacy over the course of our three games.
Things started well. She went down 3-0 in our opening game and she was all thumbs, swiping the bat at thin air, a nervous, anxious chump. But she settled, and won the next 10 points.
I took stock of the situation. You're the better player, I said to myself. You've beaten her before and you're about to do it again. And then I added: Just go out and kill her. It was an excellent memo, and I proceeded to kill her 21-12.
I'm not very good at table tennis. I get by on bitter, nasty rage, and misplaced confidence. But I hold on to a dream that every shot I play is low and hard, and ricochets off the top millimetre of the net, making it impossible for my opponent to reach or anticipate.
I actually played quite a few of those shots against Ardern. It felt so good, so righteous. I thought: You're beating the Prime Minister of New Zealand senseless. Awesome.
Game two was a reversal of fortunes. It was partly my own fault. I advised her that she was losing a lot of points by sailing the ball way beyond the table.
"You're like someone who keeps having the same bad idea, and sticking to it," I said. "That'd be the death of you in politics, you know. Simon Bridges would eat you for breakfast. I really dig that guy! Next leader of National. You watch. Next Prime Minister, too, I shouldn't wonder. Anyway, stop it with those terrible shots."
She responded without comment, which is to say without language, but her response was expressive enough: she gave me the death stare.
It shut me up. We played in silence. She stopped throwing away points with long, badly judged lobs. She got her eye in.
And she remembered the strategy she developed when we met in August – switch the play from side to side, get me running, get me scampering, get me short of breath and bathed in perspiration and in a state of exhaustion bordering on the abyss of a deep, lasting depression. She won 21-16. Not awesome.
I was out of breath, sweaty, tired, scared, hysterical, but where there's table tennis there's hope. Besides, I'd held back in that second game. I was in a generous mood and let her win a few points here and there.
Experience and rage would tell in the deciding encounter.
There had been a bit of a queue for selfies when Ardern arrived but the excitement died down as players returned to the serious business of playing.
No one was bothering to watch the Prime Minister in action. Even her two security guys had their sights set elsewhere, which I regarded as an insult; as the third game began, I approached the table holding the bat like a club, and posed a clear and present danger to Ardern's health and well-being. She was going down in a screaming heap.
Modern table tennis ends at 11 points. We played old-school rules – first to 21, change serve with every multiple of five points.
I served, and led at the 3-2 change; she stepped up, and was winning 6-4; I edged ahead again at 8-7. We were playing every shot like it was our last. There were long, thrilling rallies, which are always a test of nerve. It was the best of our three games.
Ardern's skill remained more or less the same level – non-existent – but the person within, her essential self, was revealed.
Someone who stays utterly and chillingly focused. Someone who regards mistakes as natural and inevitable, not as any kind of defect. Someone smart, someone cheerful, someone at ease with herself.
I hated her more and more with every passing second.
We were square at 10-10. There were obvious weaknesses in her play. She was bad away from the table, had nothing resembling spin, and her forehand was inept.
Most every shot she played was backhand. Her backhand was confident, and obeyed her will. Plus there's a pleasing athleticism to Ardern – she played badminton and basketball at school, both to a pretty high standard – and she moved actually kind of beautifully around the table, at speed, flinging out her left arm for balance.
She led at 14-11.
Now might be a good time to mention in passing that I have a heart condition. Atrial fibrillation is neither life-threatening nor life-limiting, I'm all good thanks, but it describes a recklessly beating heart, and I won't go into detail about the electric shock treatment I've received or the medication which brings about a terrible fatigue, because I wouldn't want to give the impression I'm looking for excuses.
Anyway, I was on the ropes against Ardern, a physical wreck, and I remembered the story of how a player had once dropped dead of a heart attack at the West Auckland clubrooms in Sunnyvale.
Ardern held her lead at 16-14. I took stock of the situation. You're a mess, I said to myself. Look at her. She's not even broken a sweat. And then I added: Don't listen to those voices of self-loathing. Go out and kill her. I played the best shot of the match, a forearm smash that Tent Teng Liu might have envied.
It got to 20-18.
"Match point," she said.
I muttered something under my breath which cannot be repeated.
She served to my left. I returned, and she played it back to my right. I sprang to that side like a cat, and returned. She played it back to my left. I was on fire, possibly dying, but I got there, and returned. She played it back to my right, but hit one of her long, badly judged lobs.
It was sailing out to sea. Yes, I thought.
I stood where I was way out on the left and watched as the ball dropped from the sky, and hit the very corner of the table.
"Congratulations, Prime Minister," I croaked. We shook hands. Her grip was even firmer than before.