Crack the gym door at the Brier Creek Community Center in Raleigh most Friday nights and the room sounds like it is full of telegraph operators sending Morse code. Instead, you'll find 20 sweaty people, transfixed over 10 green tables, tapping, smashing and blocking a small, white ball, a careening dervish with a mind of its own.
Table tennis (informally known as Ping-Pong, but that's a trademarked name, much like Kleenex is shorthand for facial tissue) is often associated with the basements and rec rooms of our childhoods, but when executed well, as it is at local table tennis clubs, it is a nearly mystical—and masochistic—experience.
Whether in the Olympics—the singles finals are Aug. 24—or in professional tournaments, to be competitive you must be willing to be humbled: Only by missing, overshooting and, ultimately, picking the ball off the floor for the umpteenth time can you get really good.
"You have to have a character flaw to play this game," jokes Jim McQueen, who has been hosting and organizing table tennis practices and tournaments in Raleigh for 40 years. "You put your ego on the line."
Power and finesse, spin and trickery: These are the ingredients of a ranked table tennis player. The Raleigh club attracts an international crowd—players hail from Lebanon, Russia, Vietnam, China; many of them software engineers and other RTP techies—who display amazing skill with propulsive forehands and graceful backhands that graze the table corners at highway speeds.
In the olden days of table tennis, players used "hard bats," wooden rackets with a pimpled plastic surface. However, by the '50s, Asian players had moved on to the "inverted sponge," whose smooth plastic surface and sponge-like material beneath it endows the ball with a spin seen only in orbiting planets. OK, that's an exaggeration, but when a ball hits an inverted sponge bat, it becomes unpredictable and extremely difficult for the eye to follow. It is also quiet.
"The sound is muted so you can't hear the ball," explains McQueen, who was on the staff of the U.S. Olympic team in 1996. "There is not a hint of it. And the magnitude of the spin is severe, so you have an infinitesimal amount of time to react."
While it may be intimidating to watch players whip the ball across the table at 70 mph, the club welcomes beginners; McQueen is admirably patient as I unadventurously volley the ball inside the white lines of the court. "For talented people, it takes about six to nine months to get decent," he says, as I start thinking of my progress in years.
McQueen's protégé, a gangly 20-something named Chris O'Brien, sports a T-shirt that reads "Jim McQueen taught me that."
"Who taught him that? That's the question," O'Brien jokes.
O'Brien, who ranks No. 2 in the U.S. in number of matches won—McQueen ranks first—shows me the ultimate serve: He cradles the ball tight to his body and whips the racket downward as if chopping an onion, which gives the ball so much backspin that it hits the opponent's court and then reverses course and comes back over the net.
While O'Brien has an aggressive game, McQueen's is more passive. "I use control, strategy and placement," he says. "I don't blow balls by you."
Raleigh is where Mike Babuin, president of the Cary Table Tennis Association, began playing competitively. "I thought, 'Wow, these guys look like they're pretty good. I'll destroy them all.' But the first night I didn't win a game."
In addition to playing, Babuin organizes tournaments, and he notes that in some circles the hard bat is making a comeback. "It's like racing in the Indy 500 using a Model A," Babuin says. "But curiously, one or two players can achieve a high level of skill with it."
Yet the hard bat still delivers a powerful stroke and could be key to generating more interest in the sport.
"We're trying to get table tennis respect," McQueen says. "There continues to be a public perception that it's a parlor game."