Top-flight table tennis, like that played over the weekend at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials in Cary, has a few things in common with rec room pingpong. For instance, running after wayward balls that fly from the table and roll annoyingly to the back of the room—they do that. No ballboys or ballgirls are stationed in the backcourt.
There's also that thing where the ball nicks the edge of the table on the way down, or snags the top of the net and flops over for a winner. Among the pros, a gracious word or gesture of apology is customary.
The similarities end there. When you walk in on championship-level pingpong, it's immediately apparent that you're in the presence of serious athletes. They stand well back of the table coiled in a half-crouch, using the core muscles of their midsections to jab at the ball with sharp upward thrusts. This generates topspin—the same force that keeps Rafael Nadal's looping forehands on the court—enabling them to smack the ball with extra vinegar and still keep it in play.
Which they do, repeatedly, improbably, hyper-metronomically, faster than you can blink. Slams are said to approach 80 miles an hour. As impressive as these shots can be, even more impressive is how often they're returned, sometimes from 20 feet or more away from the table. In one of the weekend's memorable exchanges, a player crashed headlong into a siderail after acrobatically launching a slam return from the far corner. He won the point.
For those unaccustomed to tournament play, even routine volleys, with two to three lightning-fast exchanges a second, seem dizzying. Indeed, it's hard to do justice to the freakish reflexes that were on display at Bond Park Community Center this weekend. It's the sort of thing that's best appreciated in person.
Fortunately, table tennis is a fine spectator sport, and the bleachers in Cary were filled with fans, casual and experienced, enjoying up to nine hours' spectatorship for their $10 daily tickets. Cary's turn hosting the trials came after a decade of organizing well-attended tournaments, with a thriving community of players who take part in weekly sessions around town. It's another jewel in the Triangle's off-brand sports crown, owing partly to our ethnic diversity: Table tennis is especially popular with Asian immigrants and their children.
The P.R. effort for the trials was impressive, with a large sign at the intersection of Cary Parkway and High House Road, and further signage festooning lamp posts leading to the park. Inside the community center, great swaths of navy-blue vinyl branded the event, with the currently trendy "Road to" formulation spelling out the competitors' hoped-for destination: London.
Three tables were set up in each of two gyms, closely spaced so that, from a seat in the bleachers, you could watch all three matches concurrently, bouncing your eyes from one to another as play stopped and started. The triple-vision meant there was always plenty of action in view. It also ensured that as one match, and then a second, wrapped up, all eyes turned to the remaining, most tightly contested match, which played to a hushed house. This made for a palpable raising of stakes, building dramatic tension on the hour.
As far as drama, the tournament featured plenty of storylines for fans to latch on to. One of the most salient was age versus youth: While most of the 20 seeded players were in their teens and 20s, coming into the tournament the highest-ranked man and woman were both born in 1969.
Women's No. 1 Gao Jun won a silver medal for China in Barcelona in 1992 before moving to the United States. "As soon as she became an American, our team was good," said Ross Brown, leader of Team USA in the 2011 Pan-Am Games and now chair of USA Table Tennis' High Performance Committee.
"She really is a player-coach. She takes all the kids under her wing and teaches them, brings them along."
In this tournament, Gao taught some hard lessons, crushing her opponents on the way to a perfect 11–0 record. Her male counterpart, Yiyong Fan, didn't fare so well: Another product of the Chinese table tennis system, he once placed third in the Chinese national championship before emigrating to the U.S. in 1998. But after two days of round-robin play, he'd lost three of eight matches, and withdrew from the tournament before the final day.
Despite Gao's dominance, it's fair to say that at this tournament, youth was served. Four men and four women will advance to the North American Trials, to be held in Cary in April; joining Gao on the women's side will be three teenagers from California, 16-year-old Ariel Hsing and 15-year-olds Lily Zhang and Erica Wu. The men's side was won by the youngest entrant, 17-year-old Michael Landers.
Landers is a prodigy from Long Island whose training regimen shows the kind of dedication needed to reach the top of the table tennis universe. He left high school to take online classes, the better to devote six days a week to long training sessions, with separate coaches, for table tennis and fitness. Taking a path trod by many young Chinese-American table tennis stars, this summer he made a pilgrimage to the Olympic Sports Center in China to get a taste of that team's training methods.
His match against Adam Hugh on Saturday evening was one of the most anticipated of the weekend, and easily lived up to its billing. Hugh, 24, described by the courtside announcer as coming from the "first family of table tennis" (his mother played on the Chinese Olympic team, and his sister Judy was seeded fourth in the women's bracket), had postponed his table tennis career to study at Princeton (where he was co-captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team). Now, one undergraduate degree and one soccer-induced torn ACL later, he was back on the circuit. Hugh grew up in New Jersey and had played Landers often, winning each time. Going into Saturday's match, they were tied atop the leaderboard with 5-1 records.
Hugh jumped to a 3–1 lead over Landers, psyching himself up with shouts of "Come on!" and "Cho!" after nearly every winning point. (Curious about the latter syllable, which was shouted frequently throughout the trials, I asked Judy Hugh what it means. "It's not a word in Chinese," she said. "We don't know where it comes from.")
Landers, seeming to gasp for oxygen after each hard-won point, came back to tie the best-of-seven match at three games apiece. The other two matches having finished, all eyes were on Landers and Hugh as they squared off for Game 7. In a taut finish, with the crowd falling silent during play and erupting into cheers after each virtuoso exchange, Hugh finally prevailed, 11–8, preserving his perfect record against Landers.
Hugh went on to join Landers as one of four finalists, along with 21-year-old former U.S. champion Timothy Wang of Houston and 33-year-old veteran Barney Reed. They'll return to Cary for the North American 2012 Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament, April 20–22. Depending on how they fare against Canada, one to three American men and women will be named to the Olympic team.
To be sure, whoever wins a trip to London this summer won't be expected to significantly challenge China, which currently has the world's top three men and women (even Gao hasn't cracked the top 30 in worldwide rankings in years). But the tender ages of many of our qualifiers bodes well for the future.
So, too, does the rising profile of table tennis as a serious sport in the United States. Take, for instance, the 2009 opening of the SPiN pingpong club in New York, co-owned by Susan Sarandon. It may sound like a faddish celebrity indulgence, but to Sean O'Neill, former U.S. champion and now an NBC color commentator for Olympic pingpong, it's a herald of a long-awaited acceptance into the athletic mainstream.
"We keep waiting for this huge wave [of popularity], and now it feels like you can see the crest," he said. "The geekiness has left the room."