Pingpong bounces back to Baltimore Contest: The Classic Table Tennis Tournament brings fast-paced game out of the basment.

November 22, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

An article in Sunday's Maryland section misidentified a participant in the Baltimore Classic Table Tennis Tournament. He is Mike Branch, not Mike French.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The Clarence Du Burns Arena felt like the world's largest rec room yesterday. All that was missing was the wood paneling and maybe a dart board or two.

The occasion was the Baltimore Classic Table Tennis Tournament, a production of Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. The atmosphere was part first-class athletic contest, part neighborhood kids gathering in the basement to knock around a little plastic ball.


"What I really like about table tennis is you see so many different people," said Raymond Willes, 35, one of the area's best players. "You see so many nationalities, boys, girls, 10-year-olds, senior citizens, people in wheelchairs, and they can all show a high level of skill at this game."

That was evident at the Southeast Baltimore arena where 10 tables were spread over the indoor soccer court.

In one corner, four competitors in wheelchairs went at it in what was almost a friendly neighborhood match, because they all knew each other from the world of wheelchair athletics.

"We play in my basement," said the eventual winner, Patrick Burns of Bel Air, who's picked up a few medals at the wheelchair veterans games in swimming and other sports. "I have parties and I'm trying to be the host, but I'm down in the basement. All the teen-age kids want to play me in table tennis because they hear I'm pretty good."

In center court, an 8-year-old battled a 9-year-old, though both looked like they had first picked up paddles the day before.

Toward the back, 72-year-old Mike French looked as graceful as a ballet dancer as he tried to keep up with Percy Morton, three decades his junior.

French said he started playing while in the Army in the Philippines just after World War II. About 30 years later, after years working behind a desk, French looked down "and my gut was out to here," he said, extending his hand a few feet from his trim waistline.

He is still an enthusiast, with a gold medal from the state senior games and a job running a table tennis center in Eldersburg.

"What's important for me is seeing these kids here today," French said. "They're the future of the game."

Morton, 41, said getting a pingpong table was his dream while growing up in East Baltimore.

"We finally got one when I was 10 or 11 years old and I slept on it," he said. "My father was in the moving business, and we put it in his truck because that was the biggest space we had. I'd sleep out there."

Morton was confident as he took his game from the John Eager Howard and Cloverdale recreation centers to the tournament level. "I want to beat everybody here," he said.

In his way was Willes, who said his interest in the game began three years ago when a friend put a table in his basement.

"He used to beat me all the time," he said. "I got tired of getting beat."

He sought coaching. Now Willes is one of the top players in Baltimore.

His match with Morton quickly turned tense. Morton accused his opponent of using an illegal serve, hiding the ball with his free hand as his paddle hit it.

It was a highly technical charge that was probably beyond the judges gathered at Du Burns Arena yesterday. But they watched Willes' serve and huddled in the corner to discuss the case.

This was not what arena director Mark Woodard had in mind.

"We're just glad to see all the people out here playing and having fun," he said, happy to report 75 entrants, more than double the number that played in the inaugural tournament in the spring.

There were two divisions yesterday -- open and rec center, the latter for children who entered through their neighborhood rec centers, where table tennis is a staple.

"I brought five kids with me," said Pamela Love of her charges from Curtis Bay, where she directs the recreation center. All went home with trophies. "I could have brought 20, so many were interested, except for transportation. Next year, I'm getting a bus."

Eventually, the judges ruled that Willes had to modify his serve. He won anyway, then beat Morton again in the finals of the losers' bracket in the double-elimination tournament.

All that was standing between Willes and the championship was Mark Davis, a respected name in the Baltimore table tennis community who won the spring tournament.

Their match proved Willes' statement that all kinds can play this game. Willes, an engineer by profession, looks like a wide receiver for an NFL team. Davis looks like, well, a 45-year-old Southern High School social studies teacher, which is exactly what he is.

But he can stand at the end of a table in his special table tennis shoes and use his custom-made $75 paddle to flick the ball back over the net with amazing speed and precision.

It wasn't even close -- Davis won 21-11 and 21-9 to take the championship in the open division.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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