Pingpong played at a furious pace

But first challenge at convention center is finding your table

November 24, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When major-league pitchers hurl an 80-mph fastball, batters can study its travel for about 60 feet to figure out how to slam it into the bleachers. Brian Pace looks at a ball moving that fast, and he gets to analyze it for the length of a dining-room table.

Welcome to competitive table tennis, better known as really hard pingpong.

Pace is one of 726 players from around the world playing in the North American Teams Table Tennis Championships at the Baltimore Convention Center. The competition, which is open to spectators, began yesterday and will continue through tomorrow.

A pingpong game in the basement, this is not. Pace, 29, has thighs like a body-builder and his muscles twitch and pulse as he leaps about the end of the table. Occasionally, he lets go an Andre Agassi-like grunt when he whacks the small plastic ball across the net.

The game "has such a high level of complexity to it," says Pace, a Washington native who recently moved to Romania to play professional table tennis. "The ball has 200 revolutions per second. You can put so much spin on the ball that you have to have really good concentration. There are a lot of things going on that the average eye can't see."

The competitors at the championship range from those playing for fun to those playing with an eye on Olympic medals. Organizers say there will be 6,000 separate matches played on a sea of tables taking up the convention center's ground floor.

"Lots and lots of tables and even more balls," said Alex Chien, 30, of Michigan. "The biggest challenge of all is to find where you are supposed to play."

Winners will take home cash prizes -- the highest is $6,000 -- and earn points that establish their ranking for USA Table Tennis. The finals are scheduled for 4 p.m. tomorrow. A $5 admission fee will be charged only on that day.

In the past decade, Maryland has become a hotbed for table tennis. Players trace the boom to the arrival of two members of the Chinese national team -- Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang -- who began coaching in Gaithersburg. They have become two of the nation's premier table tennis teachers.

Add to that the international community around Washington, and you have the breeding ground for Olympians. In the last Olympics, three of the six American players were from Maryland, said Richard Lee, championship organizer.

Todd Sweeris, 28, a Michigan native, attended the University of Maryland so that he could train with the Gaithersburg coaches. He is a two-time Olympian and one of the country's top players.

Sweeris said many Americans don't understand that table tennis players are real athletes.

"They know it as table tennis in a basement, just taking a ball and knocking it back and forth," Sweeris said. "In China, they are the national heroes. They are the Michael Jordans. All the table tennis players are on the commercials."

When Sweeris is in training, he runs in the morning and plays table tennis for up to eight hours a day. He is an accountant with Deloitte & Touche, and the firm allows him to work part time when he is readying for a match.

Keys to the game are speed, agility and finesse, he said. "You need incredibly strong, fast feet. You need quickness, you need touch."

The game is so fast that each lasts about three minutes. A match, the best of five games, takes about 15 minutes.

But control is paramount.

Two-time Olympian Sean O'Neill of Charlottesville, Va., was coaching and playing yesterday with Santiago Coste, 15, the youngest member of the Puerto Rican team.

During a break in the game, O'Neill got up and whispered to Coste that he needed to keep his stroke in check and remember not to "over-hit," which can easily cost a contest.

"In table tennis, it's not only who can hit [the ball] the hardest, but who can keep it on the table," O'Neill said.

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