Table tennis tournament hits city

About 830 athletes attend international competition

November 30, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Convention Center was filled yesterday with the pitter-patter of little orange balls bouncing and spinning across rows of green tables.

The occasion was the North American Teams Table Tennis Championship, which drew 830 players from more than a dozen countries. The three-day tournament wraps up today.

Each year, the event attracts a wide range of competitors, from recreational players looking for opponents beyond their basement walls to world-class players with Olympic medals, national titles and international rankings on their side of the 6-inch-high nets.

"This sport is the only sport I know where you can converse with, meet and be friendly with world champions," said Jim Williams, 71, of Frostburg, who picked up his first pingpong paddle in 1941 and has been playing ever since.

"If you tried to meet a world champion in tennis, you'd be dragged off and arrested," Williams said. "But here, they talk to you. They show you what they're doing. They're all class."

The tournament's top teams play on a rubberized red surface surrounded by bleachers. Their rosters include Olympic bronze medalist Ma Wenge, Gold Medal Paralympian Tahl Leibovitz and Barney J. Reed, perhaps the most talked-about American player since the International Table Tennis Federation suspended him for two years, retroactive to July 2001, after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid.

The lesser-ranked teams - that would be about 90 percent of them - play on tables set on the bare concrete floor.

No matter, players said yesterday. Even those playing at the lowest level of this competition are no slouches.

"The people on the back wall here will beat most basement players 20-2," said Simon Brain, 42, a sales director and native of Manchester, England, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.

Tournament players compare their sport to chess, baseball and tennis. They talk about the 27 different kinds of spin that can come at you from across the 9-foot-long table. They punctuate their strokes with loud grunts and shouts of "Cho," a Japanese exclamation used to celebrate decisive points. Quite a few of them hire coaches and some have sponsors.

Preston Chin, an 11-year-old from Atlanta, has both.

With wicked attack techniques and a mouthful of braces, Preston has made a habit of beating players twice, thrice, even six times his age.

"When he first started playing, I put corner guards on the ends of the table so he wouldn't hurt his head. That's how short he was," said Preston's father, Kingsley Chin. "He couldn't see over the net."

Preston won his first tournament at age 6. He trains 15 hours a week during the school year and twice as long during his summer vacation. He travels throughout the country for matches and he has been interviewed on CBS's Early Show.

Yesterday afternoon, a day after he was reduced to tears by a disappointing performance, Preston was playing well and winning his matches.

"I hope to be on the Olympic team for the U.S. one day, and I'd like to get an Olympic medal and be an international table tennis player," Preston said. "But table tennis is not my top priority in life. I wish to just have fun with it."

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