Putting an international title on the table

Teams meet in city for annual table tennis competition


Spinning serves and kill shots. An orange plastic ball flying over wooden tabletops at speeds nearing 100 mph. Shrieks and grunts from players.

Teams from across the nation and from more than 30 countries -- including Argentina, China, Hungary, Trinidad and Venezuela -- converged on the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday for the start of the North American Teams Table Tennis Championships.

As a spectator sport, table tennis has been generally ignored in the United States, with most attention given to professional tennis and players with household names.

But this smaller version has found a home in Baltimore for eight years and continues to draw fans.

The 190 teams are playing in the three-day tournament for $20,000 in prize money.

"Table tennis players are absolutely addicted to the game -- they play for the sport of it, the health benefit, and they are ... addicted to making the ball spin," said Alan Williams, a spokesman for North American Table Tennis.

The Junior Olympics gold medal winner in table tennis in 2002 and a member of the Baltimore Table Tennis Club, 12-year-old Peter Li started playing when he turned 6. He learned by taking lessons and watching his father.

"When I had to play and did not have a babysitter, I took him along," said Ming Li, 44, of Laurel. "After a while, he started playing, too."

Yesterday, Li stood on the sidelines and watched his son play another youth, and analyzed the technique. Between sets, he leaned over and whispered a few inspirational words to his son.

"I was telling him to fight and not give up," Li said. "He'll keep gaining experience."

Many players dressed in shorts and tennis sneakers, and some wore sweatbands and other athletic apparel normally seen on the professional outdoor tennis tour.

"This sport is just full of all kinds of tactics, and you can't understand unless you play it," Williams said. "It's so fast -- it has to be instant; this sport is like chess on amphetamines."

Players stood well away from the tables slamming the ball back and forth at dizzying speeds. Every once in a while, a player hit the ball so hard that it overshot the play area and pegged a bystander.

"I love it. It's the best tournament of the year, without a doubt. Just look at all the tables here -- you can play so many matches," said Ben Johnson, 29 of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Johnson recently moved to the U.S. from England, where he was a national table tennis champion.

The roster of players included seniors, professional table tennis players and novices.

"The vibe is very competitive," said Barry Dattel, 46, of Warren, N.J., as he watched his wife, Lily Yip, a former professional table tennis player in China, practice her techniques. "People have fun, but they put in a lot of effort and they want to perform well."

Sam Mujumdar, 11, of Bridgewater, N.J., said yesterday's competitions were exciting, and he was eager to compete today.

"It's going to be crazy because most of the teams will be placed in their division, and we can play against teams at better levels," he said.

"We can learn from what other players are telling us and have fun."


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