Pingpong attracts hundreds

November 26, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Losing to the Washington Redskins in Baltimore is humiliation enough, but the prospect of defeat at the hands of a 13-year-old ringer was enough to the throw the coach into a fury of Hungarian invective, ultimately earning him a yellow card and a stern reminder by the umpire that video replays aren't allowed - even if you did bring along your own camcorder.

It might sound like the National Football League meets the Bad News Bears on a European soccer pitch, but it was just a particularly heated pingpong match at yesterday's North American Teams Table Tennis Championship, where national squads from Europe pitted paddles against club teams from Maryland, and players from 15 countries routinely yelled "good ball!" in Chinese ("cho!") after scoring a point.

More than 850 players on 216 teams swatted orange balls on 144 tables in the three-day tournament this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center. After two days of round-robin play, the single-elimination quarterfinals will begin at 10 a.m. today, with the championship matches scheduled for 4 p.m.

A wildly popular Olympic sport in China and parts of Europe, table tennis is starting to gain respect in the United States for its top athletes' agility and endurance, said tournament president Richard Lee, a 2000 Johns Hopkins University graduate who brought the team tourney to Baltimore from Detroit in 1998.

"We're definitely seeing more interest," Lee said. "But our goal is to see it grow in the U.S. It's still not identified as a sport here."

About 20 million Americans play pingpong at least once a month, said Alan Williams, one of the tournament's organizers, but most don't appreciate the athleticism required in competitive play.

"We like our athletes to look like Paul Bunyan," Williams said. "The 7-foot center, the 300-pound defensive tackle. These guys are 5 foot 6, 150 pounds," he said, pointing to the section of the convention center floor where top-seeded teams from Canada, China and Israel were playing. "But they've got legs like hurdlers, and they're cat-quick."

At top levels, table-tennis balls reach speeds of more than 80 mph, Williams said, and can spin as fast as 800 rotations per minute. "You have one-tenth of a second to react."

Lee said he hoped increased pop-culture references to the sport would encourage more young players to pick up the game, noting a forthcoming pingpong movie starring Christopher Walken called Balls of Fury.

That title would accurately describe the close midday match yesterday between the "Washington Redskins" - a club team that practices in Gaithersburg - and Malev SC Hungary. The Maryland team won in a 5-4 upset.

The secret weapon of the Redskins was 13-year-old A.J. Brewer, of South Bend, Ind., who umpire Pat Collins said was one of the country's best prospects.

A preternaturally serious youngster, A.J. was hard on himself after a close match, even while fielding congratulations from his teammates and onlookers. "I kept pushing it right to his back hand, and he kept ripping it down my throat," he sighed, while sweat dripped down his face.

A.J. is trained in Indiana by U.S. Olympics coach Dan Seemiller, and he hopes to represent his country in the 2012 Olympics. A four-year veteran of the sport, A.J. is sponsored by table-tennis equipment maker Tibhar and has recently traveled with the national under-15 squad to tournaments in China, Canada and Serbia.

The team-play format of the Baltimore tournament was an opportunity for him to prepare for the U.S. nationals in Las Vegas next month, said his father, George Brewer.

While some of the top teams came to Baltimore for a shot at $16,000 in prize money, most of the hundreds of participants filling the convention center basement floor are recreational players eager to compete with fellow enthusiasts from around the world.

John Zydell and his two teammates play table tennis at the gym of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, where they all work. "It keeps your mind active and keeps your body active," he said.

The Patuxent team's "coach" is Joshua Tran, the 10-year-old son of team member Khai Tran. Though his squad was playing the hard-swatting Baltimore Warriors, Joshua displayed a bit more equanimity than the Hungarian coach on the other side of the room.

"I'd be happier if he wins, but losing is OK, too," said Joshua of his father's performance, while eating a slice of pizza. "I'll be happy at least if he has fun."

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