The little orange pingpong balls are taking quite a beating, one after another being smashed off the racket of Tong Tong Gong as he practices with one of his three coaches. Though Gong learned the game as many others have, in the basement of his family's home, the 14-year-old from Ellicott City is playing a different kind of game these days.
It is one that Gong hopes and his coaches believe will carry him to the Olympic Games someday — before he goes off to college.
Since winning his first national 10-and-under tournament as a 7-year-old six months after he started playing, Gong has quickly ascended the rankings. He recently made the U.S. Cadet team (15 and under) for the second straight year after knocking off a number of higher seeds, including No. 1-ranked Charles Deng of Texas.
Gong gave up playing baseball at around 8 despite the fact that the same hand-eye coordination needed for table tennis had made him a pretty good hitter. He still plays chess and believes the mental acuity needed to move around the rooks, pawns and other pieces has given him an advantage over many of his pingpong opponents.
"I think the game is more about mental than it is about physical," Gong said between practice sessions last Sunday at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, where he spends his weekends. "You can have all the physical skills you want, but if you don't have the mental capability to back it up, you can't really take advantage of the physical skills."
With tournament games typically played to 11 points, there is often not much room for error.
"You can't really let up for five points and come back," Gong said. "You can't seize up when it's 9-9."
There was a stretch last year when that was happening, as Gong was going through a change from being more of a counterpuncher to becoming an offensive player. After a string of disappointing results that resulted in his national ranking dropping from sixth in his age group to outside the top 15, Gong pulled off a number of upsets in the U.S. Cadet team trials last month in Virginia Beach, Va.
In the match against the top-ranked Deng, Gong was down to match point in the best-of-five-games format with Deng serving. After returning Deng's serve, Gong found himself only able to hit lobs back as the point progressed; Deng kept smashing returns and Gong found himself moving farther back from the table.
"I was pretty far away from the table," he recalled.
Finally, Deng smashed a shot that missed the table, bringing the game to deuce. Gong eventually won, 15-13, and went on to gain one of the four spots on the U.S. team. He is currently ranked third in his age group.
Like other teenagers who closely follow their athletic idols and try to mimic them, Gong watches videos online of world champions Ma Lin of China and Timo Boll of Germany.
"They can do so many things at a [pingpong] table, it's something special," Gong said.
Gong can do some pretty impressive tricks as well, using spins and no-spins on his serve to keep his opponents off balance. He has come a long way from where he started. Gong's family always had a pingpong table in the basement and his sister, Jackie, who is 10 years older, played on a club team while studying premed at Johns Hopkins.
"It was something I tried out, to see how it goes, and I stuck with it," Gong said.
He advanced quickly, winning three national tournaments in a span of five years, each time against older players. Gong, who is a freshman at Centennial High, calls his burgeoning career "a serious hobby," but it's a lot more than that.
His father, Chaoying Gong, said that considering his son's three coaches and personal trainer, as well as the cost of flights, hotels and meals at tournaments nationally and internationally (including trips to Canada and China last year), the family spends about $10,000 a year to support Gong's career. His gear and clothing are sponsored by Butterfly, a table tennis apparel and equipment supplier.
One of Gong's two technical coaches is Yinghua Cheng, a former national champion in China and the United States who as a 42-year-old was the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 2000 Games in Sydney. Cheng believes that Gong has a chance to make the 2016 team going to Rio de Janeiro.
Cheng, who has coached Gong since he was 8, said Gong "is very smart" and has an advantage of most of his opponents because of his "great mental attitude."
Larry Hodges, a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame who is Tong's tournament coach and has coached two former Olympians, said that unlike many of his peers who react to every point, "he keeps his composure really, really well. If you watch some of the players, they scream when they win a big point. You can't tell if he wins or loses a point. He's calm all the way through."
Having the Olympics as his goal is realistic for Gong, according to Cheng, who says "he has many more years" and can "get much stronger." Cheng is constantly reminding Gong not to forget working on strengthening his upper body through lifting weights and doing lots of pushups. Gong also jumps rope to improve his footwork.
"He's sometimes very busy at school, doing homework," Cheng said.
Gong typically practices an hour a day during the week and three hours a day on weekends. His parents moved from Towson to Ellicott City in part to be a little closer to the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Montgomery County, where Gong's coaches are based.
Not that Gong has lost interest in other things. He still follows the Ravens religiously and acknowledges that he will be conflicted whether to practice Sunday or watch the team's playoff game against the Houston Texans.
Hodges said that often between games at tournaments, he and Gong are talking about Gong's favorite team or his favorite television show rather than strategizing about his next opponent.
"A lot of people are wondering what we're talking about," Hodges said. "We spend most of our time talking about the Baltimore Ravens and 'NCIS,'" Hodges said. "We're both 'NCIS' fans; the Ravens I know nothing about. Then about 10 minutes before the match we start talking tactics."
As he watches Gong practice, Hodges envisions the teenager becoming one of the top players in the country.
Told that Gong has said that he plans "to take a break" after he reaches college, Hodges smiled.
"We'll see about that," he said.