Table Tennis championships return to Baltimore

Table tennis players Canadian Pradeeban Peter-Paul (red shirt) and South Korean Lim Jae Hyun compete at the 2010 North American Teams Championships.
Table tennis players Canadian Pradeeban Peter-Paul (red shirt) and South Korean Lim Jae Hyun compete at the 2010 North American Teams Championships. (Handout photo, Handout photo)

First off, the game's table tennis; please don't call it by the antiquated name pingpong.

And if you think it's easy to play just because you can beat your siblings in heated basement matches, you could be in for a rude awakening.

"People just dink around for the most part," says Richard Lee, president of Rockville-based North American Table Tennis and head of the North American Teams Table Tennis Championships, which volleys its way into the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend. "A lot of times, when you're playing in your basement — of course you're trying to smash the ball. But a lot of times, it's just trying to keep a rally going.

"These people," Lee promises of this weekend's competitors, some 800 players converging on Baltimore from all over the world, "are really going all out. At this level, it's an actual sport."

Is there any sport more played but less understood than table tennis? Sure, just about everyone's used their trusty pancake-size paddles to knock that light-as-air ball back and forth on some basement table a few times. Maybe you've even smashed a high-arcing return shot right back at your opponent, then chuckled as he or she cowered in fear as the ball whizzed past at lightning speed.

Maybe you remember Tom Hanks playing table tennis in "Forrest Gump," or reading in some history book about how "pingpong diplomacy" helped re-establish relations between the U.S. and China back in the 1970s.

Han Xiao came to this country from table tennis-crazed China at age 2. Now 24, he lives in Ruxton and was a first alternate on the U.S. Olympic team in 2008. To train, he hits the gym three times a week, runs another two or three times a week, and spends two to three hours a day, four to five days a week, practicing.

Competitive table tennis, he assures, is not to be taken lightly.

"The footwork is paramount," says Xiao, who works as a software engineer in Columbia. "And it's not only the stamina, but the strength and speed and conditioning. … Believe me, if you go up against someone who can impose their will on you physically, you can feel it on almost every shot."

This marks the 14th year the team table tennis championships have been played in Baltimore, where founder Lee perfected his own mastery of the game while a student at the Johns Hopkins University.

For the tournament, sponsored by the German equipment manufacturer JOOLA, 144 tables will be set up in the convention center. In all, 196 teams of from three to five players each will be competing for $20,000 in prize money.

Unlike most competitive sports, table tennis teams are not broken down by age or sex — only by skill level. That means men compete against women, teenagers against seasoned veterans. This weekend's competitors run the gamut from 7-year-old Matthew Lu of New Jersey to Maryland's own Morton Greenburg, 79.

"This will really give people the chance to check out a sport they've really not seen at this level," Lee says. "It will definitely surprise them."

Although there is such a thing as doubles play in table tennis, all this weekend's games will be one-on-one. But having multiple players on each team will enable some competitors to rest between matches — no small consideration, given the grueling schedule necessary to winnow the field from 800 to champions in each of 13 divisions.

"If you're on a team of only three, you have a very grueling weekend ahead of you," Lee said. "A lot of times, people will get a couple more players on their teams, so they can take a break every couple rounds."

Matches are the best three games out of five. Games are played to 11 points, although winners must outscore their opponents by at least two. Which means, just like in regular tennis, individual games can be stretched almost beyond the breaking point. A typical game might be over in 10 or 15 minutes, while a marathon between closely matched competitors can stretch well beyond an hour.

Watching a competitive table tennis match can be surprisingly invigorating. Players often stand far back from the table, the better to have a chance to return the bullet-speed volleys from their opponents. Competitors remain constantly in motion, anticipating where the next shot will be headed and praying to be in a position to return it. Often, the ball is moving so fast it's barely visible.

"It's a very difficult sport, it's just very, very fast," says Xiao, who started playing when he was 6. "A lot of people grew up playing pingpong in the basement, but you're almost worse off that way. To them, it's pretty simple — you hit the ball back and forth." Not many people, he says, "are aware of how challenging certain shots are."

"Almost everybody," he adds, "has a story where they're like, 'Yeah, I thought I was [tough], and then I played somebody who knew how to play. I couldn't even return a serve.'"


If you go

The 2011 JOOLA North American Teams Table Tennis Championships runs Friday through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Play begins at 9 a.m. daily, with the championship match set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, good for all three days, are $20; children 12 and under get in free when accompanied by an adult. Information: 301-816-0660 or natabletennis.com.