Though demanding, table tennis awaits its due

Baltimore Sun

Marcus Jackson, the top-ranked U.S. table tennis player under age 18, practices the sport for two hours every day.

But all of that work didn't give the 17-year-old from Riverdale the edge he needed Saturday. In a roughly 20-minute match, he lost to a top-seeded German player during the 2009 JOOLA North American Teams Championships for table tennis held in Baltimore this weekend. The final rounds are today.

The event attracted 950 players from all across the globe, ages 8 to 80 years old. It's been held annually at the Baltimore Convention Center for the past 12 years.

"This is grueling," said Alan Williams, the marketing director for North American Table Tennis. The top athletes at the event, he said, have "legs like a hurdler" and "reflexes like a major league batter."

He said table tennis doesn't get the respect it deserves. "It is the Rodney Dangerfield of sports," he said.

There were rows of tables set out on the convention floor - enough to allow 150 matches to be played simultaneously. Orange balls flew through the air at speeds reaching 80 mph and occasionally cracked like egg shells.

The best played at tables on a red mat surrounded by bleachers. Referees measure the tension and the height of the net before each game and oversee those matches - keeping score and deducting points when players make errors.

The officiating can get heated. During Jackson's match, an 84-year-old umpire made a series of mistakes, causing players to complain. He was replaced.

Competition spilled over into the matches for the lower-ranked players, too. New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz bragged about a victory earlier in the day: He beat an 11-year old girl. "She's got this serve that looks like top spin, but it is really back spin," Shortz said. Winning propelled his team to victory. "It was so sweet," he said.

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