Table tennis draws players, fans from around the world

The Baltimore Convention Center buzzed with the sounds of table tennis balls hitting rubber paddles as nearly 200 teams competed this weekend in a competition drawing players from around the world.

Roughly 800 men and women of every skill level and age — 7 to 79 — competed at the JOOLA North American Teams Table Tennis Championships. The Division 1 finals ended with the Alex Table Tennis-Elite team, whose players came from China, defeating Team JOOLA, whose players came from Argentina, Slovakia and the Dominican Republic.

They were among 196 teams of three to five players who competed for $20,000 in prize money.

"This is pretty neat. We don't get to see this level often, especially right here," said Mark Cohen, who has been playing in the Baltimore-based tournament for about 10 years. While the Takoma Park resident was not among the most competitive players, he said watching the tournament was just as exciting as playing.

"The spins are so complex," he said of play in the finals. "They make it look so easy," he said.

During each game in the finals, each elite player would take a wide stance, diagonal from his opponent, and once the neon orange ball was tossed into the air, both players would spring from their stances. Several of the rallies had the crowd on the edge of the bleachers, gasping as the players were just barely able to dart from side to side, keeping the ball in play.

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.

"You can spin the ball in 10 different ways," more than in tennis, said Ram Nadmichettu, 65, who has played various tournaments, but came to watch his son, a University of Maryland College Park student, play. "The ball comes at you like 80 mph. It's a high-reflex game," he said.

But despite the skill involved, Nadmichettu, who is from Germantown, said there is little in the way of sponsors or money to make the sport more visible in the U.S.

"We just have to play for glory," he said.

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