Teams arrive from afar for weekend tournament; 10-plus nations represented in 2nd annual competition


It has been nearly 30 years since "pingpong diplomacy" helped forge a new relationship between the United States and China, but the sport of table tennis remains relegated to the basement of America's sporting consciousness.

That may be a source of frustration for players and coaches who have tried to elevate the game's stature in the United States, but they keep plugging, hoping Americans eventually will start taking pingpong more seriously.

The 1999 North American Teams Open Table Tennis Championships, which open today and run through the weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, could be a step in that direction.

"We will have 10 to 15 countries represented and a huge delegation of more than 50 people from China," said tournament director Richard Lee, who also is part owner of the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Potomac.

Still, interest in the competitive version of the sport has been slow to develop in the United States and difficult to maintain, despite millions of Americans playing in basements, rec rooms and garages.

"The past several years, [interest in the sport] hasn't been very good," Lee said, "but we're putting on this event, and we're starting a tour next year of seven tournaments -- called the North American Table Tennis Tour -- that we hope will expand so that a lot more people can see it."

This weekend's second annual teams competition, a high-profile event expected to draw more than 800 entrants, pits teams of three to five players against other teams grouped by ability.

The Baltimore Table Tennis Club, which is located at Old Court Middle School in Pikesville, has entered three teams that feature players ranging in age from 12 to 60.

The Baltimore-Washington region has several clubs, including two in Potomac that are home to some of the country's best men's and women's players.

"This is a hotbed of table tennis," said Fred Tepper, who runs the Baltimore Table Tennis Club in association with the Liberty Road parks and recreation council, "though we get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield."

Don't tell that to Khaleel Asgarali, a Columbia 12-year-old who is one of the top under-14 American players.

He doesn't have to crouch much to disappear from his opponent's view, and climbing quickly up the national rankings, he has surprised a number of well-ranked adult players.

Remember that name, because he just might show up on the United States Olympic team in 2004 or 2008.

"He's going to be a lot better than me," said his father, Nazruddin Asgarali, a longtime member of Trinidad and Tobago's national team before coming to the United States.

"If he is dedicated to the sport and to his training, he'll be a very good player. But you have to give up a lot of things to be a great player. If he's willing to make those sacrifices, he can get there."

Father and son, members of the Baltimore club, will compete this weekend on different teams.

The elder Asgarali, 40, and three of the other top Baltimore players -- Pikesville's Mike Heisler, Nigerian Lanri Abass, and Germaine Charles, a former Caribbean junior champion -- will form Baltimore's highest-rated team.

"Maybe from a worldwide perspective, this doesn't mean that much," said Heisler, "but it's a great tournament to play in."

Table tennis differs from better-known individual sports, because it allows all levels of play at many of its largest tournaments.

But that has failed to attract grass-roots interest in competitive table tennis, even since the historic China trip and the introduction of table tennis as an Olympic sport in 1988.

"If it paid as much as baseball or basketball," said Abass, "it would be a different kind of sport. The sport is bigger in Nigeria than it is here."

The tournament will begin today with the North American Hardbat Championships. The team competition begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday, with a break tomorrow evening for coaching clinics and exhibitions.

Lee envisions a future in which the North American Table Tennis Tour is big and popular enough to allow players to become true professionals.

But first, he'll have to find a better way to turn one of America's favorite indoor games into a more appealing spectator sport.

Fact box

What: 1999 North American Teams Open Table Tennis Championships

Where: Baltimore Convention Center

When: Today through Sunday

Schedule: Today--Hardbat championships, 3-9 p.m.; Tomorrow--Teams competition, 9 a.m.-6: 30 p.m.; coaching clinics and exhibitions, 6: 30-10 p.m.; Saturday--Teams competition, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday--Teams competition, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

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