Pingpong is fast fun for all ages

The Baltimore Sun

This is not your father's pingpong game.

Forget those skinny wooden rackets and one-on-one games to 21. Today's fast-paced table tennis matches feature paddles padded with sponge and covered in smooth rubber for greater spin control and speed. Players in singles or doubles face off in best-of-five games only to 11 points each.

At the Maryland Circuit Table Tennis Tournament in Carroll County during the weekend, 36 enthusiasts competed for cash prizes as part of a monthly competition. Organizer Yvonne Kronlage said the purse would be 50 percent of the entry fees for the weekend.

For more than 30 years, Kronlage said, she has been organizing events. Her table tennis center is housed in a converted retail space at Carrolltown Center in Eldersburg next to a Kmart.

"It's a great sport because an 8- year-old can play an 80-year- old," Kronlage said.

For some reason, local players say, Maryland has become somewhat of a hotbed for table tennis, with at least six table tennis centers in the state, according to sport organization USA Table Tennis. In November, Baltimore hosts the North American Teams Table Tennis Championship.

The 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials will be held this week in the John A. Daskalakis Athletic Center at Philadelphia's Drexel University.

Julian Waters, 50, the top-ranked player at the weekend's tournament, trains at his hometown table tennis center in Gaithersburg run by two Chinese immigrants once ranked among the best in the world.

"It's like getting a lesson from [Andre] Agassi," Waters said.

The novices came out Saturday, while the more experienced players took to the tables yesterday. Their styles varied wildly, from those who served up the ball simply to those who wound up like an ostentatious baseball pitcher serving up a slider.

Consistency and control, players said, are hallmarks for the best in the sport.

Perennially popular in East Asia, table tennis is on the rise in the United States, Kronlage said,

Among the next generation is David Jarrin, 18, who stumbled across the Eldersburg center five years ago.

"My dad and I came in here. Now I'm the one who keeps coming back," Jarrin said, adding he plays at least two tournaments a month.

The game's deceptively quick pace and endless varieties of spin keep the sweat pouring off players like 41-year-old Thomas Lo of Owings Mills.

"I love the game," the Hong Kong native said. "I like the competitiveness. I don't exercise much, and this makes me exercise."

Barbara Bitgard, 57, of Laurel says she is a lifelong athlete and appreciates the level of the workout in a pingpong game. But in the end, she said, the quick reaction time and need to set up shots make a match "more of a mental than physical exercise."

About 20 million Americans play table tennis at least once a month, experts say, many of whom never leave their recreation room or basement table.

But when they do come out for competitive play, many realize that the moves they learned by playing their friends won't stand up very long.

"It's a totally different game," Waters said.

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