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Unlikely duo of table tennis players, Derek Nie and Klaus Wood, train together

Derek Nie and Klaus Wood might not become two of the best table tennis players in the world, but Jan-Ove Waldner and Jorgen Persson did, and they trained together, too, so in the back office of the Maryland Table Tennis Center, Larry Hodges' discourse on late-20th-century Sweden doesn't actually sound all that out of place.

Persson, the less accomplished of the Swedish duo, won one world individual title, in 1991. Waldner, just over a year older, won two, in 1989 and 1997, and became the "Mozart of table tennis," widely considered the greatest player of all time. Waldner was "pushed every step of the way" by the competition back home, Hodges said.

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"If you look at almost all the top table tennis players in the world, in most cases, they come in twos," said Hodges, a USA Table Tennis Hall of Famer and co-founder of the Maryland Table Tennis Center. "Often, there will be two players who push themselves really hard."

The two players pushing themselves on a recent Sunday outside his door, with sweaty paddles on blue tables inside the sprawling complex, are friends. Only 15 and 14, respectively, Derek and Klaus have the occasional sleepover. Their parents drive them to practice. They are stars at the junior level — Derek rated No. 4 among under-15 U.S. boys until a recent birthday, Klaus No. 7 in those same Cadet rankings — but the notion of matches against the world's elite still seems as far removed as college applications.

After all, Klaus hasn't graduated from Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City. Derek, at 5 feet 3, is still trying to get taller. They're good players, they say, but the other's better.

"Because if you think everyone's better than you," Derek explained, "then you can learn from them, too."

Before the two met as children, they took similar paths to the sport. Then they diverged drastically.

Klaus remembers playing with his father on a table in their basement in first grade. He enjoyed it so much, he started going to the center. Derek, a North Potomac resident and freshman at Wootton, remembers watching his brother and father play on a table in their own basement.

Derek started playing at age 7, and went to a summer camp at the center. Klaus was there, too, and they acted like kids. "Me and Klaus fooled around the whole time," Derek recalled, laughing.

When Klaus was in the third grade, his father got a job in Taiwan. For decades, China's unofficial sport had been table tennis. Klaus found his interest rising. He wanted more than recreational competition.

"In America, if you tell someone that you play table tennis, they'll kind of laugh at you, like, 'Yeah, right, that's the only thing you do after school?'" Klaus said. "But in Taiwan, if you tell someone that, it's just normal."

In Taiwan, he needn't look far for help. Because his Taipei American School didn't field a table tennis team, he went to another local school to sign up in the sixth grade. So what if he was the youngest on the team by a good three or four years? He was playing every day now, at least well enough to beat his father.

In 2014, during seventh grade, Klaus moved back to Maryland as a much stronger and much taller player — he now stands about 6 feet. Waiting for him in Montgomery County was Derek, similarly improved, if less vertically blessed.

Derek's ladder climbing in the sport stateside had followed a more traditional course: A growing interest and skill in the sport begat Junior Olympics success, which begat more and better coaching, which begat still more success.

"You can see his interest in it," said his mother, Jenny Feng.

In Gaithersburg over that period, Derek sometimes trained with Crystal Wang, now a 14-year-old phenom who became the youngest player to make either the men's or women's national team. But she could be too "controlling" in practice, he said, and later moved to Seattle.

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"But when Klaus came," he added, "I was like: 'Yes, I have someone to pass with now.'"

"We hit it off from the very beginning," said Klaus, who also works out at the Baltimore Table Tennis Club. "We started training regularly. He's a good training partner."

Table tennis players can come in all shapes and sizes, but the best typically fall into an ideal height range: 5-7 to 5-10. Which makes Derek and Klaus' high-profile partnership all the more unlikely.

Derek is not blessed with the genes of giants — his mother, he says, is about 5-1; his father, about 5-8 — so he must do what he can to squeeze every inch out of life. He's sleeping more, because that's when growth hormone is secreted. He's drinking plenty of milk. He's also taking vitamins, which taste "really bad."

Klaus' problem, if you can call it that, is that he's expected to grow to about 6-3. In basketball or volleyball, his height would be an asset. In table tennis, it can get you to wide-angle shots, but it also can be a drag, leaving Klaus vulnerable in some ways against more nimble opponents.

"In the short run, it might be good that Derek is small because then he doesn't have to also deal with his constantly changing body," said Matt Wood, Klaus' father. "I think that's been difficult for Klaus because every time he comes to play, now he's 2 inches taller than last time, now he's 4 inches taller than last time."

Their games, meanwhile, continue to develop. Derek made the USA Cadet Boys' Team after finishing second at the USA Nationals in Las Vegas over the winter, and Klaus finished ninth, but they have continued to borrow from each other's arsenal, as if they share a library of moves.

In rallies, when he looks to place a shot with spin, Derek's wrist can be too tight. He knows his technique is off if the shot floats after striking the table, when it should kick like Klaus'.

On the other side of the table, Klaus' forehand remains a work in progress. The plane of his backstroke is sometimes different from that of his strike and follow-through. That can get even good players into trouble.

By now, they have played each other so often, they know what to expect at the start of each point. And they have played out that mind game so often, they know that the other knows it, too. "A double-intense anticipation," Derek called it.

Wins are nice — Klaus joked that he felt he had broken a "curse" after a five-game win ended an unpleasant losing streak to Derek — but there can be improvement in defeat. When your friend happens to be one of the best players in the nation, there will be good days and bad days. And come the next practice, he'll be there again, eager to help and humble you.

"Sometimes I beat him. Sometimes he beats me," Klaus said. "Afterward, we're all good friends. He never holds a grudge or is mad at me for the rest of the day. We both acknowledge that this is how you get better."

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