The four of us wore matching blue-and-white George Washington University Table Tennis shirts. One way of telling whether someone is serious about table tennis is if they have special clothes just for playing it. Other dead giveaways are protective paddle carriers, talk of “pips” (little raised bumps on the paddle surface designed to facilitate spin), and questions about wood. If an opponent asks you before the match whether your paddle is made from balsa or pine, you might as well just put that match in the loss column and move on.
I had the special shirt part down, but I simply carried my paddle in an old schoolbag, where it collected the remaining dust and crumbs from everything else the bag had once carried. My only knowledge of pips was Gladys Knight-oriented, and my paddle could have been made from the remnants of old pizza boxes, for all I knew. Nevertheless, I was walking into the tournament with a good deal of confidence. I was a first-timer in USATT competition, but three years of practice on GWU’s club team gave me faith that I could clock a perfectly angled backhand as well as anyone, and that maybe this skill would get me a few wins.
As pumped up as I was feeling, the tournament venue was enough to enervate even the fiercest competitor. The building was an abandoned hospital that felt as though a few deceased patients were still lurking around someplace. When we came in, my teammates and I accidentally took the elevator to the third floor instead of the second; the door slid open to reveal a dark, unheated hallway, with mangled clumps of wires hanging down from the rectangular ceiling lights. But this type of location is perfect for housing a table tennis club. Just like the former video store in Maryland that was the site of my second competitive tournament a few months later, the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in Philadelphia is all ping pong, all the time. Establishments that host one of the fringiest of fringe sports can’t afford to pay the rent in more traditional locations, and probably struggle to scrape by even in ghost-infested halls of death.
My road to the tournament began when I was ten years old, and stumbled into a game of doubles at a school dance (because of course I was playing ping pong at a school dance instead of doing anything that demonstrated romantic competence). I found out that I sucked at it much less than I sucked at all the other sports, and I may have even successfully smashed the ball in someone’s face once or twice. I told my parents about this athletic revelation, and on my eleventh birthday there was a shiny new table at the bottom of my family’s basement stairs. I had quickly lost interest in the air hockey and foosball tables I received on birthdays past, and there was no reason to believe the same thing wouldn’t happen this time. But I liked the feel of the ball shooting off my paddle, and the rare sight of it hitting the table after I swung as hard as I could. I practiced a lot, with whomever would play me, and all of my hard work paid off in a life-changing way: I won a few tournaments in my high school gym class. Collegiate scholarship offers were pouring in!
Not so much on the scholarships, actually, but I somehow managed to get into college on the merits of my academic performance. It was only when I went away to college that I learned ping pong existed outside of basements, barrooms, and gym classes. There were people who took lessons and played in tournaments when they were barely old enough to see over the table. They would never play a ball that hit the ceiling, and the took offense to their sport being called anything other than “table tennis” (these people will tell you that “Ping Pong” originally referred to a brand of table tennis equipment, and not the sport itself. It’s a bastardized term, like Kleenex, but there’s no way to use “table tennis” in conversation without sounding pretentious, so “ping pong” works for me).
Somehow, I was able to make inroads with these people, even though they were all much, much better at ping pong than me. I could hang around with them in games sometimes, but other times they would get so far ahead that they fed me easy lobs to take a smash at (and I even missed my fair share of those). Even though I wasn’t winning, hitting plastic balls with wooden clubs was a stress-busting reprieve from writing papers and completing problem sets. I took losses hard; I would return home to my dorm and yell into my pillow after particularly bad nights of playing (I didn’t have a roommate, fortunately). But even though my participation in Table Tennis Club gave rise to a lot more screaming than extracurricular activities ought to, I knew I was having a lot more fun than the College Democrats and College Republicans were having seeing who could yell louder in their debates across the street.
When I stopped taking ping pong so seriously, and started enjoying the spirit of friendly competition with my teammates, things began falling into place. Shots that used to sail a few feet long started clipping the back edge of the table. My serve became more like a bullet and less like a cream puff. I even won some matches in intercollegiate competition against University of Maryland and George Mason, so I decided I was finally good enough to try my hand against players who not only knew about the existence of table tennis facilities in old hospitals, but were willing to set foot in them several days a week to train and compete.
USATT competitions use a rating system like the one used to classify competitive chess players. Players are placed on a scale that ranges from 0 to 3000, with their exact placement based on the ratings of the players they’ve won and lost against. As a totally inexperienced, unrated player, I signed up for the Under 1000 bracket, which meant that I was matched up against other “beginners.” But it’s important to note that the USATT does not define “beginner” as “some guy who picked up a paddle for the first time at a party after a few too many Yuenglings,” as most people would. A beginner in the eyes of the USATT is someone who has yet to break into the intermediate and advanced levels of competitive table tennis. In other words, these so-called beginners could eviscerate the kind of beginners who don’t know whether the white edges of the table are in or out of bounds (they’re in. How would it even make sense for them to be out? I’ve never understood why people think this).
And that’s exactly what these beginners did to me. Most of them were good-natured, but as with any group of people that takes a recreational activity much more seriously than the average person, there were a few snobs. Snobs who heaved prolonged sighs each time I whiffed on one of their serves, or bounced the return two inches from where the serve had landed. If I were in their shoes, I would just be happy to get an easy win. But their issue with me was that my rating was bound to be so low. A 950 player would only see an increase in his or her standing after beating a comparable player, not someone whose rating looked like a Celsius temperature reading from Toronto. So I took my lumps in these matches. I swung for the fences and celebrated internally on the (very few) occasions my aggressive shots worked, paid no mind to those who were annoyed by my very presence in the round-robin tournament, and made sure my handshake with the gracious ones included a smile and a “thank you.”
But I had a saving grace: the kids. Several of my opponents were pre-pubescent boys and girls, and I’m not ashamed to admit that two of them kicked my ass. They could barely reach the table, and their brains and bodies had not had the time to grow and develop that mine did, but there was no shame in losing to them. They were the kind of kids who trained daily, no doubt due to parental badgering (confirmed by the fact that their mothers and fathers played in higher levels of the tournament). But then there was this one little blonde girl. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Like me, was a real beginner on the competitive circuit, and her rating confirmed it: 440. Her older brother swept me in our best-of-five series, but she had yet to benefit from his two or three years of additional experience. I beat her 11-6 in the first game, won the second game 12-10 after two incredibly lucky shots dribbled over the net, and finished off the match with another 11-6 game, after I sent a backhand whizzing straight into the eye of the Hello Kitty on her tee shirt.
I went 1-9 in my first USATT tournament, and scored one more win in my second. I intend to play more, but my limited time and skills may mean that additional tournament play isn’t in the cards. In any case, I’m able to say that I’m a nationally-ranked ping pong player, and anyone who hears this will imagine that I defeated some Chinese-American who just missed out on the Olympics. But the important thing is that table tennis, ping pong, whatever, has done some good for me, and for a lot of other people. That abandoned hospital probably would’ve turned into an underground heroin dispensary, or something.