June 2, 2006

Table tennis welcomes all comers as club grows

Few people realize there is a table tennis club at this school, let alone that it’s been around for some time. But if they were to wander around the basement of Ida Noyes, as club president third-year Matthew Mao was doing several months ago, they might even stumble across some ancient ping-pong robots. The robots are machines costing hundreds of dollars that spew balls in rapid succession at the athlete-in-training. They are something that only a very well off team would purchase. The club, with eight or so core members, whose last budget request was to the tune of $154, was once quite rich and dedicated.

These days the club is more of a mixed bag. It’s peopled by both the extremely competitive and recreational players. International students who played the sport in high school arrive desperate for a table tennis fix. Visiting professors and scholars come to the club looking for an outlet during their short stays. Once, a former player from the junior team of Singapore was an active member of the club. And e-mails like the one that came last January from Jack Liu are not so unusual: “We are the exchange scholars from China and will arrive [in] Chicago at Jan. 20. We expect to play table tennis there with the members of the club…. You know we are super fans of table tennis and don’t satisfy two days play a week.”

While the immediate, near-addictive needs of its near-professional members are served, the recreational players get a great learning opportunity. Mao is the poster child for this type of player. He started playing on his dorm’s ping-pong table and became fairly involved. “I became, like, the king of the table.” He liked playing so much that he looked up the club and started going to practices—where he lost miserably. But the game was fun, so he kept it up. Mao developed some of the muscles that good ping-pong players use; he learned that, despite appearances, all the power comes from the legs. He began to explore the game outside of the University. In Chinatown, Mao picked up a cut-rate, but excellent, coach, and at a club on 47th Street, he played against 70-year-olds.

“It’s been a really great way to get to know people—especially around Chicago and the Hyde Park community,” Mao said.

Because of its mix of new and old players, the team rarely has the resources to fit all of its needs. The team has four tables, three of which are in workable condition, and of the 20 or so players who start out with the club at the beginning of the year, few are patient enough to wait around for the tables come practice time. The very good international players come and go. And nearly everyone is hampered by their primary reason for being here: academics. While the club has few players to begin with, come exam time it’s surprising if anyone shows up.

Four or five people are needed to field a team for competitions, and the team doesn’t have enough manpower to do that. Instead, players go on their own to individual tournaments. When the team was a member of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA), something chose not to participate in this year, they were competing against schools which had drafted their ping-pong players.

“Truth be told, I think we were last on all of the NCTTA,” Mao said.

In America, table tennis is seen as a pseudo-sport. While there are clubs and dedicated players, the sport, when it is viewed as a sport at all, is something of a popular joke—think of Forrest Gump’s incarnation as a professional ping-ponger. Overseas, however, table tennis is nearly another soccer or basketball. Millions watch games, hound players for autographs, and enroll in lessons. There are some 40 million competitive players. The game has been an Olympic sport since the late 1980s. In the United States, it’s a basement toy, but nearly everywhere else, table tennis is the height of athleticism.

For example, when Mao studied abroad in Paris last quarter and wanted to keep up his game, there was a million-dollar facility in the middle of the city open 65 hours a week. There were dozens of people there at any time of the day, playing under lighting specially created for optimal table tennis condition. In the United States, if there are clubs, they tend to be like the one in Chicago’s Chinatown: two tables and dozens of players waiting patiently. The number of people who are interested in the sport may not be as high, but they are surely as dedicated.

The club at the University of Chicago hopes to meet the needs of the dedicated. Those who want to play can, after all, wait an hour for a table. Those who become addicted to the game, as Mao did, can put up with the inconveniences inherent in such a small club. They can handle, for instance, this year’s unlucky lottery draw that put the club in the balcony of Henry Crown and sends scores of balls flying over the side, two stories down. The number of dedicated players on the team may be small, but they are happy to have any club at all, and they send e-mails bouncing back and forth across the listhost setting up additional practices and games.

In the future, perhaps the makeup of the club will change. There may be fewer international former semi-pros, there may be more basement warriors. But the members of the club are glad to share their passion with anyone who might be interested.

“There really is no barrier to playing with us,” Mao notes. “We have no fees, we lend out paddles, we lend out balls. We even get people borrowing them for beer pong. We don’t ask, but they come back freshly washed.”