The Writer vs. the Olympian: Table Tennis in Less Than 60 Seconds
It all happened so fast.
I guess that’s the point. Part of the appeal of table tennis is its high speed in a small space. So when I matched up with Yue Wu in the center of the Shops at Liberty Place yesterday, it was over before it really started to sink in that I was playing an Olympic table tennis player in the center court of a shopping mall.
Wu, who also goes by Jennifer, was playing against anyone who stepped up to the table on Tuesday as part of a promotion for this weekend’s ITTF Women’s World Cup at the Liacouras Center. The annual international singles competition is in the United States for the first time.
After some practice back-and-forth for a few minutes, Wu wiped me out 3-0 in a game. Only two people won points against her all afternoon. One after a wild, back-and-forth that saw Wu running back and forth in the mall, several feet from the table, returning shot after shot. When she finally failed to return one, onlookers from the second level of the mall stood and cheered. It was pretty exciting — if this game between an Olympian and an officer worker can be good, the Women’s World Cup this weekend must be great!
But today’s press stunt wasn’t just about pitching this weekend’s event. (General admission tickets are 20 bucks all weekend, by the way.) Table tennis, as a sport with a smaller following in America, is one that’s constantly trying to recruit new players and drum up interest in the sport. Apparently Philadelphia is quite the hotbed of activity. There’s a club in East Falls, the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club. And one of the reasons Philadelphia got the Women’s World Cup is the great memories of the Olympic qualifiers held at Drexel in 2004.
“It’s still legendary in our organization — that was one of the best Olympic trials ever,” says Gordon Kaye, CEO of USA Table Tennis. “It was very well promoted. The city really embraced the sport. … It’s the birthplace of the Constitution, it’s the City of Brotherly Love, it’s a big enough city that the world is going to have their eyes on it but it’s small enough that I think we can make a real impact. I think table tennis and Philadelphia seem to be the right fit.”
Kaye said this was the first time his group set up tables in a mall like this, and he thought it went well. So did Wu, who said she enjoyed playing against newcomers and basement champions. She began playing table tennis at the age of 8, and came to the United States in 2008. She got a green card, supported herself by coaching, and became a citizen. Then won the title at the Pan American Games despite being seeded last coming into the event. That qualified her for the Rio Olympics, where she advanced to the second round.
“I want more people to join this sport,” she says. “I think most Americans don’t know what table tennis is — they always call it ping-pong. Someone will ask me what sport I do, and when they find out they’ll say, ‘I can beat you.’ Everybody thinks they can beat us.” (No one beat Wu on Tuesday, though Kaye said “you can call it ping-pong.”)
Kaye got into table tennis while general manager of the Reading Royals minor-league hockey team. Players asked him to put a ping-pong table in the locker room, and suddenly he found himself playing against professional hockey players for two or three hours a day. He started beating them. “I went to a club in Reading, and I lost to an 85-year-old guy 3-0,” he says. “And I said to myself that day, ‘This is going to be my sport.’”
Events like yesterday’s — and, really, even the Women’s World Cup this weekend — are all about getting people into table tennis. “Our number-one priority is just to get people playing,” Kaye says. “What I think is great about our sport is literally if you can stand at the table, pick up a paddle and hit a ball, you can play. You can’t jump in the pool with Michael Phelps, but you just played a game with an Olympic table tennis player.”
He’s right, actually. At one point during our match I was volleying with Wu. After the third time I hit it back to her, it didn’t matter that I was at the mall playing ping-pong in a sportcoat. I was playing against an Olympian, and rallying with her to boot. It was great.
Then, trying to return, I hit the ball with the side of my paddle. It went high in the air and off to the side. The spell was broken. But it was a nice few seconds.