When Drexel announced that they got the rights to the Table Tennis Olympic Trials this summer, I thought it was a funny joke. I had no idea that ping-pong was an Olympic sport.
My editor wanted to do extensive coverage of the four-day event, and I could not help but ask why. The most use I have ever gotten out of a ping-pong table was using it as a beer pong table. It has been so long since I have played the game that I was beginning to forget the real purpose of the table.
I attended Thursday’s matches knowing that I did not need to write anything, but the play was surprisingly good. If you have ever watched table tennis on television, the action is exactly the same. These guys represent the best in the country, playing in the biggest competition they have.
The top 10 in the men’s brackets gets a bye into the round-robin tournament that begins Friday. Thursday’s action was the qualifier for the last two spots in the twelve man field. So from the second-tier action, you would expect second-tier play.
No way, these guys are sick. They use every type of spin possible to guide their opponents into making a mistake, and when that does not work, the players use sheer power. The competitors swat 60 mph volleys at each other from 10 feet off the playing surface. I have yet to see the guys rally from outside the boundaries like in the movies, but I bet it will happen before the weekend is out.
“Today, it’s all about focusing and staying physically in shape,” Razvan Cretu said. The Philadelphia resident won one of the two qualifying spots in the main event. “I started cramping a little bit with De Tran. My legs were giving up. Somehow, I forgot about it, and I kept on playing.
This is such a physical sport. Physically, it is a nightmare. You have to be unbelievably in shape to play at higher levels. Younger guys with a lot of training got to watch out for them. Older guys have the experience, but it’s about quickness.”
Table tennis has one thing on typical varsity sports, it’s far from conventional. The game is played by people who seemingly have less athletic talent than football kickers, but they all have lightning-quick reflexes and the fine motor skills to boot. The competitors even have tight shirts and short shorts to add a little sex appeal for those who like the dorky look.
The participants even have the mannerisms of gamers pawning their opponents in a Halo match. After winning points, each player seems to explode with emotion screaming noises like, “Geyo!,” “Shu!” and “Tout!” It is like they are not even allowed to exclaim a simple yes.
“Sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m saying,” Tahl Leibovitz said. He was the other winner in the qualifier round. “I try to motivate myself because sometimes, I have a lot of physical bumps so I just try to pump myself up.”
Leibovitz is a member of the Paralympics team, and he is already on his way to Beijing to represent the United States in table tennis. There are not many sports out there where one person can be on the Paralympic squad and make the Olympic team.
Serves are nothing like a normal person would expect. These athletes often hold their paddles parallel to the table so the opposition has no way of predicting which side of the paddle is going to be used let alone how the ball will be spun.
“In the end, I decided to change my spin. Instead of moving my racket toward the right end, I moved it toward the left a little bit,” Leibovitz said. “I was just trying to open the first ball to get the first spin in.”
Just to add to the bizarreness of the whole event, every official was a dinosaur. It is like they are the old guard of table tennis, and they refuse to give the younglings a chance to screw up the referee work. However, there were some problems with the chair umpires over the course of the day.
“I was starting to get angry a little bit because the umpires are a little bit old and they couldn’t see,” Leibovitz said. “We need to have an age cutoff for the umpires like 75 should be the cutoff.”
The action is fast-paced, and the passion is real. It may not be a sport that I would want to watch on a regular basis, but it is definitely worth checking out this weekend. Someone might smack a souvenir table tennis ball into the stands that you can use for beer-pong tonight.
Written by Shawn Gauby