Ping-Pong Madness

At the Hub of the City's Table-Tennis Subculture

My immersion into the ping-pong subculture came with my urgent desire to pay for an hour's lesson. Because of the pitiful economics of the sport, most of the top-rated players, unwilling or unable to apply their competitive skills to the normal work world, have to coach for a living. The facts of life result in a clean fiduciary relationship with no ambiguity or misunderstandings. I don't mind that I'm a walking $20 bill in a T-shirt and glasses. Where else could I work up a sweat with a superb athlete while redistributing the wealth to New York's Third World economy in a micro, trickle-down way?

Every coach has something fresh to offer, and a different style of conveying knowledge. As the one who pays, I've felt entitled to a measure of promiscuity, even if the element of guilt is never absent. These days my main man is Alex Perez, who came here from the Dominican Republic two years ago. Alex doesn't speak English and I don't speak Spanish, but he taught me a backhand sidespin serve that's a lulu. Alex also took my footwork problems to heart after watching me nearly sprain an ankle. Nike doesn't bother to make a table-tennis shoe, although it is standard gear in Europe and Asia. This summer Alex came back from the U.S. Open in Florida (that's the Table Tennis Open, need I say) with lightweight Japanese shoes that improved my footwork on the spot. Now we're working on topspin loop returns.

Alex and Abass and the other West Siders who travel by van to the rated tournaments in other cities are competing for something like $400 in the Open Singles. Subtract food, lodging, and the tournament's entry fee, and they're lucky to break even, although their ratings might go up a notch. Table-tennis ratings are modeled on chess ratings, for some obscure reason. When Abass beat the esteemed Shao Yu, New York's top-rated Chinese player, at a recent tournament, his rating jumped to 2550. I'm unrated, natch, but if I went the tournament route I'd be in the under-1000 class.

West side story: Abass Ekun, Nigerian superstar
photo: Pete Kuhns
West side story: Abass Ekun, Nigerian superstar

Not all tournaments are rated. The Chinatown tournament, held three times a year on Mott Street, isn't rated. It offers groceries from local merchants as prizes. It's a great family scene, with toddlers running around like at the old Chinese opera. Shao Yu's name is the only one written in English on the scoreboard, because he is such a famous draw. Catharina Tjiook of my Women's League won in two Mott Street divisions this summer; she came away with giant cases of Ginseng Ale and Tung-i Lemon Iced Tea.

After a year of lessons I summoned my nerve to come to the West Side on a Sunday afternoon and try out for the Women's League, which Catharina, an Indonesian champion, founded eight years ago. Five league players represented New York in women's ping-pong at the Gay Games in Amsterdam last year, but they got eliminated early. Tjiook's mission is to involve more women, lesbian and straight, in the sport. She spends her own money on trophies for her seasonal competitions, and she brought in Monica Golubovic as her official league coach. Monica was a star on the national Romanian team before she defected. When she arrived in New York with her husband and baby, she was horrified to find that top-rated players had to practice in billiard parlors. It wasn't that way under the Ceau¸sescu regime.

Catharina sized up my game and placed me in the Intermediate Division, Monica overcame my resistance to the backspin chop, and I finished the season ranking eighth out of 14 in the singles and third in the doubles, so I got a trophy. Hooray! This year I expect to do better, wherever we end up playing.

Which leads me to some further theories about why ping-pong doesn't have a serious rep in the States. Its onomatopoeic alliteration makes it sound like a sissy dilettante's game, while "table tennis," the preferred alternative, reminds some people of miniature golf. And since it consists of so many lightning moves executed in close quarters, it doesn't lend itself readily to a huge spectator crowd. It's aerobic, but is it telegenic?

I don't see any deus ex machina on the horizon to rescue ping-pong from its present obscurity; the players just want a convenient venue to play in that attracts the pros. Coach Min Shili, who used to be at the West Side, has opened Champion— eight tables, good lighting— one flight up on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights. I've played there twice already with Maria, my doubles partner. Coach Hui Yuan Liu has seven tables in Flushing. The duffer venues are three tables on East 86th Street and four on West 26th, in billiard parlors. But I'm used to the best.

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