NEW YORK (Xinhua) – With attire varying from shirts and ties to vests and shorts, to dresses and school uniforms, each participant sweats over the sport for 10 minutes and enjoys the cheering from a corner at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, New York, the United States (US).
Favourite pastime sport
One of the special features at Bryant Park, and by far the most popular one even on a scorching 90-degree summer day, are ping pong tables open to the public from 11am to 8pm every day.
The sign-up sheet can go up to several pages, and participants often have to expect waiting for 20 to 30 minutes. People sign up with a partner or solo, and get 10 minutes of playtime each.
Ending his match with a victorious cheer, Baolong Huang brandishes his professional table tennis paddle, red rubber on one side to increase strength, and black rubber on the backside to increase friction.
“People who are serious about the game bring their own paddles,” said the 60-year-old participant, a patron at the ping pong tables for five years, who also participates in tournaments the park holds each month.
Jeremiah Lee, another participant, was more relaxed as he held the simple paddle offered by the park. “It is interactive, something to do during lunch hour,” he said. “You don’t have to just sit in your office eating your food. You can go to the park, and right after you can play a little bit of game. It is something to enjoy.”
Same as Lee, many New Yorkers come here without having to pay big bucks to gyms or getting on the subway for a long ride. In comparison with going to a traditional gym, playing ping pong has a relatively low cost of space and maintenance, and people there try to develop conversations and build relationships.
According to Statista, an online statistics portal, the number of table tennis participants in the US has been increasing since 2006, and the figure stood at 17 million in 2016, about five per cent of the national population. The participation rate, though overshadowed by basketball players at 22 million, almost caught up to that of tennis players at 18 million that year.
However, the sport was not so popular nearly two decades ago when Wang Chen, a former Chinese national athlete and 2008 US Olympian, came to the US in 2000. It was “extremely hard” to find a place to play ping pong, and she had to drive two hours or more just to find somewhere to practise.
When she couldn’t find anywhere to play, she would practise in the neighbour’s basement with amateurs, Wang said. Due to the lack of proper tables, Wang taught in churches and basements, working through South Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York.
“Some of my students were even seniors who had bypass surgery, but eventually everyone came to love the sport,” Wang said.
Some 20 years later, ping pong tables have sprouted in cafes, parks, community centres and clubs. In most cases, participants play 21-point matches, switching serves every five points. These tables have nurtured countless ping pong enthusiasts who, like Huang, are quite competitive and consider themselves “professionals” at the casual scenes.
SPiN, a modern two-in-one café lounge and ping pong club near Midtown New York, is attracting the elite and hip-hop culture to its trendy high-end ping pong tables, according to the Fortune.
As a casual game, it is referred to as ping pong – while as a professional sport, it is called table tennis. Wang Chen Table Tennis Club, which opened in 2004 thanks to the help from sponsor and ping pong enthusiast Jerry Wartski, emphasises professional training for table tennis as a sport.
Wang said that customers go and have fun at SPiN – but when they start getting competitive, they come to her club to pick up some professional training.
Alexis Perez, former champion from the Dominican Republic, has been a regular at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club ever since its opening. “Table tennis is my life,” he said. This summer, he is bringing a junior champion from the Dominican Republic to train at the club.
Active chess game
The club attracts participants from three-year-olds to 90-year-olds, Wang said. People start to realise that ping pong, as a relatively safe sport, is beneficial to the eye and brain without the risk of getting hurt. One of Wang’s students has done a study to prove that ping pong helps with mental issues such as depression and also Alzheimer’s.
Ana Aleksandric, a 19-year-old table tennis champion from Serbia, is coaching at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club summer camp during vacation from college in Texas. One of her students, an 11-year-old boy from the Upper West side, strives to work on his back and forth footwork while trying to hit the flying ping pong balls. “It’s hard, but he really loves it,” Aleksandric said.
The over-arching understanding is that people don’t need to move or think that much when playing ping pong. “This understanding is wrong,” Wang says. “Ping pong requires you to move your legs, your feet, your whole body.”
Ping pong is not simply a game of strength or speed, it includes observation and strategy, and can be described as a mind game as well as a sport, added Wang.
Lee described table tennis as “an active chess game” for him. “I get to move around while trying to anticipate what another person will do,” he said.
China and the US have been engaged in increasing and improving communication over the past decades since the Ping Pong Diplomacy in the 1970s acted as the key to the normalisation of China-US relations.
Though no US player has won a medal at the Olympics for ping pong, the sport has grown to be a professional one, Perez said. “It is a great sport, and everybody thanks Asia for introducing it.”
However, there is still much to be done to change the mind-set that ping pong is “not a real sport”, Wang said.
Many Americans tend to agree that more aggressive sports such as football and basketball are “more interesting”, while sports like ping pong are considered a form of entertainment rather than a serious sport. In fact, many colleges offer athletic scholarships for varsity sports, few acknowledge table tennis as part of that list.
“My son told me his Physical Education teacher said that table tennis is not a sport,” Wang said. “I was extremely upset.”
Though ping pong has successfully transformed into a relaxing and fun sport, the process for people to take it as a professional sport will take time, Wang said.