Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 28, 2007

Table tennis, anyone?

Jordan Middle School student among competitors in world pingpong championships coming to Stanford Dec. 8-15

by Jocelyn Dong

Listening to 11-year-olds Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang talk is like watching a pingpong match. Sentences zip through the air, the girls volleying them back and forth in one seamless stream of conversation.

Which is appropriate, in a way, given that the two are counted among the best young table-tennis players in the country.

On Dec. 8, they will join 190 other pingpong athletes from around the globe at Stanford University for the World Junior Table Tennis Championships. Competitors from 38 countries are expected, including China, considered by those in the sport to be a pingpong powerhouse. The weeklong tournament will bestow seven world titles in singles, doubles, mixed-doubles and boys' and girls' teams.

Lily, a sixth-grader at Jordan Middle School, and Ariel, a seventh-grader in San Jose, are among the 12 members of the United States team.

The girls have been touted as "future Olympians," possibly qualifying for the 2012 team.

"They're phenomenal," said Dennis Davis, president of the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club, of which the girls are members.

Ariel is the current Cadet (under 15 years old) National champion, the 2007 North American Cadet (under 15) champion and the 2007 U.S. Open champion for players under 13.

Lily finished second to Ariel in the most recent Cadet National Championship as well as the 2007 North American Cadet Championship, Davis said.

Both girls started playing pingpong as 7 year olds, brought almost accidentally to the club by their parents, who themselves wanted to play.

Today, their regimen includes hours of practice: Lily puts in nearly 16 hours a week; Ariel up to 23 hours. But the sacrifice, which includes keeping up with schoolwork even when traveling, is worth it to them.

"You just enjoy yourself when you're out there," Ariel said.

"You make new friends," Lily said. "You travel around the world."

"Oh, and it's an exciting sport," Ariel said.

They have competed in cities throughout the United States as well as in Canada, China and, most recently, South Africa. Ariel has also played in Serbia.

The girls rattled off the names of countries and areas of the world from which their pingpong pals hail: Australia, Singapore, Europe, Japan, Latin America. When they hang out with the other players, a sense of fun, not competition, predominates -- even when they don't speak the same tongue.

"Sometimes we use sign language," Lily said.

The petite girls may look mild-mannered, but they exude confidence when talking about their sport. They cite hard work, intelligence and having a good mental game as being keys to table-tennis success.

"If you do the same thing over and over, they'll adjust to you," said a pony-tailed Ariel, who has played friendly matches against billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett -- and won. She recommended players vary their game, while also out-thinking their opponents.

"If you serve short and they return it well, they'll step back from the table because they expect you to serve long next time. So you might want to serve short again."

Ariel and Lily aren't the only ones busily preparing for the World Junior tournament. Davis took leave from his job as a corporate-staffing consultant in July in order to devote himself full-time to organizing the eight-day event.

"I'm sleep deprived already," he said recently. "We don't have any paid staff."

On Davis' to-do list: providing hospitality, including transportation, for 380 people from 38 countries; preparing Roscoe Maples Pavilion, Burnham Pavilion and Ford Center with proper flooring, lighting and video equipment; reaching out for support from consulates and local ethnic communities; planning the opening ceremonies; and -- last but not least -- preparing his players for the competition.

"I've done local tournaments before, but it's not even in the same vicinity," he said.

To make sure everything comes off without a hitch, Davis has been working with Anne Cribbs, president and CEO of Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee (BASOC); the Stanford University Athletics Department; the International Table Tennis Federation; and the U.S. Table Tennis Association, among others. Their expertise has been invaluable, he said.

But it's the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club that will be fielding dozens of event volunteers. The 20-year-old group is one of the largest clubs in the country. Located at Cubberley Community Center, it offers kids and adults the chance to perfect their volleys, lobs, serves and kill shots. It has approximately 250 members, 70 of whom are kids -- and only two of those who are not Asian.

"Everyone thinks I must have a Chinese wife," joked Davis, a Nebraska native who launched the club's junior program in 1990.

The sport of table tennis, while not widely followed in the United States, is second to soccer in terms of global popularity and participation, according to BASOC. It has been an Olympic event since 1988.

In China, where the sport is most popular, adult tournaments draw more than 500 million TV viewers, according to Davis.

"I knew they took it seriously there when we went to the opening ceremonies," Davis said of an April 2005 visit to Shanghai for the World Table Tennis Championship. The team was running late and hadn't been able to leave the hotel due to traffic. All of a sudden, police escorts sprang into action.

It was "the parting of the sea," he recalled. "They blocked off the highway ... and we drove straight to the middle of town. People were standing on the sidewalks, waving."

Davis expects the World Junior Championship, part of which will be broadcast to China, could draw up to 15 million viewers.

He hopes a crowd of 10,000 local spectators will turn out.

"We need the people of Palo Alto to show up and watch," he said. "If someone hasn't been at a tournament, they won't believe people can do this. Sometimes I don't believe it -- how fast they move, how fast they hit the ball."

Lily and Ariel expect to be among the youngest players at the World Juniors, which is for athletes younger than 18.

"It's going to be terribly nerve-wracking" competing against older players, Lily said.

But Ariel said she was excited.

"I'm hoping to see my friends again," she said. "If I don't do well, I hope to find ways to improve."

In addition to pingpong, Ariel plays the clarinet and piano and Lily plays the violin and enjoys biking and swimming.

The pair will join four other girls on the United States' World Junior team: Stanford freshman Atha Fong, Judy Hugh, Olena Sowers and Stephanie Smith. The boys' team includes A.J. Brewer, Steven Chan, Joe Cochran, Marcus Jackson, John Leach and Justen Yao.

Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at jdong@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Robert, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Nov 29, 2007 at 11:12 am

Very good article and very informative. Thanks.


Posted by Sash from Europe, a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2007 at 12:52 am

Would you mind writing an article as informative as this one about the most talented young boys in US table tennis as well?
Information about US cadet/junior tt players is hard to find on the internet, the information given on the USATT webpage doesn't seem to be up to date... Thank you.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2007 at 8:28 am

Until the US refrains from calling Table Tennis, pingpong, it will never catch on as a serious sport. Give it its proper name and people will take it more seriously. Cmon, who wants to be known as a "pingpong champion"?


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