I still have nightmares remembering when my elfin 11-year-old brother whupped my 18-year-old butt in table tennis in front of a bunch of smirking relatives. You may need to be burly to tackle football or lanky to land a basketball, but in table tennis (aka Ping-Pong), size doesn't matter -- it's all about speed and agility. In our game, everything happened so fast I hardly had time to blush: Steve's serves bounced off the table and out of my field of vision before I even knew it. Humble pie never tasted so bad.
So when I walked into the Potomac Country Table Tennis Club, my hopes of playing a "friendly" game against club President Herman Yeh were dashed as soon as I saw him in action -- the guy had moves I could only dream of. "You need to play against someone on your level," Yeh explains. "Otherwise, you won't have a chance and it's no fun." Says Maryland Table Tennis Center co-founder and coach Larry Hodges, who recommends lessons if you plan on thrashing competitive buddies: "A player who takes lessons for six months can go out there and not just beat, but actually annihilate your average basement star." Take that, bro!
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What to Expect: Speed. Balls can travel at 100 mph, and there's barely a second to figure out how to return a serve. More advanced players learn to anticipate the ball's tricky turns, backspin, topspin and high bounces. Spinning the little sucker in different directions when you serve is the key to mastery. Players alternate taking two serves each and are awarded one point each time the opponent misses the ball; whoever racks up 11 points first wins. Most clubs and tournaments play "best of five" matches (whoever wins three games first wins the whole set).
What to Bring: Shorts, a T-shirt and a towel (it's a little table, but a lot of movement, so you can get sweaty quickly). You also need a paddle (regulation versions can be bought at www.butterflyonline.com or www.paddlepalace.com), lightweight tennis shoes or sneakers, and some table tennis balls.
Cost: Local club membership varies from $25 to $250 a year; the Maryland Table Tennis Center allows nonmembers to play for $5 a day. Tony Sclafani
Where to Get Served
Arlington Table Tennis Club. Madison Community Center, 3829 N. Stafford St., Arlington. 703-465-1905. www.attc.3k.com. New members are welcome at this informal, friendly 43-member club, which also hosts tournaments. Most players still play the old-fashioned 21-point game. Membership is $25 per year and includes a club T-shirt. Open Monday-Tuesday, 3-9:30 p.m.; Thursday, 3-6 p.m.
Maryland Table Tennis Association. Carrolltown Center, 6400 Ridge Rd., Eldersburg. 410-552-3113. www.marylandtabletennis.com. Both the Howard County Table Tennis Club and the Carroll County Table Tennis Club play out of this five-table shopping-mall location. Families welcome. $25 to $75 monthly (discounts for kids, seniors and groups). Open Tuesday-Friday, 7-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Maryland Table Tennis Center. 18761-Q Frederick Rd., Gaithersburg. 301-519-8580. www.mdttc.com. This place, populated by Olympic hopefuls and skillful veterans, is where to go for serious play. You'll find 12 tables and two full-time coaches (one a former Olympian) as well as the top junior-player training center in the country. Private lessons available. $5 per day for nonmembers. Adult members $35 per month, $90 for three months or $250 a year (discounts for kids and families). Open Monday-Friday, 7-11 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-11 p.m.
Potomac Country Table Tennis Club. Potomac Community Center, 11315 Falls Rd., Potomac. 301-983-4471. www.geocities.com/pcttc. This 14-table club has a 30-person waiting list, partly because annual admission is just $60 per year. Players range in age from teens to sixty-somethings. April-November: Open Wednesday, 7-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. December-March: Open Wednesday, 7-10 p.m.; Saturday, 6:15-9:30 p.m.
Want to see some real pros play? One thousand of the top table tennis players in the country will compete Nov. 26-28 at the 2004 Stiga North American Teams Championships at the Baltimore Convention Center. Call 301-738-8250 or visit www.natabletennis.com and see "Upcoming Events."
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