The Golden Child
THE OPPONENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE NET, the one talking to his racquet at this moment, is a nobody in the sport, undertrained, lightly regarded, just the kind of foe that prodigy and Olympic hopeful Han Xiao likes least. "There's nothing to gain and always something to lose for me against that kind of player," Xiao says. A loss here could be a harbinger of trouble, a worrisome crack in his dream to play in the 2008 Olympics. The last thing this idol of the immigrant community wants to do is let anyone down.
Xiao is the sixth-ranked men's table tennis player in the United States -- at 20, a serious contender to win a place on the U.S. Olympic team. There are no table tennis superstars in America -- the best American player is not even in the top 100 in the world rankings -- but Xiao (pronounced "Shao"), who is outside the top 500, still is a big enough deal in the American game to warrant free gear -- today it's a pair of black athletic shorts and a natty blue-and-white polo shirt with his sponsor's logo.
His unranked opponent, 25-year-old Qasim Aziz, has loved this sport since his arrival in the United States from his native Pakistan 11 years ago. Aziz flashed promise in his teenage years, winning a Junior Olympics national championship and regularly beating Xiao when the younger man was still a little kid. But then, while Xiao got bigger and more skilled, Aziz played only sporadically. Between jobs as a homebuilder, he returned to practice and competition in early 2006, though the word "competition" does not seem suited to a match nowadays between him and Xiao. Xiao, who is a full-time student at the University of Maryland, has never been away from the sport since he began playing at 6 1/2. He has spent three of the past four summers training in China, which has the world's best players and the most intensive training regimens.
Xiao is the golden child of the Maryland Table Tennis Center, and this weekend's league tournament barely qualifies as a workout for him. Top prize today is $55, and the runner-up gets his $5 entry fee back. Twenty-two spectators have casually staked out positions to watch.
Twirling a racquet and stretching his lean 5-foot-10 frame, Xiao is imperiously silent; he has been accustomed to attention from small groups since his days as a child phenom. Aziz, in a plain, white T-shirt and casual shorts, is bounding around like a jumping bean and mumbling ferociously at his racquet: "You ready? Come on. You ready?"
Earlier that week, Xiao's coach, Cheng Yinghua, a former American Olympian, bluntly told Aziz that he had no chance of beating his top pupil. "Why play?" Cheng asked Aziz. "You are good, but you cannot beat Han. No chance."
Aziz has worked himself into a frenzy. The match begins, and Aziz takes a quick lead. His small knot of supporters, most of them sitting on a lumpy couch, whoop in whispers.
Early in the first game, Xiao hits a hard topspin backhand onto a corner of the table, the ball skipping and flying 15 feet beyond it, seemingly out of reach. Grunting, the fleet Aziz runs it down and hits a rocket forehand crosscourt that clips the corner of Xiao's side of the table for a clean winner. Xiao's supporters collectively gasp. Several in the Aziz contingent leap.
"That was a bitch-slap," someone mutters approvingly from the Aziz side.
Aziz leaps up and pumps his fist. "How do you like that?" he shouts at the air. "How do you like that? "
Xiao looks at his racquet, expressionless. He hits a serve. Aziz instantly rips back for another forehand winner.
Xiao gazes across the net, his face a blank sky. Aziz is a storm. A variety of gestures accompany his shouts. The finger-point. The fist-pump. The whirly-copter, during which he spins and pumps his left fist one, two, three times. He is hopping and howling at the ceiling now: "What did I say to you? That's right, that's what I said -- that's what you gotta do. You like that? Yeah, you like that." He takes a swig out of a plastic water jug and yells at his racquet. "Come on."