Youth Is Serving

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- Before she left her San Jose home this week, Ariel Hsing tried to explain to her seventh-grade friends why she needed to leave school -- again. She had a tournament, Hsing explained, just like the ones earlier in South Africa, Florida and Serbia. She'd miss a few days of class, bringing her absence total this year to more than a month. On the red-eye flight home, she would cram in homework.

Wait, her friends said, still not quite understanding. All this for . . . Ping-Pong?

"They don't get it," Hsing said. "They think it's very silly, like maybe we're just meeting to play a little game for fun in somebody's basement."

Oh, and one more thing: Don't call it Ping-Pong. It's table tennis, and it's the sport that might make the 12-year-old Hsing the youngest athlete in the United States' 2008 Olympic delegation.

The No. 1 junior player in the United States, Hsing will compete this weekend against eight women at the U.S. Olympic trials. If she places in the top four, she will advance to the final round of qualifying in April. It would mark the most surprising landmark in an athletic career that already seems stuck in fast-forward.

In between her commitments as a seventh-grader at Chaboya Middle School in San Jose, Hsing practices for three hours each day with a cadre of coaches and spends her summers training in China. Her parents invited a professional Chinese player to live with them in San Jose, where he functions as Hsing's practice partner. They plan to replace him with another professional player soon -- assuming they can find one capable of challenging Hsing.

Here at Drexel University on Thursday night, Hsing arrived for her practice session before the Olympic trials dressed in dry-fit gym shorts and a collared tennis shirt. She stood next to a practice table, whirling her arms in circles and stretching the fatigued shoulders and back that force her to visit a chiropractor each Monday afternoon. After jogging a few laps around the table, she selected a paddle from the four stacked in her small shoulder bag. Then she lined up across the net from her father, Michael, as he started to serve her forehands.

The table tennis Hsing prepared to play here this weekend -- and elite players are adamant this sport is called table tennis -- bears little resemblance to basement-variety Ping-Pong. Drexel athletic officials covered the floor of the school's basketball gym with red rubber for solid footing and set up six tables across center court. Water stands were placed next to each table. Two trainers waited in a corner of the gym with bandages, gauze and muscle relaxants.

A good rally between two professional players sometimes includes 35 hits in 10 seconds, a hurried succession of 80-mph shots that sounds like hail hammering against a roof. On other points, players stand 20 feet back from the table and dive on the rubber floor to keep the ball in play, breaking after each rally to towel sweat off their faces.

Six amateur players paid a $200 entry fee Thursday to compete against professionals in a qualifying round. A few of the amateurs had played a bit in college -- using their tables primarily for drinking games, but occasionally for practice -- and figured they had a slim chance to qualify for Beijing. None won more than a handful of points.

"This is a physically demanding sport, but America just doesn't know it," said Bob Fox, vice president of USA Table Tennis. "Everybody thinks they can show up, pick up a paddle and play. They say, 'Hey, that table sure is small. That ball's small, too. How complicated can this be?' "

Hsing spent 25 minutes practicing her serve Thursday night, and she tossed the ball head high each time and considered a handful of possibilities. Should she hammer the ball to the opponent's backhand at 50 mph, aiming for the inch-thick white line at the edge of the table? Or maybe hit a topspin serve that would appear destined to sail long until it hit an invisible wall in mid-air and dropped into play? Or apply dead spin, causing the serve to narrowly clear the net, bounce four or five times and slow to a roll?

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