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Youth Is Serving

In the event that an opponent actually manages to return her serve, Hsing earns her reputation as one of the most aggressive players in the United States. She bounces on her toes during a point and pumps her fists if she wins it. Her forehand mirrors a tennis stroke: hips twirled sideways, arm extended behind her and a full swing that ends with a high follow-through. Her backhand is short, powerful and ruthless -- a stab.

"Sometimes I believe she has found her destiny doing this," her father said. "She makes these very hard things look easy."

Hsing's parents both played table tennis while growing up in China, and they introduced their daughter to the game at a club in Palo Alto, Calif., shortly after her seventh birthday. During the car ride home that day, after an hour of impressive hitting, Hsing's parents talked about whether they would pay for relatives to stay in hotels when Hsing eventually played in the Olympics.

Her career, remarkably, has exceeded even those initial expectations, convincing some in the table tennis community that Hsing is the most talented U.S. junior in decades. She won her first national title at 8 and accepted sponsorship from Butterfly -- a major table tennis manufacturer -- at 9. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett sent a private jet for Hsing in 2007 so she could play against investors during an annual meeting. She held court for three hours, never losing a game.

Last year, Michael turned the family's sun room into a "table tennis room," installing easy-grip rubber flooring. It's where Hsing spends most of her free time, practicing with her Chinese training partner until 9 or 10 p.m. on weekday afternoons and for as long as six hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

While they play, Hsing's trainer partner sometimes tells stories about table tennis's popularity in China, where professionals play in huge stadiums for televised matches. She's heard enough to form a goal so lofty it might challenge even her own considerable potential.

"I want to go to the Olympics and maybe one day win a gold medal," she said. "But then I want to help the sport grow here by spreading it around, so everybody understands how hard it is."


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