Correction to This Article
The KidsPost article misspelled the last name of table-tennis player Tong Tong Gong.

Youth Is Served

Larry Hodges, director and head coach at Club Joola, works with young athletes who play table tennis.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An orange blur bounces from one side of the table to the other and back again. Back and forth, back and forth. This is not your basement rec room game of table tennis.

Marcus Jackson, 16, and Peter Li, 15, are among the highest-ranked table-tennis players in the world for their ages. Even when they are just practicing, it's obvious how good they are by how fast that little orange ball bounces.

"I want to be the best I can be," Marcus says about his intense practices. Several times a week he travels from his home in Riverdale to clubs in Rockville and Baltimore to practice. "They say hard work pays off, and I want to see if that's true."

Marcus and Peter haven't had to wait long to see their hard work pay off. Both are sponsored by table-tennis companies and played on the 2007 USA Cadet Boys' Team -- four young players who represent the United States in international competition. Peter made both the Cadet and Junior USA teams this year.

For part of last year, Marcus was ranked No. 1 among under-16 players. Peter has been No. 1 in several age groups and is currently ranked second in the United States in the under-16 rankings.

Minor Sport, Major Fun

There are about 7,000 players in the United States who compete at table tennis, and about 300 clubs, says Larry Hodges, director of Club JOOLA in Rockville, where Peter and Marcus practice. The sport is even more popular in some other countries: Germany, for example, has more than 9,500 clubs and 600,000 players.

"Even though it is not a big sport in the USA, it is still fun to play," says Peter.

Matches can be physically demanding. Peter, who lives in Scaggsville, stays in shape by running cross-country for his school.

"This sport actually takes a lot more physical activity" than people think, Peter says. "It's not just a basement sport."

At Peter's level, matches (the first to win three games) last 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the skill of the players.

As Peter speaks, Towson's Tong Tong Gong, 10, is playing Bethesda's Toby Kutler, 16, at the next table. Older and taller doesn't always mean better in this sport. Tong Tong can beat many adults -- including his parents, who taught him how to play.

"I like to think, and in ping-pong you have to use strategy," says Tong Tong, who also is captain of his school's chess team. He knows just where to hit the ball to make Toby reach. Tong Tong is only 4 feet 6, but his quick strokes more than make up for his size.

"When I started getting serious . . . I was at least tall enough to see the net and the ball coming at me," he says.

'It's Completely Up to You'

"Getting serious" means hours of work every week and tournaments across the country at least once a month. Most of the young players at Club JOOLA were introduced to the sport by their parents, but they have different reasons for staying in the game.

"What I liked about table tennis is that it's about the individual," Toby says. "It's completely up to you if you win or lose."

Players improve their skills by facing off against each other or a machine that rockets the ball across the table at different speeds and with different spins.

Cadet girls' team member Janice Lan, 16, works on her returns as Hodges sends a flurry of balls at her.

Speed is the key, Janice says: "If you are off by a tiny fraction of a second, it might cost you a whole match."

-- Amy Orndorff

© 2008 The Washington Post Company