For the next seven days, small white balls will be flying on Pratt and Lombard streets in downtown Baltimore. But if you happen to stumble upon the proceedings at the Civic Center or Arena, don't call it a Ping-Pong tournament.

Check the glossary of a table tennis manual and the term "Ping-Pong" usually is treated harshly: "Often used as a synonym for table tennis, more serious players refer to the sport only as table tennis. Sometimes used disparagingly to denote an amateurish game."

This is table tennis, not Ping-Pong. Got it?

For the first time, Baltimore is hosting the world-caliber event, The Tournament of Champions, which began Friday with the Veterans World Championships. After an off day Monday, the most exciting competition begins Tuesday when more than 2,500 entrants from 61 countries -- including former and present Olympic and world champions -- compete in the U.S. Open.

An international junior championship concludes the 10-day event next weekend.

Although the game is not a spectator sport in the United States, it is second in participation to soccer overseas.

"The sport is on the rise, in Europe, in the Far East, even here," U.S. Table Tennis Association President Dan Seemiller said. "We think we've brought together the best players from around the world. The European championships are big, but everyone's been looking forward to this tournament because of the money."

Donna Sakai, one of the tournament's co-directors, says the $20,000 prize in the men's singles competition will be the largest awarded. Overall, there's about $85,000 to share among the top 32 finishers in the men's division and top eight in the women's.

More than 1,100 players will compete in the veterans championships for those 40 and older. Its finals are Tuesday.

The U.S. Open begins Tuesday with about 1,500 players. The early rounds will be played at the Civic Center on 84 tables. When the field is narrowed, play will be moved to the 12-table, 12,000-seat Arena.

South Korea's Yoo Nan Kyu, the Olympic gold medalist in 1988, and Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner, who won the 1989 world championship in West Germany, are expected to compete.

Two of the United States's best players are from the Washington area: Four-time U.S. titlist Sean O'Neill from Reston and John Onifade, a Nigerian who is trying to obtain American citizenship.

Donna and David Sakai from Lanham are the men's and women's U.S. champions in the veterans' over-40 divisions.