Each of the hundreds of students who has stood across the table from Cheng Yinghua has been given a simple instruction: Relax. He believes that is the key to success, both in table tennis and in life.

Cheng, who goes by “Chen,” serves up such wisdom in a cavernous room filled with three rows of tables and the constant echoes of ping-pong. For 25 years at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, he has instructed students of all ages and skill levels to loosen their grips and take a deep breath.

And by growing the sport’s local community, Cheng has taught the rest of the country how to turn the basement hobby and obscure Olympic sport into a profitable career.

His lessons are defined by serious rallies broken up by wisecracks and sips of chrysanthemum tea. Shorts are essential to keep from sweating, and while the ­59-year-old has no equal on the table, any air of superiority is negated as he meanders around the facility to scoop up errant balls with a crab net.

“Everybody too serious,” Cheng explained during a lesson last month, clenching a paddle with white knuckles before releasing into a shrug. “I say to everybody: ‘Just relax.’ ”

Cheng Yinghua helped found the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg to give local players a chance to learn the sport he loves. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Chartering the way

For much of Cheng’s life, this core principal was a foreign concept. At 19, he moved to Beijing to train and compete with the national team. But in China’s rigid table tennis system, many aspects of his life were strictly regimented — none more than his playing style.

European players had recently begun challenging China’s world dominance, so he followed orders to perfect the European “looping” style, which relies on spinning shots hit from off the table. The traditional Chinese hitting style is based on quick, close-to-the-table drives with less topspin.

“Every day I have to watch video and copy European players. Every year, I go to Europe and play tournament and watch how to serve, loop, hit. Everything, I copy,” Cheng said.

With his foreign playing style, Cheng won the Chinese national open in 1982, 1984 and 1987. But in China, coaches simply picked national team representatives instead of using trial results, and as a result he remained a practice partner instead of representing his homeland at the world championships or Olympics.

Before the 1987 world championships, Cheng says, he beat Jiang Jialiang in practice matches on 30 consecutive days while mimicking the style of Swede Jan-Ove Waldner. Then, at the final in New Delhi, Jialiang defeated Waldner to capture his second straight world championship.

“It’s easy for a guy who go to world championships and see his opponent and say, ‘Oh, I already played him in practice every day,’ ” Cheng said.

In 1991, Cheng was offered the Chinese national team head coaching position, but by that time, he already had moved to Montgomery Village with his wife and daughter, choosing uncertainty and freedom over job security and structure.

Cheng and the MDTTC now lean on a sturdy client base, but business did not always come easily. When Cheng first arrived in Maryland, there was no full-time job waiting for him. He had to make one.

“Table tennis [is the] only way I know to make money,” Cheng said.

He started by driving from basement to basement to give private lessons that he secured through word-of-mouth advertising in the local Chinese community. Twice a week at the Potomac Community Recreation Center, he wooed potential students with exhibitions of his world-class talent. On weekends, he drove up and down the East Coast to tournaments that featured cash prizes for first place.

“I wouldn’t show up for less than one thousand,” he said. “I win easy every time.”

In 1992, Cheng, longtime training partner Jack Huang, and former Team USA Table Tennis national coach Larry Hodges opened the MDTTC. Located in Gaithersburg, the full-time facility devoted to table tennis gives coaches the opportunity to work as many hours as they can fill with students.

Cheng and Huang taught lessons for upward of 70 hours a week to make “table tennis coach” a viable profession in Maryland before anywhere else in the country. Nationally, they set a precedent that jump-started the sport’s popularity. The center was the first full-time training facility of its kind to open and stay open. In 2008, there were eight such centers around the country; today, there are 86.

“Cheng and Jack really envisioned the way for these full-time clubs to show that it’s possible to make a living coaching and developing table tennis players,” said Sean O’Neill, the director of communications for USA Table Tennis and a member of its Hall of Fame on account of his own playing and coaching. “I give so much credit for chartering the way for us. Maryland showed that table tennis is a sustainable business.”

In 1999, Cheng passed his citizenship test on his third try so he could represent the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He finished 1-1 in singles and 0-2 in doubles while participating in a tournament that had been inaccessible in his former life.

“That’s why I like America. American team trial is very fair. If you finish trial one, two or three, you’re on the Olympic team,” Cheng said.

Ryan Dabbs, 13, of Rockville maintains his focus during a November practice session at MDTTC. “He never misses,” Dabbs said of Cheng. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Jack Huang, Cheng's longtime training partner, keeps conversation light during a training session last month at the Maryland Table Tennis Center. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Passing on a passion

Cheng and Huang are part-owners of the center, which employs two full-time coaches and an ever-changing group of independent contractors. Between lessons, coaches take naps in the backroom while students eat dinner or complete homework at tables in the front.

Through lessons, camps, leagues and tournaments, instruction and competition is available year-round to the center’s 300 members. The initial membership fee is $200, and there is always an increase in interest in the months following the Summer Olympics.

“Keep the rates down and fill the place up every day. Once you have people here, they put money in all our programs, and that’s what pays for the thing,” Hodges said. “The primary thing is having coaches that are hungry. Chen and Jack were like that. In the early days, they went out and made sure this place was full. That’s what we did that others did not do.”

In August, 13 players from the MDTTC swept the team events at the Junior Olympics in Houston. The boys won gold in five of the seven age groups, and the team medaled in every doubles event.

“I train every day, so sometimes it gets really serious,” sixth-grader Lisa Lin said. “I’ve learned to tell myself, even if it gets harder, if you’re too stressed, you won’t do well.”

Junior players such as Lin and 13-year-old Ryan Dabbs credit the center’s coaches for their quick rise from weekly after-school participants to Junior Olympic champions.

“I’m here almost every day, and [Cheng] stills surprises me,” Dabbs said. “He never misses.”

Hodges swears he saw Cheng miss a shot in 1987, but not many believe him. Either way, wallowing on past misses brings stress. And there’s no place for stress in Cheng’s world. He stays relaxed as he sips his tea and collects his students’ wayward shots.

Nationally, table tennis is still fighting to shake the basement-hobby stigma and become a mainstream Olympic sport. Cheng is committed to helping fuel that transformation, one student at a time.

“Here I make it good, and I’m very happy. I’m free. Nobody tells me, ‘You have to do this,’ ” Cheng said. “In China, no fun. Very, very serious. You can’t do anything; you have to just listen and play. Here in Maryland, this is fun.”