I thought there might be another adult or two.  At least, that’s what the club director told me to expect when I’d signed up for a week of summer table tennis camp at Triangle Badminton and Table Tennis (hereinafter TBTT) in Morrisville, NC.  However, when I arrived that fateful Monday morning, I appeared to be the oldest camper by half a century.  For sure, no other participant had driven himself to camp; many had a parent or two hovering nearby to make sure they signed in properly and remembered their paddle, water bottle and lunch bag.  Me?  I was on my own.

     The instructors, twenty-one-year-old twin brothers Gal and Sharon Alguetti, originally from Israel, gathered us near the tables promptly at 9 a.m.  There were eighteen participants, the youngest about eight, the second oldest perhaps fifteen.  About half were boys and half were girls.  Several appeared surprised to realize I was a camper, not a volunteer assistant from an old-age home.

     “This week you will learn about consistency,” announced Gal, while Sharon stood beside him nonchalantly balancing a ball on the edge of his paddle.  His act was, at once, distracting, mesmerizing and totally amazing. These guys, who the camp fliers noted are the sixth and eighth highest ranked players in America, are freakishly well coordinated.


     Ping pong has long been part of my life.  Like many mid-twentieth-century Americans, I grew up in a house with a table in the basement.  More used by my mother for laundry than for play, it still hosted spirited games with my brothers as well as occasional friends.  Our equipment was basic – the “pimple” paddles that came in a set with the net, and balls that cracked more easily than eggshells and had the uncanny ability to hide behind furniture and appliances like skittish kittens.

     Thanks to playing with older siblings and also to practicing against a wall on my own, by high school, I was considered pretty good.  Of course, the concept of having an entire facility devoted to the sport, with thirty-five tables, as well as coaches, specialized rubbers on either side of the paddles, camps, tournaments and the like, was still decades away.  I’d never played with a person from Asia until law school in the early 1980’s; at TBTT in 2022, I represent a small and shrinking minority.


     Before we could do the first drill, Gal announced, we would spend twenty minutes conditioning and stretching.  Not the same as taking the stairs at home a few times a day or the movement involved in a tennis match, this was actual RUNNING.  I hadn’t run a half-mile in decades.  Yet, here we were commencing ten laps around the facility.  And some of these laps included skipping, wind milling arms and sliding sideways.  We were led by the highest-ranked players among us: Carla Wu, Leah Wong and Tyler Zhang, who presently are the second and third-ranked 13-14-year-olds in the country and the number one ranked ten-year-old, respectively.   I immediately assumed my place at the back of the pack.  Mentally cuing up the theme from Chariots of Fire, and fighting the constant urge to cut corners (sometimes losing the fight) I managed to complete all the laps and proudly strode last into the stretching circle while everyone else was completing the first of ten exercises. 


     Talking with Gal and Sharon during a water break, I learned how difficult it is to star in a non-mainstream sport.  Though members of the “national team,” and Olympic hopefuls, the brothers receive minimal funding, largely consisting of travel costs and occasional training sessions.  Their equipment, consisting of shoes, shirts and paddles, is provided by sponsors.  However, prize money from tournaments is minimal, certainly not enough to make a “living.”  Thus, they spend their summers away from college at Indiana University, teaching camps. 

     “How does it look for 2024?” I asked Sharon.

     “It’s tough,” he said.  “There are only four spots allotted to North American and the Caribbean.  And the top players from the US and Canada usually have freshly printed ink on their passports.”

     In other words, Chinese exports are not limited to consumer goods.  

     “Our best chance was in 2016,” added Gal.  “I was an alternate.”

     “You were fifteen years old,” I said.

     “Yep,” he agreed.  

     Apparently, gymnastics isn’t the only sport where one’s “prime” and one’s puberty are fairly closely associated.


     After stretching (a wonderfully non-aerobic activity) the coaches paired us for the first drill.  We were assigned two to a table along a row of nine tables to hit cross court forehands for ten minutes, then backhands, then take turns looping (think lots of spin) while our partner blocked (a flat return to a predetermined location).  The coaches strode behind us offering corrections and suggestions.  “Don’t stand straight up.  Keep your chest forward,” said Gal.  “Follow through to the target,” said Sharon.  “You go a little sideways.”

     The rhythmic popping of ping pong balls hitting paddles and shoe rubber squeaking on floorboards resounded.  I concentrated so hard I almost forgot it was 80 degrees and humid inside TBTT on this 95-degree North Carolina day.  The next drill was a little more involved, with shots targeted from forehand to middle to backhand to middle, and so on.  Eventually, after cooperating with one’s partner to hit at least twelve rally balls, you could “play out the point.”  Yet, I knew not to play these points with game-like intensity because, well, you need your hitting partner’s respect and goodwill.  In other words, don’t act like a ten-year-old, even if you are playing with a ten-year-old. Don’t be “that guy.”


     We switched partners several times during the three-hour session.  My first partner, Sara, played a straightforward game.  Her rubber was “normal” and she hit a standard mix of topspin, backspin and straight shots.  But my second partner, Xinwen, was a “chopper.”  That means he hit every ball with a maddening backspin.  He also used “pips” on one side of his paddle, and “long pips” on the other, meaning rubber surfaces that resembled the old “pimple” paddles of childhood in appearance, but with varied, more confounding rubber pips.  His goal was not to hit fast, but rather, to have you dump the ball into the net or pop it long in the futile effort to judge just how much backspin was coming.  As my blood pressure rose with each miss, it became more challenging to make the fine-motor adjustments necessary to return the ball on the table.  

     “This is good for you,” said Gal, laughing.

     Easy for him to say.  Gal then showed me several swing angles and techniques that might counteract various spins.  But all I could think is:  “Thank goodness most kids prefer to hit hard.  That I can handle.  If everyone ‘chopped,’ I’d quit.”

     After a few more drills and two more partners, I’d almost survived the first day.  The last activity consisted of playing games to 11, but starting with the scored tied 5-5.  “This will increase the pressure,” explained Sharon.  “You will quickly be at the end of the game.”  He was right.  In my experience, one can take an early lead, but in a game to 11, there is sufficient time to figure things out (a weak backhand or a strong serve, for example) and make adjustments.  However, essentially playing a game to 6, there is a premium on eliminating unforced errors, thus the theme of the camp: consistency.


     I needed a nap after the first day.  Surely, I thought, I would not last the whole week.  Though I nearly “hit the wall” after Tuesday’s session, (shoulder feeling like dead weight, feet dragging, wrist announcing its presence during each point) each day thereafter seemed a little easier.  There was less anxiety about appearing out of place and out of shape.  While some of the kids surely found my presence in camp strange, most seemed to respect that my play was around the 60th percentile of the group.  And they’ve all played in tournaments – one of the best aspects of of table tennis, in my opinion, is that participants’ ages range from about eight to eighty and gender is irrelevant.

     On the third day, the final competitive drill was to start at 10-10 and play out the game.  The winner must win by two points.  Therefore, total concentration is essential on each point.  The winner progresses up along the line of tables, and the loser goes down.  I stayed around the middle of the group except for one lucky streak that landed me near the pinnacle where I faced off against Carla.  She served first.  I lurched to get my paddle on the ball, but its spin exploded off my paddle at a forty-five degree angle.  “What just happened?” I wondered.  I served.  She blasted the ball past me in a blur.  Back down the line I headed.  So much for ping pong camp glory.


     By the end of the week I felt my blocking had truly improved.  Several other aspects of my game probably improved as a result of daily repetition and its effect on muscle memory though I’d probably need ten more weeks to really be sure.  The highlight of the last day was to play five-minute-long games with the winners moving up and losers moving down.  I never reached the top but had played the nation’s best ten-year-old to a draw when the clock ran down.  A moral victory!

     Is it ridiculous to declare a moral victory over an opponent so vertically challenged?  Well, probably.  But while I have longer arms and more experience, he is much faster and his shots are naturally launched from a beneficial, lower angle.  My strategy was to tempt him with high, slow balls to his backhand (certainly not to his lethal forehand) and then block the resulting backhand loops to the opposite corner of the table where he couldn’t reach.  He wasn’t crying when we finished but he clearly was shook up.  Mental note to self:  do not play Tyler Zhang two years from now when he is several inches taller.  Revenge will surely be his….