Top players find their Ping-Pong Niche

It was Easter Sunday, and most folks were spending their day with family and friends, or perhaps at church in their Sunday best. Yet at the Santa Monica College Pavilion — more commonly known to SMC students as our gym — “Sunday Best” had a very different meaning.

For the dozens of players who came to compete in the 2016 California State Open Table Tennis Tournament hosted Easter Sunday at the gym, their “Sunday Best” wasn’t what they were wearing, but their competitive spirit. Because the end of the two-day tournament culminated in a fierce series of matches that showed off an amazing spectacle of athleticism that makes one wonder why Ping-Pong is ignored, both at SMC and in the U.S. as a whole.

There were twelve different round-robin events for competitors of all ages and skill levels hosted during the tourney, which saw the gym filled from end to end with Ping-Pong tables and bustling with activity.

The tourney was sponsored by the Santa Monica Co-Rec Community Services, SMC’s long lasting community for Table Tennis and Badminton players originally put together by local legend Josephine “Jo” Kidd. The State Open was officially sanctioned by USA Table Tennis (USATT), the national association for Table Tennis, with player rankings earned here carrying over to any further league play, potentially allowing for competitors to move onto international competition.

Amanda Malek, a 17 year old junior player from Costa Mesa, who was eliminated in early matches by Thor Truelson, remained in high spirits and spoke about her hopes with events like these. Malek, who loves coming to SMC’s Co-Rec Sundays for the competition, said, “I would like to make the national team, but probably not this year, because I'm just not there yet. But hopefully with lots of training and lots of focus I'll get there."

With most of the events for novices and lower ranked players completed by the end of Saturday, Easter Sunday was left for the main event: The Open Singles Round-Robin Playoff.

This playoff brought players from across the country and around the world to compete head-to-head for over six hours in some of the fiercest play ever seen at SMC in any sport, let alone one most Americans write off as a mere parlor game. After a series of elimination matches early in the afternoon whittled 23 athletes down to four, the real battles began at 6 p.m. with a series of quarterfinal matches.

Four tables were set up in front of the gathered crowd of fans and friends sitting in the bleachers. Judges came out to check paddles and balls, players stretched and talked with their coaches, and the final competition began.

Four simultaneous one-on-one matches began, creating a dervish of motion, a cacophony of grunts and paddle smacks, and filling the air of the gym with the smell of sweat. After an hour of intense play, four of the players and two tables were eliminated, and it came down to two matches: Xiang Jing Zhang of China faced off against Mohammadreza Akhlaghpasand of Iran at one table, while Alfred Najem from Lebanon challenged Zaman Molla at the other.

What many unfamiliar with the sport might not realize is just how loud Ping Pong is. There is a constant squeak of sneakers, the loud bounce of the hollow balls, and the stomping of feet when the players serve. The foot-stomp serve wasn’t just due to tradition either, Dr. Tuan Dai Le explained that this foot-stomping was a way for players to intimidate each other, calling it an “additional psychological weapon.”

This noise quieted down during the semifinals as eyes darted between the two matches and the crowd became deathly still, trying to take in every moment.

At the first table, the highly ranked Zhang faced stiff competition from Akhlaghpasand, barely winning the first set 13-12. After a dominant second set for Zhang, Akhlaghpasand made a surprising come back, beating Zhang 11-13, and pushing back against his heavily favored opponent. Through a series of six games Akhlaghpasand kept pushing back against an increasingly dominant Zhang, but it wasn’t enough. Zhang finished off a visibly exhausted Akhlaghpasand with a vicious slice, ending the game 11-8.

Akhlaghpasand, a 37 year-old Iranian National team player who once competed in the Olympics, was impressed with Zhang, but chalked his loss up to travel fatigue. Said Akhlaghpasand, “The match was after 2, 3 days [of travel] for me, because I have jet lag. But yes, good match.”

After watching their future competitors from the second table long enough to be warned by their referee to start their match or be disqualified, Molla and Najem began their duel in earnest while the others continued to battle it out. Both players showed off an extremely acrobatic style of play, leaping into the air to add power to their returns, often striking poses that seemed to be more in line with a Spider-Man comic than a Ping-Pong match.

First Molla was ahead, winning the first set, then Najem. The same went with the points in the matches themselves. With the long rallies between them, and both trading first points and then sets back and forth, again and again, the two players drew their match out into an incredibly long battle of attrition. Eventually though, after a desperate rally that featured flashy trick shots and floating returns, the final set ended in a win for Najem as Molla missed the table entirely on a stumbling return.

But this long, drawn out battle had taken its toll. With only a few minutes of a break for officials to remove the last table and set up for the final match, the late completion between Molla and Najem allowed Zhang plenty of time to rest after his much shorter clash with Akhlaghpasand.

When Zhang met Najem at the tiny table of titans, it was no contest — Zhang led Najem from the very beginning with a swift series of vicious serves against a competitor barely able to catch his breath.

In the end, Zhang walked away a champion, winning $600 and moving up the ranks, likely to compete in further tournaments across the country. Though he spoke little English, the 23 year old Chinese national said he felt good about the win after shaking hands with his opponent.

Najem, a 32 year old, semi-retired Table Tennis coach with 22 years of experience on the Lebanese National team, was a bit more loquacious. Said Najem, “I just wish I could have done two things a little better: playing the semifinal 4-3, I lost a lot of my energy and [Zhang], his serves are really amazing.”

Thus the 2016 California State Open Table Tennis Tournament ended, not with the most amazing finish, but a truly dramatic climax. Or as Jo Kidd said herself, “Quite an event, wasn’t it? Very incredible.”