That knip-knopp-ing you hear is a most welcome noise

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That knip-knopp-ing you hear is a most welcome noise

Table tennis as a serious sport in the United States is about as visible as beer can bowling. Sure, many Americans play Ping-Pong in their basements, knip-knopp-ing a white ball across a green sheet of plywood, depending on a workbench light for illumination and a water heater to block runaway shots. But the attraction typically ends there.
I grew up playing the game in a basement and hit my zenith by upsetting Eugene Gerard, a jug-eared backboard, in the finals of the Stamford, Connecticut, YMCA peewee championships.
After that, I played now and then in college dorms and army rec halls, but then abruptly stopped. I had a family and a house by now, and retrieving Lego’s and cleaning gutters took any extra time. Moreover, I had no table in New Mexico, my new home state. Indeed, few houses in the desert Southwest have basements. I didn’t even own a paddle.
Table tennis may not be a significant sport back home, but it flourishes abroad. Indeed, you can bump into fine players almost anywhere overseas. The current list of the 100 best male and female table tennis players in the world is decorated with competitors from such surprising places as Belarus, Nigeria, Slovakia and Luxembourg. There are no U.S. men on the list, though, and only one woman -- and she has a Chinese name. Indeed, for a long time the best U.S. players have been Asian immigrants.
Two years ago, shortly after I moved to South Korea, I fell happily back into the milieu of table tennis. One evening while taking a shortcut to my apartment, I paused at a sign almost as familiar as the glowing red cross on Protestant churches in Seoul: a pair of crossed paddles.
Intrigued, I followed the sign down some steps -- to a basement! There I met Gu Ja-deok, a frail and friendly 70-year-old who many years before had been the champion of his oil company. In his retirement he had opened a takgu parlor.
No one will ever confuse Sinchon Kyobo Table Tennis Club for the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Sinchon Kyobo has tables with ice-slick tops, walls that crowd your every stroke and for spectators, a saggy couch. There is no air-conditioning, in the winter you must wear an overcoat and every month or so water mysteriously floods the cracked linoleum floor. For some reason, the bathroom, located two flights up, requires a key to enter. The door to that room should be barred -- permanently. And the club’s smell, ah, the smell. It’s not unusual to see Mr. Gu, a Q-tip-thin cigarette in his mouth, squatting in a tiny office a few feet from the tables, stirring a bubbling pot of cow intestines.
This panorama soon became my second home in Korea. Indeed, I began to look forward to hitting with the architect or his wife, who told me of installing a fireplace in their apartment; the noodle salesman who always plays while wearing a necktie and always gives himself two points for each one he earns; the grandmother who tries to slam every ball past me, even during warm-ups.
The sport has changed some since I took it up. Games are now played to 11, not 21. Paddles now have more foam rubber than a Motel 6 pillow.
Mr. Gu, I think, likes having me around. When I try to pay him for playing, he makes a face. As the only foreigner in the place, and the only player who holds his paddle in a shake-hands grip, unlike the chopsticks fashion of Asians, I am Exhibit A for anyone who comes down the stairs for the first time.
Visitor (curiously): Who is that strange guy playing that funny way?
Mr. Gu (proudly): He came here from Mexico to make the newspapers.
One day the architect and his wife invited me to join them at another table tennis club, an hour away. “You’ll love it,” they promised.
They were right. Eight designer tables set on a gorgeous, roomy maple floor, and a bathroom that could pass a white-glove test. I met some nice players there one afternoon, used my new, spongy paddle, but I haven’t been back. I fear Mr. Gu will find out and be hurt.
Besides, I’ll miss his cooking.


by Toby Smith
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