First of all, this was not a pingpong tournament.
“Yeah, it’s unfortunate. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I’ve played pingpong,’" said Willie Leparulo, tournament director for the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. “I don’t say the P-word very often. They don’t know that table tennis is the correct word. ... I mean, this is an Olympic sport.”
The NCTTA Championship brought some of the best players in the world to Round Rock over the weekend.
Leparulo should know. He once played in it while a student at Florida State.
“I’m dating myself, 1999-2000,” he said. “If I played now, I wouldn’t even make it on my team. The level has gone up dramatically. You can’t be the 'Hey-I’m-a-pretty-athletic-recreational' player and make it to the championships. You’ve got to dedicate the time.”
The college championship features players from 32 countries. There are current and former national team members from the U.S. and other nations. Many of the others played on their country’s junior teams. According to Leparulo, many would have continued on to their national teams if they didn’t go off to college.
There are sponsors and even play-by-play duos calling the matches.
Some of the schools – like Texas Wesleyan – offer table tennis scholarships. The small liberal arts university in Fort Worth may have only 3,000 students, but in the table tennis world, it’s a giant.
Going into the tournament, Wesleyan had won 13 of the last 14 men’s/coed team titles. (Women can play in the men's division, but men can't play in the women's.) The women’s team had won seven championships. When you throw in the individual and doubles titles, the school owns 65 national college championships. (The NCTTA declares winners in six categories: men’s/coed team, women’s team, men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles.)
The school's head coach, Jasna Rather, has quite a resume.
“I’ve been in four Olympics as an athlete,” she said. “In '88, I had a bronze medal in Olympics. I’ve been European champion in different events a couple of times, North American champion, Pan-American champion in different events, U.S. champion in women’s singles.”
Rather was the first player recruited for the program as a grad student, helping to recruit other players.
Also on staff is Keith Evans, a former Jamaican national team member who has been with Texas Wesleyan since 2004. Doru Gheorghe, a former Romanian national team member and head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic teams from 2000 to 2012, came to Texas Wesleyan two years ago. He said he was hoping to help build what he says the U.S. is missing: training through school to move players to the next level.
“So, basically every kid starts playing table tennis; when ... college comes, they stop,” Georghe said. “And that is the time when usually in table tennis, the players develop the most.”
“I think it’s a brain game, so it attracts people who are smart,” said Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor and NPR Weekend Edition’s puzzle master. “You don’t have to be a genius to play table tennis, but it helps to have something on the ball.”
Shortz is a huge advocate for table tennis. He co-founded a table tennis club just outside New York City in Westchester County.
“Part of the problem with table tennis in America is that it’s almost impossible to make your living from it,” he said. “If you’re a smart, talented person, you’re going to have a regular career and not continue with table tennis. Whereas, if you’re in China or certain places in Europe, you can make a decent living from playing table tennis and winning tournaments.”
But Shortz is doing his part, offering monthly tournaments with what he says are the largest purses in the country. Three years ago, he hosted a high school prodigy who immigrated from China to help him toward his dream of making the U.S. Olympic team.
On Sunday, that prodigy, Kai Zhang, was playing for Binghamton in the men’s singles championship against Texas Wesleyan’s Jishan Liang.
In the final three rounds, Kai somehow managed three big comebacks against a past U.S. Open champion, a U.S. national team member and then Jishan, the defending tournament champ from Texas Wesleyan.
A disappointing day for Jishan, but Texas Wesleyan’s overall performance was once again strong, taking four of the six championships.
Yue “Jennifer” Wu beat the top-seeded Lily Zhang from Cal-Berkeley. Wu and her teammates won the women’s team championship. Texas Wesleyan won both men’s and women’s doubles titles. In a bit of a surprise, their top-seeded men’s team was upset by fifth-seeded New York University.
NYU coach, Yanjun Gao, summed it up with these – perhaps controversial – words.
“Everything is possible in pingpong,” he said.