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Table tennis tourney serves it up at Va. Beach
Table tennis tourney serves it up at Va. Beach

U.S. National Table Tennis Championships

Where: Virginia Beach Convention Center

When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., today to Saturday

Tickets: All-week passes, $25. Daily passes, $10, except for Saturday's semifinals and finals, which cost $20.

VIRGINIA BEACH - What do comedian Frank Caliendo, baseball groupie Annie Savoy and TV show terrorist Abu Fayed have in common?

Each is infatuated with table tennis, a sport normally played in a buddy's basement, but one that has morphed into the centerpiece of nightclubs in Milwaukee, Toronto and New York City.

"I was going to our wrap party, and I was on crutches because of a pingpong injury," said Adoni Maropis, an actor who tortured Jack Bauer on the TV series "24" in 2007. "And everyone was like, 'What? Abu Fayed plays pingpong?' "

This week, pingpong, or table tennis, as the purists prefer, is the main attraction at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. With 91 tables and 562 players, including Maropis, the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships are being held in a venue far grander than a friend's garage.

The game played at the convention center isn't the game of your youth, where a wristy flick sent the ball arcing over to the other side where it was batted back until one player missed. This is competitive, challenging, and, in the biggest adjustment of all, perhaps even cool.

"We've gone past the nerd/geek thing," former Olympian and current coach Sean O'Neill said. "We're past the Forrest Gump thing."

Players crouch low and dart right and left. O'Neill estimated the top players cover between three and four miles per match.

Maropis, who looks fit enough at 48 to try another terrorist takeover, wears knee pads and an elbow pad when he plays, protection from his diving efforts, or an occasional burst into one of the barriers that surrounds each of the 91 tables.

"There aren't too many that play like me," Maropis said. "I'm all over the place. I like the longer points. I call it pingpong, not table tennis. Pingpong is what people relate to. I want to bring the game to the people."

The top junior players have full-time coaches, with parents recording the action in order to break down technique. A good blade, the wooden part of the racquet, can cost more than $100, and vendors hawked equipment from table tennis shoes to robotic ball feeders.

"The big thing for most businesses is to get people to like something," said Rob Weber, an event planner who plays weekly at Kempsville Recreation Center. "With table tennis, everyone already loves it. The likability is there. The issue is, where can you play?"

For the next four days, the answer is Virginia Beach, where daily sessions start at 9 a.m.

There's still some geek to the game, of course. A colleague in the coach's chair of former champion Michael Landers sported a "Star Wars" T-shirt. And some of the adult athletes in the less-challenging classes looked like they spent as much time eating at a table as playing at one.

But for the elite, it's an athletic endeavor.

Jonathan Ou channeled the best of Rafael Nadal and Tiger Woods during a match against last year's runner-up, Peter Li. Ou, a 13-year-old from Longwood, Fla., who stands 4-foot-11, pumped his fist like Woods and cheered like Nadal after points during his upset win.

O'Neill said the field in the championship matches is sure to include future Olympians, athletes who routinely keep the ball within nine feet of the table (one side) at speeds of 65 mph, applying spins that keep the ball in, then bounce it every which way.

"Even the little kids are hitting it so hard. It's like that movie 'Balls of Fury,' " said Luis Rafael, a volunteer who never had seen a real match. "Except it's real."

On Tuesday, the game's aficionados were doing their best to convince spectators that it's cool. In a nod to Maropis, the German national team calls a kill shot an "Abu Fayed."

The sport played a prominent role in the HBO show "Entourage," and Caliendo headlined the U.S. Open earlier this year, doing impressions between points. He's a strong player, too, one who has his ranking memorized, and flew O'Neill into Arizona twice for private lessons.

Billiards and darts always have been bar attractions for late-night revelers and, more recently, some bowling centers have catered to the bar crowd. Now, table tennis is vying for a piece of the late-night landscape.

Susan Sarandon, the actress whose character, Annie Savoy, seduced Kevin Costner's character in "Bull Durham," is the co-owner of SPiN NYC, a nightclub in New York City where table tennis is the main attraction. Franchises also exist in Milwaukee, Toronto and Los Angeles.

Maropis learned in his basement with his brothers. Virginia Beach's Weber was king of his frat house, pausing for chips or beer. The menu at Sarandon's restaurant features tuna tartare and Kobe beef empanadas.

"You've got NBA players, NFL players, actors enjoying it," O'Neill said. "In times of a recession, people like a reminder of their youth, when they didn't have to worry. Anyone who has ever played pingpong has had a good time."

Chris Carlson, (757) 446-2367, chris.carlson@pilotonline.com

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