London, 5 January - The consensus in Alexandra Palace, the Victorian-era exhibition hall in north London where the World Championship of Ping Pong is happening, is that ping pong on this island has never seen anything like this.
The center court game is televised on Sky Sports, Britain's closest home-grown thing to ESPN. There are TV commentators jawboning in a glassed-in booth and colored spotlights shooting across the audience and Born to Be Wild blasting on the sound system while lanky men in shorts rally under klieg lights.
Adoni Maropis, one of three U.S. players, is warming up on the center court. All of his matches today have been televised, which has less to do with the fact that he was the 2011 U.S. hardbat national champion and more with his former gig playing terrorist Abu Fayed on 24. The tournament's promotional materials refer often to the Hollywood actor among the 64 entrants, but Maropis is hardly the only star. Number-one seed Maxim Shmyrev of Russia has his own trading cards. Gavin Evans, 19, was an auxiliary member of the UK's Olympic table tennis squad. There are four representatives here of the Orange Army, the traveling fans that accompany Dutch athletes to seemingly every competition in the world, and one is wearing a full-body plush lion suit in support of Marty 'Loekie the Lion' Hendriksen.
The Philippine delegation looks a little dejected. Sandpaper table tennis - the kind played here - is a fringe religion in the Philippines, with money trading hands over illicit games in back alleys and basements. The squad had high hopes, but only three of their seven players are advancing to the round of 32. Organizers did not pay expenses, and it's a long flight back to Manila without a piece of the $100,000 prize pie to show for it.
"I've never seen anything like this," says Reece Mavro, 18, a former competitive player who's just aged out of England's under-18 table tennis program, outside of the audience grandstands. "If this was normal table tennis, it'd be sick."
Let's get some things straight: Table tennis and ping pong are the same thing, except on specific occasions when they are not. The World Championship of Ping Pong is such an event. Whether that's a good thing depends on who you ask.
Since the 1920s, when the sport's new governing body called itself the International Table Tennis Federation to avoid infringing on the Parker Brothers' 'Ping Pong' trademark, the distinction has been largely one of semantics. When played at the Olympics or on the competitive circuit, with its international rankings and millionaire superstars, it's table tennis. When played in a garage, rec center or any other setting in which it would be permissible to place a beer can on the table, it's ping pong.
There is a third category, of recognized variations on the amateur game. One of these is hardbat ping pong, also known as sandpaper table tennis, and it's this particular breed that's getting the World Series of Poker Treatment at Ally Pally today.
Hardbat is played with bats (what garage players call paddles) whose faces are covered in sandpaper, instead of the rubber sponge that's universal across the elite leagues. The sandpaper slows the game down, making for longer rallies and a more telegenic game. A lot of hardbat players were junior-circuit stars three or four decades ago, when sandpaper bats were the only thing to play ping pong with. It's retro, old-school, the fixed-gear bike of the table tennis world.
Hardbat caught the eye of Matchroom Sport, an Essex, England-based promoter whose televised tournaments of snooker and darts are multi-million pound franchises. The company is backing the world championship on the gamble that ping pong will be the next thing that viewers find themselves unable to turn off, even if they can't remember why they turned it on.
"I'm going to make them all superstars," chairman Barry Hearn told the BBC. "It's rock 'n' roll. It's going to be high fives, knocking balls into the crowd, interaction between the players and the crowd."
On day one of the tournament the vibe is congenial, if less rock n' roll than Hearn might have hoped. Outside of the enclosed box that is the televised center match, the rest of the tournament's sixty-four entrants face off in double elimination matches on seven side courts.
They're a low-key group, these ping pong guys. No fancy equipment bags. No head-to-toe logos. Espen Rosenburg of Norway plays in a T-shirt and flowered board shorts and looks like he just got off shift at a Long Beach Trader Joe's. A few of the players - particularly the older, British ones - have the bellies of guys at the pub who never touch the ping pong table in the corner.
Contestants hail from 20 countries. China is not one of them. In the world of competitive table tennis, Chinese players are the Harlem Globetrotters and the rest of the world are the Generals. The world's top four men and top four women players are all Chinese. China has won nearly every table tennis gold medal at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996. (Damn you, Ryu Seung-Min.)
Organizers and various players ascribed the Chinese absence at Alexandra Palace to the fact that hardbat isn't very popular there, and to the fact that table tennis in China is extremely serious business and no one is going to waste a second on some London sideshow that doesn't even count for ITTF points.
The matches lack the vicious speed of Olympic competition. Each one looks like ... well, like two guys playing ping pong. Hardbat is a slower game. Sponge allows for more versatility - some bats are better for spin, others for speed - but hardbat is the great equalizer. Every player is using a tournament-issued bat they received two weeks ago. It strips away the pizzazz and gets down to real 'pong.
People have very strong feelings about this.
"If you place two tables side-by-side, with a sponge match on one and a hardbat match on the other, the hardbat match will appear uninteresting", wrote Scott Gordon in what can earnestly be described as a seminal 1999 About.com article on hardbat. "However, that would be the same as having a 'battle of the bands' between Chopin and Led Zeppelin."
Tony West admits to having been "quite a good junior", which is a very English way of saying that he was in the top ten. He's in a Division I British table tennis league now, but hardbat is a fun diversion. "In normal table tennis, there's always people complaining about people's bats. With this, it's completely fair. It's great fun. I don't want to knock anyone's sport, but darts is just this," he said, miming the toss of a tungsten with a bored expression. "In table tennis there's a million different shots. It has that very close, person-to-person combat."
Plus, the money for this tournament is ridiculous. His $1,500 prize for advancing to the round of 32 is the equivalent of several Grand Prix table tennis winnings, he said, "which is a bit of a shame."
Therein lies the tension in the relationship between footloose ping pong and its tighter-wound professional cousin. Events like the World Championship of Ping Pong bring in the money, viewers and popular cachet the sport needs to succeed. UK Sport just announced that they won't be funding a table tennis team for the Rio games in 2016.
But at the same time, purists gripe, they undermine the legitimacy of a sport that struggles to move past punchline status in the US and UK.
"The sport doesn't get the respect it deserves", said Reece Mavro, while his friend and former teammate Guy Ben-Aroya nodded vigorously in agreement. "It's seen as this - ping pong. This hardbat is getting the respect table tennis should. It should be the other way round."
In the center court, Maropis is warming up against Egle Adomelyte, a spindly blond Lithuanian who is the championship's sole female competitor. He lost his first match and won his second, which means he needs to win this one to advance. A gaggle of beer-clutching twentysomethings in the stands are yelling out characters from 24.
Maropis, 49, started playing seriously six years ago, when searching for something to boost his spirits during a career slump. "I was having a rough time as an actor. I did some great, great movies, and then nothing", he says before the match. "I thought, 'I need to get back to that joy.'"
The arena falls silent before the first serve, that supplicating bow that looks like a magician's sleight-of-hand. Maropis, who plays in glasses, an elbow guard, and kneepads, wins the first set 14-12.
Adomelyte gestures in frustration when she misses, spitting on her hands and smoothing them reflexively over her bat, shirt and skirt. In the second set, she's up 7-2. Then 10-3. She's mad now. She wins the second set.
It's the last set. Adomelyte is up 5-0, then 8-3, then 10-6. Maropis fights back and they chase each other point for point, until Adomelyte finishes him off for an 11-9 win. He tosses his bat up in resignation, toward the lights. The screen in the rafters shows what the cameras got. It looks great on TV.
Egle Adomelyte and Tony West were defeated in the final 16. On 6 January 2013, Maxim Shmyrev beat Nigerian Sule Olaleye to become World Champion of Ping Pong for the second time. Adoni Maropis has co-authored two screenplays, one a "sexy comedy fantasy" and the other a WWII drama; direct inquiries here.
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