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An old pastime gets a new bounce

A sport for all ages, table tennis picks up fans at the YMCA in Quincy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

Inside the YMCA gymnasium in Quincy, a wall stands between the two basketball courts. On one side, you can still hear the familiar thump-thump-thump of a basketball pounding against floor and the screech of sneakers skidding across the court. On the other side, the sound is less familiar.

There you'll hear the click-clack, click-clack of plastic ping-pong balls as pairs of table tennis players battle across eight blue tables that line the court.

The South Shore YMCA's new weekly table tennis night started in October and has been growing ever since, rivaling more traditional Y sports in popularity.

"We had a lot of members coming up and saying, what's going on here?" said Chrissy Niosi, the teen and youth program director at the South Shore Y's Quincy branch.

When the Y hosted a table tennis tournament on a Sunday afternoon in January, more than 60 people showed up, some from as far away as Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Another tournament was held last week, and there's talk of expanding the regular table tennis night from Wednesday to twice a week.

"Every night we see different faces," said Niosi. "We get people that will come in here and just stand in here, and we ask if they want to play. At first some of them are timid, and we say, 'C'mon just try it,' and then they just jump right in."

Table tennis night attracts a diverse crowd, from young players such as 16-year-old Ari Stoler of Brookline to senior citizens like Felix Meschansky, an 82-year-old Russian immigrant who lives in Quincy.

"I have three problems: my English, my age, and my health," said Meschansky, with a laugh, after he finished his match.

Players also include natives of England, Bulgaria, Colombia, Japan, and pretty much any country where table tennis - don't dare call it ping-pong, say serious aficionados - is popular.

Jim Baird drives from Plymouth to play.

"Like most people, I started when I was a kid, playing in the basement," said Baird. "Back in the 1980s, there wasn't a lot of places to play. There's several clubs around Eastern Massachusetts now, so you have a choice, and can find a place to play on any night of the week."

Baird's opponent last Wednesday night was Yi Li, who grew up in China and now lives in Weymouth. Li just picked up the sport again a few months ago.

"I started in high school, and then didn't play for a long time," said Li, who found out about the Quincy Y's table tennis night on the Internet.

Overseeing the night is Qiumars Hedayatian, a top-ranked table tennis player who has helped launched table tennis programs all over New England, and introduced the sport to students at Pollard Middle School in Needham, James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, and Robert F. Kennedy School in Cambridge.

"It's a multicultural thing, which is cool," said Hedayatian. "The kids really like it. Everybody can compete."

Table tennis night costs $4 for adult members and $2 for teen members; admission for nonmembers is $8 for adults and $4 for teens. Rackets are provided to those who don't have their own.

The sport first became popular in England during the late 19th century as an alternative to lawn tennis. People would play the game after dinner, using cigar-box lids for rackets and a carved champagne cork as a ball. The term ping-pong was originally trademarked by an English company more than a century ago, and the rights to the name were later acquired by American game manufacturer Parker Brothers.

Over the years the parlor game went by a variety of other names, including Gossima, Whiff Waff, and Pom-Pom, as well as ping-pong, which still remains popular today, to the chagrin of many.

Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988, and there are approximately 40 million competitive players worldwide, according to the International Olympic Committee. Only a fraction of those are from the United States.

But Hedayatian said he believes the talent pool in the United States is much larger.

"I'm trying to promote the sport," he said. "I personally believe there are a lot of people - millions of people - out there playing in their basements. They have tables and they're playing.

"If you want to play this game at a high level, you have to be a really good athlete. . . . You have to be flexible like a gymnast, you have to be quick like a runner, and you have to think like a chess player," he said. "It's not easy."

Indeed, there is much more to table tennis than meets the eye. There are different ways players can hold the paddle, and different ways to play the ball. In serious competition, the ball can reach speeds close to 100 miles per hour.

First-timers may be surprised to find out the amount of physical exercise that goes into a game of table tennis, according to Niosi.

"At the tournament they had towels and they were wiping their sweat," said Niosi. "It's intense."

Niosi said the YMCA is trying to spread the word about the sport to families, because unlike basketball and many other activities, age and height don't matter much in table tennis.

"You could have a young kid face an adult and the match could be even," she said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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