by Anthony Harrison
Even more so than in normal tennis, everyone served a different way at the final session of the US Olympic table-tennis team trials on Feb. 6.
Crystal Wang, one of the women’s finalists, bent at the waist, holding the ping-pong ball in her palm, the back of her hand resting on the baseline. She stooped over and inspected the ball like a child staring at an anthill, then straightened back up and, with a hint of a lifting toss, let the ball float in the air. She backed away from it, looking almost startled, and kept the paddle perpendicular with the flight of the ball, as though she wished to catch it as it fell. And then, she jerked her whole upper body with a pivoting thrust to serve.
Angela Guan, on the other hand, contrasted Wang’s twitchiness with an almost dancelike routine. While she too looked at the simple little white ball with intense scrutiny, Guan occasionally leaned her right elbow on the serving line, suggesting a casual, almost relaxed air to her drill. She would then rise up and lift her shoulders slightly, seeming to take in a deep relaxing breath, before flicking her wrist forward with a sense of rhythm. There was fluidity to her ritual.
Between the two men’s finalists, Krish Avvari seemed to wind up a lot like Wang, exhibiting the same intensity and jerky movements in his serve. But Avvari added a unique, distinctive bit of personality to his follow-through. On every single serve, Avvari stamped his left foot at the exact moment his paddle made contact with the ball. It reminded me of how retired Chicago Cubs home-run king Sammy Sosa added a tiny stutter step with his left foot before every swing.
And while Avvari and Wang were both very intense, Kanak Jha took it to another level, seeming to throw his entire body into the serve of this miniscule, nearly weightless sphere — same as professional tennis players. Jha resembled a bird in his wide windup, using the entirety of his body and arm span to deliver the ball to Avvari. Sometimes he served with such total intensity, it seemed like he head-butted the ball. He also held his paddle differently, clutching the bottom arc of the plastic surface with his fist with his thumb clinching the top, the paddle paralleled with his wrist.
They all served differently, sure. But they all had one thing in common.
None of them were old enough to have graduated from high school.
Wang was the youngest of this finalist field at 13; her competition was 17. Jha and Avvari were 15 and 16, respectively.
The field of competitors ranged in age from 11-year-old Rachel Sung to 93-year-old Bill Guilfoil. In the weeks leading up to the trials, Guilfoil became something of a media darling; if he’d won the men’s qualifier, he chanced becoming the oldest Olympian in history.
Unfortunately for him and the record books, Guilfoil was eliminated by Austin Preiss in the preliminary qualifier round.
No offense to Guilfoil, but after watching this session, I realized he had no chance.
This level of table tennis was a far cry from the game you might play on a deck or in a bar. Hell, it even made that scene in Forrest Gump look like a static display.
After all, this is an Olympic sport.
Not only did these players serve with a level of sophistication undreamed of by hobbyists, they used the entire floor away from the table, just like normal tennis players.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, their play somewhat complemented their serving style, too.
Stoic at the table, Wang tended to go after Guan with fierce volleys. Her forceful returns maneuvered Guan to back off from the table, leading Guan to make unforced errors, mainly sending the ball into the net.
But Guan stayed in it, largely from her defensive prowess, making artful “dives” for the ball as it bounced off the table out of bounds, rallying to force deuce at the seeming ends of rounds.
Still, Wang took the night in five games.
The women’s match had more of a finessed air to it. The men’s games quickly shifted into overdrive.
After a few testing taps following each serve, Jha and Avvari immediately picked up the pace, firing salvo after salvo of breakneck returns. Both young men pushed the other off baseline, off the table. And both performed feats of reaction time which would make Muhammad Ali double-take in his prime.
The match went back and forth in every way. Between points, between serves, between games. Jha and Avvari, while they contrasted in style, seemed very evenly matched.
Unlike the women, these two forced Game 7 after trading rounds.
Avvari built a three-point lead early in the final, but halfway through the game with the score at 5-1, unforced errors helped Jha cut into his lead. Avvari’s confidence wavered, and his opponent struck like a rattlesnake, quickly and with little warning.
A timeout by Avvari couldn’t save him. It only gave Jha more time to rein in his resurgence.
Avvari put another point on the board, but then Jha took the final game outright, 11-7.
These kids played like seasoned veterans, and their prowess extended beyond their years.
But they’re still kids.
When the emcee asked Wang following her victory, “What are you more nervous about, freshman year of high school or the Olympics?” you could hear Wang shyly mumble, “Uh…” before her answer got swallowed by the Clash’s “Train in Vain” pumping through another PA system.