The U.S. Table Tennis Nationals: A Ping-Pong Smorgasbord

Action in the 2010 U.S. Table Tennis Nationals in Las VegasIt was as if the good folks at the U.S. Table Tennis Association had been reading my blog and knew I was coming. They’d thought of everything in preparation for the arrival of the IGTS Tour. I walked into a dream scenario.

Admission to the U.S. Nationals cost just $5, and included a substantial program full of all kinds of handy information – including a full roster of players listed alphabetically and by bib number. It was delivered with a smile and an eager “Be sure to come back this weekend for the finals!”

They dispensed with the obligatory search of my backpack and person. I had all the tools of my trade at my disposal, with no posted restrictions on camera or video use. I suppressed the urge to hug the woman at the door.

Once inside the enormous hall, I noted plentiful seating spread throughout. It was possible to sit nearly tableside at any of the 93 clearly marked tables in use for the tournament. But that convenience paled in comparison to Center Court.

Center Court at the U.S. Table Tennis NationalsComprised of two tables (appropriately labeled #1 and #2), Center Court was surrounded by bleachers that had been set up on risers. The resulting amphitheatre provided great sight lines and plenty of room to spread out.

I took a seat in the bleachers and caught the end of a Men’s Singles match in the Championship, or Open division. An umpire seated on one side of the table indicated the result of each point and the origin of the next point to be played. Seated across from him was another official who maintained a manual “flipchart” type scoreboard. On occasion he would hold that scoreboard aloft and turn it so that people seated in the “end zone” bleachers could get a good look.

This is the point at which I broke down and wept like a small child. I couldn’t help it. This event was going to be an absolute joy to cover. It was perfect – a spectator’s heaven.

It really is too bad that I never witnessed that scenario again.

After the match had concluded, I consulted the program. There were 843 registered competitors in these U.S. Nationals, coming from 41 states and territories, and taking part in 63 different “Events”, or divisions of competition. Most of which were USATT Rating Events.

The Rating Events were created specifically to confuse me. For the most part, they were amateur competitions designed to allow players to accumulate USATT ratings points by playing against others of similar skill levels using the same kinds of paddles. Which led to event names like “U-1500 Hard Bat RR” and “U-1600 Senior RR 40+”.

This was all very well and good, and I was happy that there were so many different opportunities for people to compete. But I was there to see the country’s elite table tennis players, and that turned out to be hard to do.

Don’t get me wrong – play went on more or less continuously on all 93 tables, so there was always something to watch. But good luck to anyone trying to figure out exactly what it was they were watching. Because once official matches were completed and scores turned into Command Central, the vacated table became a first-come, first-served location for pick-up practice games.

Upon initially figuring this out, I didn’t think it would present a problem. Matches would be easily distinguishable from practice games because of the presence of referees. Except that, after my initial experience of viewing an officiated match, I never again saw an official at a table in the nearly four hours I spent on-site.

Locating a Men’s Championship Singles match was becoming akin to an Easter Egg Hunt with paddles.

I decided to make use of the personnel stationed at Command Central. Upon asking one of the staffers where I should go to see Men’s Singles Championship action, I received a quizzical expression in reply. She asked what my objective was, and when I said that I wanted to see the best table tennis that I could, she steered me toward one of the Rating Events that was going on. “They’re pretty good games!” she said cheerfully.

When I told her that the schedule that was posted on the website and replicated in the program called for Men’s Singles play to begin at noon, she said “Well, it’s past that time – it’s almost one!” Exactly. At that point I had been trolling for matches for almost an hour.

She called time and huddled with a couple of colleagues. They came back with a collective shoulder shrug. Nope – no Men’s Singles matches going on. Undaunted I asked “When the Men’s and Women’s Doubles Championship matches start at 1:30, where will those be played?”

Huddle. Shoulder shrug. “We don’t have any Championship division doubles matches scheduled for 1:30 – or any time today, in fact. But the LIHA Sandpaper Round Robin will be starting soon on tables 30-33!”

OK, so there was a snafu. The published schedule had only a passing resemblance to that which was actually in use. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded. But upon seeing the schedule on the website several weeks earlier, I had actually been motivated to change around the Tour schedule in order to see America’s best table tennis played. The logistical domino effect was not insignificant.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself of what more than eight months and over 75 events had taught me; some sporting events are designed and produced almost exclusively for participants, and not spectators. Some events justifiably cared not a whit if there were no spectators at all. So be it – this was apparently one of those events.

But just when I was ready to let the event producers off the hook, I realized one key thing that caused me to rescind my free pass on the disorganization. They did, after all, print tickets and charge admission (albeit a very reasonable $5) – they even had tickets color-coded for each tournament day. So they ostensibly signed up to put on a spectator-friendly event. And failed to do so.

But the IGTS Tour is nothing if not resilient, and after coming to terms with the fact that my first ten minutes in the house were the only ones that were going to be spent watching elite table tennis, I went with Plan B, which was to sample as many diverse games as possible. That turned out to be easy to do.

The nature of the Ratings Events are such that they are not divided by gender. Or age. Each player registers for the Nationals with their rating, and plays against those with similar ratings. For example, if your USTTA rating is 1931, you are going to play in the “U-2000 RR” event against others with a rating between 1900 and 1999. Which allows you to spend the week paddling like it’s 1999. Sorry.

 

As I moved around the hall, I saw matches pitting male vs. female, old vs. young, even able-bodied vs. wheelchair-bound. It was the ultimate meritocracy – only your rating number counted for anything. The sight of a senior citizen offering congratulations to a 12-year old that had just beaten him was charming.

Eventually I was drawn to a match that was quite obviously of significant consequence, given the number of fans and their response to the outcome of each point. Neither player wore a numbered bib, nor were there any officials, but the fact that time-outs were called during which the players huddled with coaches indicated that it was for real.

Cross-referencing what at this point was a very dubious published schedule, I guessed that I was witnessing the Cadet Boy’s Singles Championships. There was actually a nominal purse paid for this event, and the intensity and quality of play was outstanding. I could, however, have done without the drama and histrionics of one young player – what is it about hitting a ball back and forth over a net that brings out the worst in kids these days?

Mostly what I saw though, was practice games. And as I watched the better players work on their techniques, I noticed that after a while they would inevitably start goofing around, trying wild shots and yukking it up. Which brought back fond memories of doing just that when I played basketball competitively.

During open shooting times before and after practice, we would often play HORSE and try out half-court heaves, shots from behind the backboard, etc. As I think back on it, not only did doing stuff outside the routine improve my touch and feel for shot-making from all angles…it was FUN.

An interesting concept, this…Sports = Fun. Who would’ve thought?

Next Up:  The Holiday Bowl – College Football’s Silly Season 

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