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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

'World's fastest sport' played on a table top

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

The "court" is only 5 feet by 9 feet and stands 30 inches above the ground, and the ball is 40 milimeters (about an inch-and-a-half) in diameter.

Akemi Morita of Mililani is a study in concentration as she returns a shot in table tennis competition.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

But the swings are big and the shot-making would make Andre Agassi or Martina Hingis proud. The sport is table tennis, and don't ever let an expert hear you say, "Ping-Pong."

"You need both the mental and physical (skills) to play," said Allen Kaichi, the reigning Aloha State Games gold medalist. "At the end of a match, I'm drenched."

The action was fast and furious yesterday at Palama Settlement. Participants ranged in age from 14-year-old Jarryd Julian to Hon Ming Yeung, who, at 74, still goes by the nickname "Jumping Jack."

One participant was a former heart transplant patient, and some flew in from the Neighbor Islands.

For all of them, the matches were some of the last they would play under traditional rules. Starting in September, international scoring will be changed so that matches are won at 11 points (or more if the score is 11-10) and decided in best-of-seven or best-of-nine series.

Also, servers will alternate after every two serves, and "hidden serves" will not be allowed.

Under current rules, matches are won at 21 points (or more if the score is 21-20) and are decided in best-of-three or best-of-five series. Serves are alternated after every five points, and players are allowed to "hide" their serves by shielding their paddles with their arms and shoulders or turned torsos.

"I think the new rules will make the game more exciting," said Kenneth Siu, an elite-level player. "With only 11 points, every point will really count. With 21 points, you can give up five points and still know you can catch up. Now, it'll be tough."

The switch to the 40-milimeter ball also is a new development, since 38-milimeter balls were standard until recently. The bigger ball is intended to slow the game once called the "world's fastest sport." Even though opponents sometimes are standing only 10 feet away, shots can be delivered at speeds of close to 100 mph.

Siu, 37, said the game actually has undergone slow change over the past 20 years. A native of Hong Kong, Siu holds his paddle using the "penholder" grip made popular in Japan in the 1970s. Most of today's players use the conventional "handshake" grip which is more similar to a tennis grip.

"The penholder grip is like how you would hold chopsticks," Siu said. "You're mostly playing defense, especially on the backhand side, because you loop the ball a lot instead of putting spin on it or hitting a chop."

Siu, however, has a powerful offensive game because he often takes full swings and goes for the kill.

"But hitting it hard and hitting it consistently are two different things," Siu said.

His looping swings cause him to play several feet behind the table, as opposed to the "Chinese" style of staying near the table's edge.

Kaichi said the Chinese style requires a lot of strategy and reflexes.

"You have to understand how the ball bounces off the table, what kind of spin is going to come back at you," Kaichi said. "You have to watch the kind of stroke the other guy is hitting."

Playing close to the table requires less running, but lateral movement still is important. Playing farther from the table involves a lot of running back and forth.

"If I were to start over, I wouldn't use the penholder grip," Siu said.

The Hawai'i Table Tennis Club meets on Saturdays at Kilauea District Park, Sundays at Palama Settlement and several times a week at Halawa District Park and Waipahu District Park.