King Pong

Written by Chris J. Magyar
Good Times, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Table tennis — the world’s second-most-popular sport — comes out of the basement.

Richard “Willie” Williams founded the Santa Cruz Table Tennis Club in 1994 after 30 years of playing the game — yes, Ping-Pong — at an international level, taking second place at an Armed Forces Europe tournament in the 1960s. “I came here and couldn’t find anyone to play,” he says. “So I formed this club. Started with plywood tables. We begged for help wherever we could get it.” The biggest help came from the Portuguese Hall in Harvey West Park, where the club meets every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 10 pm. “If it weren’t for them, there would be no club,” Williams says.

He’s sweating. The atmosphere during club play is intense, though there’s an easy camaraderie amongst those who paid $5 to come in and initiate pickup games. Willie is wearing a headband and a table tennis T-shirt. He’s just been walloped by a young man with a crazy mop of red hair and a long, wiry goatee. “He’s been here since the very first year, when he was this tall,” Willie says of his opponent, holding his hand up at hip height. “Now he beats me.”

The opponent is 21-year-old Allan Rudesill, a Cabrillo College student who has played competitive table tennis for two-thirds of his life, and on any given night is the highest-ranked player in the Santa Cruz club, though that depends on whether or not his older brother David shows up. David Rudesill, a 27-year-old DJ and sociologist, trained in China, Germany, and Sweden, and played as Allan’s doubles partner in the 2003 National Championships in Las Vegas, where they came in in third place.

“David’s always someone I have to try to beat,” Allan says. “It’s a typical older brother relationship. He’s always just that little bit better than me. Some days I can beat him, and I was ranked higher for a little while, but it’s never easy.”

National table tennis rankings are on a ladder system, where every player is given a ranking number, and you must beat players with higher numbers to move up (and avoid losing to players with lower numbers if you don’t want to fall down). Under 1,000 is a beginner. The best players in Santa Cruz are between 2,000 (considered an expert) and 2,200 (a “master player” according to the USA Table Tennis league site at Olympic players are around 2,500 to 2,800. The best players in the world are at 3,000 and up.

The Rudesills trained over the hill in Palo Alto, where the club play is more intense, and there are more table tennis masters around. Their parents — both teachers, mom of Spanish and Italian, dad of history — are casual players, but shuttled their children back and forth in order to facilitate their talent. “If you put all the time I’ve spent playing table tennis into one block, it would be about two years,” Allan says. “I counted it up once.”

Far from a Forrest Gump personality, Allan has the typical easy swagger of a Santa Cruz native, shouting “what’s up broham?” to friends as they walk by, and a denizen of the local street art scene at Hide Gallery and Firefly Coffeehouse. He’s followed his older brother’s interest in DJing as well, honing his beatbox skills to the point where he got his hat signed by KRS-One, after the international music star borrowed David’s turntables for a concert at the Catalyst and Allan was invited backstage to beatbox with him after the show. “I don’t surf yet,” he says. “Put that in. I want my friends to know I don’t surf. I need lessons. Anyone?”

But, like I said, swagger. “My reflexes are much faster than the average human being,” he says, explaining how Ping-Pong is more than just a casual sport in the rest of the world, where its popularity eclipses everything but soccer. “The ball is travelling at 85 miles per hour on a table that’s the size of a few feet. But it’s not just reflex, because you’re not just taking into account speed. You’ve got spin and trajectory, which the other player is choosing when you’re at high levels, 50 or 60 possibilities. After a while, you’re not even watching the ball. The speed of the play is such that you couldn’t keep track if you wanted. The little orange sphere is moving so fast, and with such pop and spin, that you can’t compensate. You need to just look at what you believe to be the correct location.” It’s like swatting at Schrödinger’s cat.

He stands up and starts dancing. “It’s one of the most exhausting sports in the world. The footwork is intense. The amount of explosive forces — it’s like dancing three times faster than rave techno, point after point, and some of the points can last for 90 seconds. That’s the hardest part to convince people about. The physical side.”

Allan is not as active as he used to be, since he’s trying to finish up his sociology degree this summer, but there’s a sense that the attention being put on his game is drawing him back in. When I visit the club with him, it’s only his second trip this year, but still he says, “I play table tennis as others paint, or jog, or sail. I do it to keep mentally and physically healthy. I need to play Ping-Pong to feel as if my life is going well.”

The Santa Cruz Table Tennis Club, while, by the admission of everyone there, one of the smaller and less competitive clubs in Northern California, has drawn an impressive roster of locals. Jim Langley, the bicycle repair guru and avid competitor, is the club’s top coach. Another regular, Gjon Feinstein, is a national chess master who teaches the game to locals and runs a number of chess tournaments each year. Then there’s Herb Rossman, the club’s oldest player at 83 and still capable of beating just about anyone who walks in the door, and Harvey Gotliffe, a recently retired professor of journalism at San Jose State who immediately asks me where I learned to take notes.

But the person everyone directs my attention to is Daniel Goodwin, the club’s current top player. Like Allan, Daniel has a duelling partner at home — his wife, Thuy. Since the couple had their second child, however, they have been taking turns coming to the club while the other stays at home to watch the children (the eldest is 3 and a half). When I walk in, Daniel is pounding away at a visitor from Los Angeles who, Willie says, “has a tricky technique.”

Tall and blond with a square face, Daniel has one of the milder personalities in the room. A software engineer by day, he says his competitive instinct isn’t as fierce as his wife’s. The table at home is in the garage and covered with work papers.

Daniel was also trained intensely as a kid, for the Olympic program, but he quit at 15. Ironically, he met his wife in Olympic training (she also stopped at 15), and then again in college. When they got married, they started competing together in tennis, but when they moved to Santa Cruz and couldn’t find a tennis club to join, Ping-Pong reared its head and renewed their interest. “It challenges you physically and mentally,” he says. “You have to explain the physical part to a lot of people. It is possible to play the game at a high level without moving very much, but all the players at my level and above put a lot of energy into it.”

He plays at a tournament or two every year. “I don’t mind losing,” he says. “I know a lot of people who, like my wife, are such perfectionists that they don’t like playing in tournaments because their expectations are too high to accept losing.” Thuy won a national championship, and Daniel’s older brother was a competitive player as well. “The one time she did play in a tournament, she did win it. Some people have it — they’re winners, and they’ll go on a streak and win the whole thing — and I’m not like that. I go in and get second. My older brother had 30 first place trophies and I had five. We played in the same tournaments and improved at the same rate, but he just seemed to win.”

Table 1 is reserved for the club’s top players, and it’s not long before the two younger brothers in the room decide to lock horns. As Daniel finishes off a defensive Harvey, Allan waits in the wings to take him on. “It’s going to be the Titanic versus the Iceberg,” Allan says. “I’m not sure which is which today.” We stand at the concessions area and contemplate the beer locker, its door firmly fastened with a brass plate proclaiming it received its “incubator badge” in 1918. “They got more cases and kegs in there than I can count,” Allan says. “But I’ve only seen it open maybe four times in all the years I’ve come here. Would be a great party practice for beer pong.”

Most people still play by “basement rules” in which the score goes to 21, and the serve is passed back and forth every five points, but the official rules for tournament play are much shorter to compensate for the longer rallies and the intense physicality of play. Games are over at 11 points, and the serve alternates every two. Allan and Daniel decide to play the best three out of five. About half the club members gather around to watch.

Allan serves close to his chest, the ball getting lobbed to about eye level before being swatted from his hip on the drop. His eyes remain wide and intense during the point, and he has a pronounced habit of stomping his front foot as he strikes. Most points end with an overshot by one of the players, but some are simply perfectly placed lasers. And when a rally explodes — each point does feel like a bundle of TNT with a fuse on it — the forward and back attacks and loops and spins have both the simplicity of the basic contest (just hit it back and forth) and the arcane, instantaneous strategy of a major-league baseball pitch.

Allan tap-dances when he misses a shot. Daniel is lighter on his feet, gliding as if on water. One smash simply eats Allan up, but he counters with a soft sidling serve that gives him an easy angled smash on the return. His reflexes are such that when Daniel’s ball is hit into the net, his paddle is already in place anyway, wrist twitching, lips pursed.

Daniel climbs on top two games to one. Allan has a trait common to many intensely competitive tennis players — he only calls the score out when he’s winning. Daniel’s intensity is all in his jaw, which juts with each serve and after missed points, when he rehearses his shot with a pantomime pivot as Allan goes back to retrieve the ball.

On the next point, Allan ricochets a ball off the net but into play, usually an impossible sequence to react to, but Daniel picks it up with a deft flick, surprising Allan into a weak return that’s bashed back with huge force. Allan returns that anyway with an equally forceful shot, but it goes long, and he smacks his hand on the table in frustration. Two points later, he completes the comeback anyway, tieing the contest at two games apiece.

Daniel towels off before the final game, mentioning his fatigue to the visiting player he trounced earlier in the evening. Then he starts the game off with three consecutive slams that back Allan up so far from the table, he’s unable to execute a return.

The score runs to 7 to 4 in favor of Daniel. Allan gets the next two points back on miscues from his opponent, pumping his fist each time. It’s 7 to 6, and Allan is talking to himself and me now, about ego, about how tight the game is. Daniel is silent. On the next point, the score is tied.

Daniel rallies for the next two points, making it 9 to 7. Allan is instantly quiet. He hits the net on his next shot to make it 10 to 7, match point. He stomps his foot. Daniel serves, and on the fifth hit of the rally, smashes one back to the wall, right past Allan, for the win.

After the match, Allan is telling Daniel how he could have beat him. “I should have kept it shorter on the serves. I know you’ll be able to open up on my long serves every time, but I’m so used to playing my brother that I thought I could do a reverse psychology thing, and give you what you want instead of avoiding it.”

“That’s kind of a no-no for people at our level, serving it long like that,” Daniel says.

“Exactly!” Allan exclaims, pre-empting the rest of Daniel’s sentence. “Why would you give a great white shark a seal to eat when it can already hunt one down on its own? I was just hoping you wouldn’t be consistent enough. But I don’t think that was a very good strategy.”

Daniel adds, to me, “It also helps that I’m here every week, and Allan hasn’t been around much lately.”

Players at the table are asking the two for a doubles game, but they both demur, exhausted. The two top players in Santa Cruz, older brothers and wives notwithstanding, go home: Allan to his books, Daniel to his babies.


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