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“Part of being competitive,” he said over the steady rhythm of balls being hit back and forth at the table tennis center, “is that I was tired of being terrible — by my standards — at the game. So even if I didn’t try out for the Olympics, I wanted to try to get back to somewhere close to where I was before.”

While practicing with Gong and Li, Xiao realized he might be good enough to make some noise at the national event but he didn’t even commit to playing until he did well at a small tournament Thanksgiving weekend.

So he made his way to Virginia Beach and proceeded to win the doubles national title with Timothy Wang, which set him up for a run to the national singles final, where he lost 4-0 to Li.

“We say the Scaggsville Table Tennis Center [Li’s basement] might be the best in the country, because it produced two finalists at nationals,” Xiao said with a laugh.

The runner-up finish secured Xiao a spot in the American top 10, which qualified him automatically for the U.S. singles trials event, Feb. 10-12 in North Carolina. The top four finishers from that event will qualify for the continental trials back in Cary in April.

Li, who has been training with a provincial club team in Fouzhou, China, for the past 30 days, said Yiyong Fan, the top-ranked American, who also is training for the trials in China, should get one of the continental berths. Among the next nine, it’s a toss-up as to who might make it.

“There’s no player who’s dominant over everyone else,” Li said in a Skype call. “When we play, it will probably be a big mess. I don’t think anyone will have a clean record.”

Maryland-based Hall-of-Famer Larry Hodges said Xiao has as good a chance of any of those players to advance to the next round.

“One advantage he has is experience,” Hodges said. “He has one of the two best backhands in the country, and I think he was spurred on by how well he did at nationals.”

Li, who knows Xiao’s game better than anyone else, agreed.

“He’s got a special gift,” Li said of Xiao’s ‘backhand loop’. “Most U.S. players are trying to avoid letting him have that shot.”

He’s probably the most talented homegrown American player in the field, but because he hasn’t been playing full-time for the past six months like some of his competitors, Xiao only puts his odds of getting through to the continental qualifier at about 50-50.

“I’m going to try to do my best there and not think about anything else,” he said. “When I’m there I’m just thinking about a point at a time.”

But would Xiao feel guilty about making it out of next month’s tournament when he’s only been seriously training since October?

“I’ve always prided myself on training smart and being really cerebral about it. Rather than making it a grind. I get bored easily,” he said. “I would feel a little bit guilty, but at the end, everybody has the same opportunity to make it.

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