- - Monday, January 30, 2012

When the best table-tennis player in North America is ranked 149th in the world, and that player is Canadian, it means that any American player with hopes of qualifying for this year’s London Olympics really is just playing for the chance to get a first-hand view of the Olympic experience.

That’s a major accomplishment, of course, but it also means American table-tennis players have to treat their sport with a little less medal fever and a little more objectivity.

“For us, the end goal is just participating,” said Han Xiao, 25, of Germantown, Md. “If you could win a match, it would be amazing.”

The best-case scenario is that the U.S. will send three men to London. Xiao hopes to be one of them. But he’ll need to finish in the top four at the American trials next month in Cary, N.C., and then win one of three spots available to North Americans in a showdown with Canada in April.

Xiao, who was born in China but came to the U.S. as a toddler, picked up the sport as a boy and quickly progressed to the point that he spent his teenage years traveling to the Pan Am Games and multiple world championships. He won three national titles in doubles and was named the sport’s U.S. player of the year at 15. He was a prodigy and served as the poster boy for a new generation of players that was raised in the American system, instead of imports from China or other countries who became American citizens.

He was so highly regarded, in fact, The Washington Post Magazine wrote a cover story on him, titled “The Golden Child,” in 2007 that chronicled his preparation for the tournaments that served as qualifiers for the Beijing Olympics.

Xiao was at his peak then but still lost a seven-game match for the final North American Olympic berth to David Zhuang, a Chinese-import American who was in his 40s.

Sitting at a table in the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg just before Christmas, Xiao described the 2008 match as a psychological battle won by Zhuang due to a mix of maturity and gamesmanship.

“The umpiring wasn’t good. I wasn’t as experienced as he was. There was a let service that kind of messed with my rhythm,” he said, ticking off a list of things that went wrong. “I came back, but it wasn’t quite enough. He beat me 11-8 in the seventh game.”

But the loss wasn’t a major setback. Xiao got on with his life and graduated from the University of Maryland later that year with dual degrees in computer science and business.

“I have been focusing on my job and career,” said Xiao of the past four years. “Table tennis is a smaller sport. You can’t really make money doing it.”

He’s dedicated himself to learning the computer-programming business, working on what he calls “big data, cloud-type stuff,” perhaps applying the same principles to his career that made a teenage table-tennis star.

He doesn’t flaunt his pingpong prowess — most of the people he works with at TexelTek in Columbia don’t even know he’s one of the top players in the country. He avoids Comet Ping Pong, the D.C. pizza parlor where patrons kill time after ordering by playing pingpong. If he’s not playing with someone of his caliber, he’s generally not playing. It’s not a party trick.

“If I’m somewhere there’s a pingpong table and some cheap rackets, I’ll avoid it,” he said. “I know as soon as I get on there, I won’t be able to get off the table. So I just avoid it, I don’t even mention that I know how to play.”

In fact, Xiao has become involved in growing the sport as a member of USA Table Tennis’ board of directors, and most of his matches the past few years have been with serious, up-and-coming youth players such as Tong Tong Gong, 14, of Ellicott City. He’s also served as a practice partner for Peter Li, 18, of Scaggsville. It wasn’t even until a few weeks before the U.S. national championship event in early December that Xiao began to put in some serious training.

“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.

“It’s just if I work smarter than you for five months, I’d feel proud I could pull something like that off.”