- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Forget Mike Tyson. It's Todd Sweeris who is misunderstood. As a table tennis ace in a pingpong nation, Sweeris is a collector of blank stares, a connoisseur of dismissive chuckles, a leading authority on bemused indifference.
Yet among the countless misconceptions he confronts on an almost daily basis, only one truly annoys him.
"Don't ask me if I play like Forrest Gump," he said. "That's a standard comment. And I'm like, 'Yeah, shut up already.' I'm sick of it."
Such is life for Sweeris, a 26-year-old Bethesda, Md., resident and a member of the U.S. Olympic table tennis team. While the Dream Team preens and track star Marion Jones gleams, the nation's fifth-best table tennis player fields earnest comparisons to a fictional, semiliterate idiot savant the price of excellence in a sport that rests somewhere between jai alai and professional lawn mower racing in the national athletic pantheon.
"People tend to think of it as more a skill than a sport 'Oh, he probably does some wicked spins,' " Sweeris said. "But they have no idea the kind of speed and strength and quickness that goes into it."
When it comes to table tennis, misapprehensions abound. In the interest of setting the record straight and sparing Sweeris additional Gump jokes let's tackle them one at a time:

Table tennis isn't so tough

Think the sport is easy? Think just about anyone can pick up a paddle and become the next Linghui Kong (the world's No. 1 player)? Guess what: It isn't. And they couldn't.
The dippy, dinky game that's played in the musty corners of basement rec rooms? The one where the overriding imperative is keeping the ball on the table? That's pingpong. But a sport where highly conditioned athletes with the whip-snap reflexes of methamphetamine-addled cheetahs smash a 38 mm ball across an extra-large picnic table at speeds approaching 100 mph, all for 60-plus minutes at a time?
That's table tennis.
"Nolan Ryan throws a 95-miles-per-hour fastball, but batters have 60 feet of distance and a small [hitting] zone," Sweeris said. "We have a 9-foot table, and the ball travels at least 70 to 80 miles per hour. Plus, the spin on a table tennis ball is probably 50 times what a baseball player can produce. I'm not saying it's as tough as hitting a baseball, but it's close."
And don't assume that table tennis players are mere hand-eye anomalies, devoid of real athletic ability. As part of his preparation for the Olympics, Sweeris follows a training regimen that wouldn't be out of place on the pro tennis tour: seven hours a day of running, weightlifting, hitting and film breakdown.
Yes, film breakdown.
"The biggest misconception is that you don't have to do any physical training," he said. "People don't understand the footwork, the leg drive that goes into it. In this country, no one has seen the game at its highest level."

No, really, I could play

No. Really. You couldn't. Not unless you've been working at the game your entire life, like Sweeris.
His parents, Dell and Connie, are table tennis hall of famers with more than two dozen national championships between them. As a toddler, Sweeris would accompany them to tournaments; at 2 years of age, he was paddling balls off the family refrigerator; by 5, he was playing against his folks for keeps.
"A lot of parents might have let their kids win, at least for a game or two," Sweeris said. "Not the case with my parents. They beat the … out of me. So I was introduced to the sport at the highest level, which is unusual. And that certainly helped me right from the start, I didn't have any bad habits."
And that's not all. In the manner of many professional tennis stars, Sweeris sacrificed his adolescence at the altar of his sport. At 13, he left his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., to live and train at a U.S. National Team residency program at Colorado Springs. Four years later, he enrolled at the University of Maryland not because he had any special desire to be a Terrapin, but because Rockville is home to the Maryland Table Tennis Center, one of the nation's top coaching and training centers.
"I didn't have a normal life," he said. "A lot of semesters I took only three classes, and I even took a few semesters off to go overseas. But I matured my game."

There's the table. Where's the tennis?

Actually, table tennis and its full-size cousin have much in common. Start with stylistic variety. Just as tennis features serve and volleyers, power baseliners, and scrappy opportunists (think Brad Gilbert), the miniature game is home to all manners of players.
There are "fast attackers" like Sweeris who crowd the table, taking the ball early and on the rise. There are "choppers," defensive-minded players who stand far behind the table, slice every shot and wait for their opponents to make mistakes. And there are "all-arounders," who play a hybrid game.
"When I play tennis, I use the same strategies," Sweeris said. "You have a game plan going in, you work your opponents the same way. If a person has a strong forehand and likes to run around it, I might play one ball wide on his forehand, and then play the next to his backhand so he's stuck."
Racket (well, make that paddle) technology plays a role as well. In 1995, Sweeris retooled his backhand by changing his paddle rubber from smooth to pimpled in effect, replacing a topspin shot with a no-spin knuckleball and rode the results to the 1996 Olympics.
Moreover, table tennis is home to an ongoing power debate not unlike the one that has engulfed tennis since the introduction of advanced composite rackets. Some years ago no one knows exactly when a group of European players noticed that when they used bicycle repair glue to attach rubber to paddle, it created a potent rebound effect, adding 15 to 20 percent more speed and spin to shots.
"It completely revolutionized the game," Sweeris said. "So everybody started regluing before every match. As a result, the points got shorter and shorter."
In response, the International Table Tennis Federation voted in February at its World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to increase the size of the standard table tennis ball from 38 millimeters to 40 millimeters, the better to slow down the game (full-size tennis, not coincidentally, has kicked around the same idea).

It's not like anyone cares

Maybe not in the United States. But in some nations most notably in the Far East table tennis is both an obsession and a point of pride, a sport suffused with all the heroism, drama, overwrought hyperbole and excessive media attention that American sports fans take for granted. Sweeris still recalls the shock he felt during his first playing trip to China and Japan.
"What was wild for us was to first see how many good players there were, and then the respect that everyone had for the game," he said. "China's greatest national sports hero is a four-time Gold Medal winner. How we treat our NBA and NFL players, they treat their table tennis players."
That treatment includes generous financial compensation not at the level accorded U.S. major leaguers, but impressive nonetheless. In Europe, where professional table tennis leagues thrive, good players earn between $50,000 and $70,000 annually, while stars can make up to $300,000 in a single season.
"A lot of the professional players from China and Korea play in Europe," Sweeris said. "They're making good money and playing in front of sold-out houses… . My one regret is that I didn't go over there and give it a try after the 1996 Olympics. I could make money if I moved there."
Not that U.S. table tennis players are without pecuniary recourse. Tournaments such as the recent U.S. Open award up to $75,000 in prize money; in May, accounting firm Deloitte and Touche (for which Sweeris works as a tax consultant) became the national training sponsor for USA Table Tennis making it just the second non-table-tennis-related company to ever do so.
"When I made the team, it just seemed like a natural fit," Sweeris said. "We needed a sponsor, and hopefully this is something that can bring some help to the sport."

Come on. Table tennis can't be serious, can it?

Still unconvinced? Consider this: In order to play in the 1997 intercollegiate table tennis championships, Sweeris first had to qualify by winning Maryland's intramural tournament.
As mismatches go, this ranked somewhere between Tyson-Savarese and Desert Storm.
"After I won the first match and I wasn't trying to destroy the guy, I was just playing around they knew that I was incredible," said Sweeris, who won both tournaments without losing a game. "The first person I played asked, 'Well, how good are you?' And I said, 'Basically, I'm like one of the top three players in the country.' It was funny… . Unless you played me, you'd probably have no idea how hard this is."
Even if you watched a certain movie.

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