- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - Darting to the left in tennis shoes and multicolored socks, Tiffany Ke put herself right in front of the ball screaming toward her. Her eyes narrowed, and with a twitch, her right arm whipped the ball with a paddle.

It flew low over the tiny net and skipped across the corner of the table, a perfect shot that eluded the paddle of a 52-year-old vice president of sales from Charlotte, N.C.

“The way to describe this is lambs to slaughter,” said Simon Brain, the executive who had traveled to play in the recent Roanoke Table Tennis Open.

“There’s no way to win this. If we win, we’re beating a 9-year-old girl.”

His doubles team, which also included a 25-year-old with a full beard, Madhu Diwakar, didn’t win.

Tiffany, the 9-year-old from Potomac, Md., was on the winning side, which also included Steven Dong, a 21-year-old from the same club in Maryland who was the best player at the Sun Tennis Center. He won the Jan. 25 singles tournament and carries a national ranking. The following day saw competition between doubles teams, with about 30 players participating for prize money.

Ravi Anantaraman, owner of the Sun Tennis Center, a Roanoke County facility that hosted and organized the event, said interest in table tennis is sparse in Roanoke despite the health benefits and relative ease of getting involved.

“The demographics don’t fit this town,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

Anantaraman has hosted the Roanoke tournament several times and seen some of the country’s top players pass through. He said his center is hosting another open on the weekend of Feb. 22. And while Roanoke’s table tennis players are few and far between, others gladly fill the indoor facility.

Tiffany Ke’s father, Tenson Ke, brought the Potomac delegation to Roanoke. The tournament featured players from several surrounding states and from other cities in Virginia.

“In this area, we have to travel a lot to find competitors,” Tenson Ke said.

His daughter’s shirt - a bright blue about the color of the Powerade she was drinking between games - was purchased in Las Vegas, where she played in the national tournament and ended up ranked as one of the top two players in the country under 10 years old.

This type of diversity is common in table tennis, where players of various ages and abilities routinely share tables.

The game has a way of leveling the playing field. The table is 9 feet long and 5 feet wide. It stands 30 inches high - up to Tiffany’s midsection, but only midthigh for many of the other competitors. It is no feat of strength to fire the ball across the net. Instead, a premium is placed on hand-eye coordination and agility.

Brain started playing when he was 30 and said it keeps his mind sharp as he roams the country for his job.

“Instead of sitting in the bar drinking wherever I go, I can go find a table tennis club,” he said.

Still, he said table tennis is very much a small sport in the U.S., populated mainly by players of Asian or Indian descent. Tenson Ke sat behind one of the barriers as his daughter played, clapping just off the beat of the ping and the pong of the matches, yelling encouragement.

“He was telling me how to play,” Tiffany Ke said afterward.

She said she started playing because her older siblings were involved. Now, the family has opened a club of their own in Maryland. As for her father, she said he gives her strategy pointers during the matches and plays himself at home.

“He’s left-handed,” Tiffany Ke said with a grin. “But he’s not very good.”

Table tennis, as Brain said, is harder to pick up as an adult. Someone who jumps into serious action in their youth, like Tiffany Ke, will always have an advantage.

“I’ve been playing for 22 years,” he said, “but I’ll never be as natural as her.”


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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