The Battle of the Paddle

Loot dreams, pre-teen stars, Russian immigrants and (cough) very old men have the St. Louis table-tennis scene popping off

"In a year, Art is gonna beat everybody, having a coach like Alex," predicts 76-year-old racketeer Charles Klotzer, who ranks ninth in his age group nationally (and is the editor emeritus of the St. Louis Journalism Review).

At this point, steady septuagenarian Tom Klutho enters the Kheyfets' half of the gym, sees that they're practicing and swiftly puts his racket down at another table to signal "he got next." Several other players pass on the Kheyfets' table as well, a sort of silent, nurturing acknowledgment that Alex, a Russian immigrant who came to St. Louis at age 22, can take as much time as he needs to train his prodigy.

As the Kheyfetses work their forehands, Art consistently keeps his racket below sea level, thus limiting his opponents' ability to predict where the next shot will go.

George Hendry, 82, displays the steady form that landed him on a Wheaties box in '36.
Jennifer Silverberg
George Hendry, 82, displays the steady form that landed him on a Wheaties box in '36.
Don't let the sweet prepubescent smile fool you: Twelve-year-old Art Kheyfets is the truth.
Jennifer Silverberg
Don't let the sweet prepubescent smile fool you: Twelve-year-old Art Kheyfets is the truth.

At long last, the real match is on, and Art, hell-bent on knocking the crap out of every ball, overpowers his father and wins.

"He exhausted me a little bit, which is good," observes Alex, who, when he chooses to really crank it, is one of the club's top two players. "He's twelve -- he thinks he can hit anything with everything."

Conlee describes top-notch table tennis as "chess on wheels." Whereas the basement beer-pong player might wag his paddle in a relatively nonchalant manner during halftime of the Rams' game, the St. Louis club member's hand and brain must produce absolute synergy to achieve victory.

It is simply not enough to react quickly and bang balls at this level. These players think at least two shots ahead, conjuring well in advance the wicked backspin drop shot that'll have the opponent spread-eagled before bumping his chin on the table's edge.

After losing his second match of the day, young Kheyfets is in good spirits as 32-year-old club member Chance Key strolls over to flip him some shit about the kid's missed forehands and rock-star tournament schedule. Key then compares Art to the Backstreet Boys and asks him where his next tournament is.

"I don't know. Somewhere in Illinois," giggles Art.

Top-flight players will attest that playing in tournaments is everything at a young age, so it should come as no surprise that Alex schleps his protégé to quite a few regional meets throughout the year.

Although pingpong was the first sport he introduced Art to, Alex is careful to encourage athletic balance in his son's life. Art -- a proficient soccer and street-hockey goalie (he says he will make his move to the ice shortly) -- is happy to oblige. This only makes sense, given that Art's classmates at Parkway Northeast Middle School "don't really know" he plays table tennis, a sport that is notably absent from the physical-education activity menu.

So for now, young Kheyfets will have to settle for beating up on adults, at least when he's not engaged in sanctioned tournament battles. Whereas it would be very difficult for Art to arch a shot over the hands of the rangy Key, victory is entirely plausible on the little green table.

"It's cool. I mean, beating them [the adult competitors] in something is good enough," enthuses Art.

Sokol, Conlee and 82-year-old George Hendry are sitting in the lunchroom of a rather posh senior citizens' residence in Clayton, sipping vegetable soup while Hendry tries to figure out what the fuck is wrong with his right hearing aid.

Hendry, who only recently moved out of his house in University City after his longtime maid died, is anxious to show his longtime buddies his new digs.

"I was gonna show these fellas my room upstairs, 'cause they're candidates to get in here," he cracks.

"I don't have that kind of money," whips back Sokol, a retired, scratchy-voiced Soulard native who spent his entire career as a civilian electronics specialist for the Army and Coast Guard after a tour in Korea.

This would all be standard-issue geriatric patter were it not for the fact that all three of them were pummeling table-tennis players several decades their junior in Creve Coeur the night before.

The middle tables on the southernmost side of the Government Center gym are dubbed "challenge tables," where winners stay on until they lose, thus placating the more competitive athletes. Meanwhile, on the other six tables, combatants play two games, scored to eleven points regardless of outcome.

At those well-attended Wednesdays, Hendry -- a CPA who has beaten down prostate cancer and still goes into his University City office 25 hours a week -- is a deity.

"I never beat him," laments the otherwise jovial Key, a banker who lives at St. Louis Avenue and Kingshighway. On this particular Wednesday, Key is sporting a navy-blue "John Ashcroft: Family Values" T-shirt -- for which the apolitical Key (the shirt belongs to his girlfriend) reveals "people at the club were giving me so much shit about." Undaunted, Key brashly declares that he's soon going to walk the streets of predominantly liberal University City with the shirt on just to see what kind of looks he gets.

Key is no slouch. He's lean and agile and possesses a Fila-fresh whippersnapper forehand that should -- and often does -- pummel his opposition. But against a player like Hendry, hardly anything works. Where once Hendry skipped and smashed around the table like a pit bull, the Ford Mustang of American table tennis has managed to do what all the great ones do -- he's reinvented his game in order to maintain dominance.

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