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

To fully appreciate the game, however, it's important to understand a bit about its history. Table tennis began as a hobby in England toward the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout, the Europeans, Japanese and Chinese have squashed the comparatively insular backyard 'n' beers U.S. version of the sport into an internationally irrelevant competitive rut that America has, to this day, failed to crawl out of.

"In those other countries, table tennis is actually a sport," notes U.S. Olympic coach Danny Seemiller, a South Bend, Indiana, resident. "Over here, it's more of a game."

Despite the current surge in membership, table tennis has long been the bastard stepson of the St. Louis sports community. Although the St. Louis Table Tennis Club enjoyed some stability in the 1940s and '50s, gathering at the old Drake Hotel at Natural Bridge and Euclid avenues, the club has moved more frequently than a juvenile-delinquent foster child ever since.

In Creve Coeur, the fashion police are off duty as the pongers play "chess on wheels."
Jennifer Silverberg
In Creve Coeur, the fashion police are off duty as the pongers play "chess on wheels."
Sean King (far end of table) and regular partner Jimmy Kimple talk as good a game as they play.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sean King (far end of table) and regular partner Jimmy Kimple talk as good a game as they play.

Essentially Hendry's game is a waltz to Key's spasmodic tango -- and Fred Astaire typically prevails here. For an apt comparison, look no further than clay-court tennis. The power player who, on a hard-court surface, would normally rip through his opponent like shit through a goose is helpless against the steady player who, on clay, is more patient and adept at a range of trick shots.

While Key bounds about the table, Hendry's feet move maybe six inches either way. He relies on a customized racket that's flat on the forehand side and has long pips (undulating rubber stubs) on the backhand side. The longer pips diabolically reverse whatever spin the opponent has put on the ball.

Although technique and experience certainly matter in the final tally, what doesn't is the opponents' varied backgrounds. Where they live ain't worth a squirt of piss. Ditto their skin color, profession, education or age. Especially their age.

"We've got Indian, Chinese -- it's really a very diverse group," says Sokol. "These guys have [educational] backgrounds that make me look uneducated."

As a youngster, Hendry epitomized the type of multidimensional athlete King believes is lacking in the modern era. To wit, Hendry averaged a 193 the lone year he bowled, played on the Beaumont High School basketball team, starred for the Washington University varsity tennis team and, nowadays, shoots his age in golf.

But before all that, Hendry, under the expert tutelage of Northside YMCA instructor Bill Price, became a table-tennis prodigy (Price went on to train Jimmy Connors in tennis). He won the junior nationals in 1935 at age fourteen, and the next year, competing against men old enough to drink and drive, he became the youngest player to ever win the prestigious Western Open, a distinction that earned him the holy grail of commercial athletic recognition, World Series be damned.

At the age of fifteen, Hendry had his grill emblazoned on a Wheaties box, inspiring a legion of would-be table-tennis champs to eat up but good every morning before school.

A couple more years of teenage dominance ensued before Hendry shelved his paddles to serve his country in World War II. Providing an early boilerplate for Michael Jordan's "quit while you're on top but leave the door cracked" style of retirement, Hendry wouldn't play table tennis competitively for another 40 years or so -- before coming back to regain his throne atop the sport in relatively short order.

Former St. Louis Table Tennis Club president Rich Doza has a favorite tourney yarn: the day thenó72-year-old Hendry pulled off a shocking upset of twentysomething Peruvian champion Andr Wong (who'd just beaten thenóU.S. champ Seemiller). This qualified him for the round of 32 at the U.S. Open in Midland, Texas.

"We're out in the center area, and we're warming up," begins Doza. "This guy comes by -- he's on the Japanese team. He says we have to leave 'cause he has a match. I said, 'So do we.'

"The guy couldn't believe he had to play this old man. He thought he'd be playing André Wong, and instead he's playing his grandfather. His English was a little shaky, so he just couldn't understand that George had beaten André Wong."

The ageless-wonder theme is a common one with these guys. They are so freakishly youthful, it's damn near impossible to play Jimmy the Greek with their age. Their exploits in exercise are as unique as they are herculean. King's partner, Kimple, who earns his keep as a laborer at Willert Home Products, supplements his pingpong by roller skating to C&C Music Factory ditties beneath the disco balls at Saints and Skate King. No weights, no bats, no blading: Old-school flavor never tasted so good.

In a middle-school gym in Columbia, Missouri, Art's papa, Alex Kheyfets, is locked in a nip-and-tuck Show-Me State Games quarterfinal battle with Zbigniew "Z.B." Mastylo of Kansas City.

The crowd, if you can call it that, almost exclusively comprises Kheyfets and Mastylo's fellow competitors. Attendance has presumably been sapped by a bigger regional tournament at Fontbonne University the weekend before -- featuring more than $1,100 in prize money.

This tournament, according to Daniel Todd of the Columbia Table Tennis Club, is all about prestige, and Todd thinks Mastylo's got what it takes to carry the day in the men's open division, in which competitors from all age brackets can compete.

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