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

"He's tough as nails mentally," Todd says of Mastylo, who used to be his teammate when he lived in Columbia.

Mastylo has what is universally acknowledged to be the ideal physique for table tennis. He's short, quick, muscular and, as St. Louis' Seiler notes, has "strong legs." He's also way fucking intense -- barking Polish expletives at himself after every point, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

By contrast, the balding, portly, mustachioed Kheyfets yields very little emotion. If you were to play a word-association game upon seeing Kheyfets, you'd be prone to instantly utter, "Pizza Hut manager" -- not "stud athlete." But for all of Mastylo's physical advantages and McEnroe melodrama, Kheyfets beats his butt the last two games to move into an all--St. Louis semifinal, in which he will face Sokol and Seiler will square off against Klutho.

For schoolteacher Melvin Lowe, Miller time doesn't begin until after his tableside Tuesday workout.
Jennifer Silverberg
For schoolteacher Melvin Lowe, Miller time doesn't begin until after his tableside Tuesday workout.

Of the triumphant quartet, Sokol's semifinal march -- during which he beat the much higher ranked Todd in the quarters -- is perhaps the most surprising. Common thinking, according to Hendry, is that "when you're young, you pick it [pingpong] up fast; when you're old, it's tough."

But Sokol, whose gritty southpaw style and ongoing banter with the crowd make him an entertaining anomaly by table-tennis standards, didn't really start playing the sport until he was 50. As he inevitably loses to Kheyfets, the target of most of his wry quips is Conlee (a.k.a. "Abe"), who is content to cheer on his teammates from the bleachers after getting swept out of the tourney early.

The beauty of watching Sokol in this match is that, much like the Patrick Ewing--less Knicks nobly bowing out of the '99 NBA finals against the Spurs and their twin towers (Tim Duncan and David "Admiral" Robinson), he knows he's going to lose. And when you know you're going to lose, you garner the freedom to ham it up.

So Sokol follows the carefree underdog's roadmap, mockingly complaining that his bad back (he doesn't have a bad back) is costing him the match and griping about how he's too old for the sport, period. All Kheyfets manages is a passing smirk as he disposes of the comedian across the table.

Although frustrated at times by the terrifically steady Klutho, Seiler wins the other semi rather easily and is now primed to challenge Kheyfets. Like Kheyfets, the six-foot-four Seiler doesn't fit the physical mold of a superior table-tennis player. Kheyfets plays an uncharacteristically sloppy match, but Seiler is even sloppier, twisting his ankle and falling on the last point of the match, which he loses to Kheyfets, three games to one.

In the consolation round, a giddy Sokol is landing so many shots that nick the table and fall off (making them impossible for Klutho to return) that one begins to wonder whether it's skill and not just luck.

"Six fuckin' edge balls," blurts a defeated Klutho, shaking his head in disbelief.

Charismatic stars in individual sports are hardly a dime a dozen. Whereas, without Woods, the postóGolden Bear PGA might still be best known for its uncanny ability to induce Sunday-afternoon slumber, the same could be said of women's tennis without Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters, skateboarding without Tony Hawk, track and field without Carl Lewis or men's tennis without McEnroe and Connors back in their heyday. Good as he is, Pete "Unibrow" Sampras has never really cut the mustard, even after his marriage to Veronica Vaughn.

"We don't have a Tiger Woods that kids can look up to," explains USA Table Tennis programs director Debbie Moya. "We need someone up on the [Olympic-medal] podium."

But if there's one guy determined to put table tennis on the map, it's Robert Blackwell Jr., a smooth, witty, multilingual "serial entrepreneur" who, at a youthful-looking 41, is, simply put, black America's wet dream. Hell, he's America's wet dream -- and he's convinced that table tennis can become America's sport, too. This year alone, Blackwell plans to sink a cool million into Killerspin, his startup clothing line and table-tennis team that is an international who's-who.

Killerspin already has plans for a December 28 blowout in Chicago that, Blackwell hopes, will attract more than 4,000 live spectators and hundreds of millions of television viewers -- the vast majority of whom will undoubtedly tune in from overseas. After that, a national tour may be in the offing.

"St. Louis would likely be our second or third stop," forecasts spokesman Dan Shomon, a St. Louis native.

Perhaps the most significant demographic in Killerspin's target strategy is twelve- to nineteen-year-old boys, young fellas that Blackwell likes to refer to as "too kids" -- as in "too fat, too short."

"It's such a great game once you see pros play," says Blackwell.

Remarkably, the Killerspin team sweats it out in a South Chicago gym not unlike the uncomfortable facility at Twelfth and Park, where seventeen-year-old Joe Guinness -- a ringer for Braves pitcher Tom Glavine and a lefty to boot -- thinks there's something to Blackwell's strategy of exposing kids to top-flight competition.

"Oh yeah, I'd like to see it on TV," proclaims Guinness, whose friends have seen world-class table tennis by way of satellite on the Fox Sports World network. "A lot of people see that and say, 'Oh my God, those guys are good."

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