Ping Dynasty

The Yao Family is set on making St. Louis a global powerhouse in table tennis.

It's a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in early September, but you wouldn't know that inside the windowless gymnasium at the Missouri Athletic Club in Des Peres. For that matter, you might not realize that you're witnessing the region's biggest table-tennis tournament of the year: the Gateway Open.

No signs announce the event. Media coverage is nil. Even the staff at the MAC seems unaware of the magnitude of the day's competition. When asked where to find the tournament, a bored teenager at the club's reception booth responds, "You mean the guys playing ping-pong? Uh, they're down the hall."

So it is for table tennis in America — a third-tier sport whose general interest in this nation falls someplace between competitive darts and synchronized swimming. It doesn't help that, in an age when professional athletes share the chiseled good looks and celebrity status of movie stars, ping-pong players have all the sex appeal of Jeopardy! contestants. True to form are the stoop-shouldered and pockmarked participants who've come from as far away as Chicago and Kansas City to compete in the Gateway Open.

Jennifer Silverberg
At the age of thirteen, Justen Yao reigns as the U.S. Open 
Junior Champion in table tennis.
Jennifer Silverberg
At the age of thirteen, Justen Yao reigns as the U.S. Open Junior Champion in table tennis.

Ping-pong got its name from the noise the ball makes when paddled over the net. But in reality, the sound of the game is softer and more staticky, like amplified breakfast cereal. After a while, the muted snap-crackle-pop of the game has all the mesmerizing powers of windshield wipers in a slow and steady rain.

It didn't used to be this way. Time was, table tennis aroused the nation's curiosity, and St. Louis was one of the biggest cities for cultivating talent. Testimony to that Golden Age is George Hendry, who, at 86, is far and away the oldest entrant in the Gateway Open.

As a fourteen-year-old, Hendry won the 1935 U.S. National Boys' Title and followed it up the next year by winning the prestigious Western Open tournament. That title placed Hendry's mug on Wheaties boxes from New York to San Francisco. At the age of eighteen, Hendry narrowly lost a five-set match to Victor "The Prince of Ping-Pong" Barna, a Hungarian-born champion of the 1920s and '30s who is considered the greatest player of all time.

Today Hendry still has the quick wit and defensive prowess that made him a champion, but he's hindered by a slowing body. Hearing aids plug both of his ears. Despite the balmy temperatures on this September afternoon, Hendry wears a fleece vest zipped tightly over his prominent belly.

After taking several games off players many decades his junior, Hendry puts his paddles in a worn plastic Gap bag and shuffles over to the spectators' bench. Joining him is Larry Chisholm, a champion on the senior tour who entered the tournament despite a sprained ankle.

"The damn thing is I don't even know how I did it," gripes the 60-something Chisholm. "You get to be my age and things just start falling apart." Like Hendry, Chisholm eschews the brand-name clothing and duffle bags favored by the younger players. He carries his paddles in a scratched and battered briefcase.

"The damn thing is I don't even know how I did it," gripes the 60-something Chisholm. "You get to be my age and things just start falling apart." Like Hendry, Chisholm eschews the brand-name clothing and duffle bags favored by the younger players. He carries his paddles in a scratched and battered briefcase.

But the tie that most binds these two sages of the game is the legendary Bill Price, the late coach at the Northside YMCA who over the decades introduced countless St. Louisans to tennis and ping-pong. Chisholm can still recall the exact day — August 18, 1954 — he walked into they Y and was forever changed by Price.

To illustrate the coach's lasting impact, Chisholm need not point any further than the televisions in the MAC lobby, where Andy Roddick — under the tutelage of his new trainer, Jimmy Connors — has just advanced to the finals of the U.S. Open. "You can see Bill Price right there," notes Chisholm. "Price coached all the St. Louis greats: Connors, Arthur Ashe and [1963 Wimbledon champion] Chuck McKinley. He started them all out on table tennis."

While Hendry and Chisholm represent a dying breed of stalwarts, a new era of St. Louis table-tennis champions is emerging in the form of brothers Alex and Justen Yao. After taking up ping-pong just four years ago, the siblings rank nationally among the top players in their age brackets. Coaching them from the Gateway Open's sidelines in a pair of two-inch pumps and a leopard-print blouse is their mother, Sheri Yao, a former professional player from China who's quickly earning a reputation as the second coming of Bill Price.

"You want to know their secret?" says Chisholm, bringing his glasses down to the tip of his nose for emphasis. "Fucking dedication. These kids aren't screwing around. They're out here for one reason: to win."

"Oh, yes," concurs Hendry. "They're going to go far. They already beat me."

Soon, all eyes are on the gymnasium's center court, where Alex, a stout ten-year-old with spiked black hair and an enormous grin, is down two games to none against Parviz Mojaverian, a grizzled veteran whose hirsute arms and legs have earned him the nickname "The Gorilla."

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