Ping Dynasty

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

Entering the third game, Alex relies on his powerful forehand to rifle repeated winners past the 57-year-old Mojaverian. As the cheers from the gallery grow louder, Sheri Yao shouts out instructions, coaching her son in her native Mandarin Chinese. Suddenly the match is tied at two games apiece, and the increasingly flustered Mojaverian takes a minute to gather his thoughts. The delay works, with Mojaverian playing Alex's weaker backhand to win the fifth game and the match. "Thank you, Lord!" shouts Mojaverian. "Thank you!"

But in the Yao family, vengeance is swift and merciless. Mojaverian next faces thirteen-year Justen for the title match, and the eighth-grader makes quick work of his brother's tormentor. With precision shots, wicked spin and an impenetrable defense Justen defeats Mojaverian 4-1 in the best-of-seven final. The victory rewards him with a check for $400 — the largest single-day winnings of his young career.

Home court: Ten-year-old Alex Yao practices his game in 
the family's basement training center.
Jennifer Silverberg
Home court: Ten-year-old Alex Yao practices his game in the family's basement training center.
Sheri Yao (right, foreground) instructs her son Justen on the 
fundamentals of the sport.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sheri Yao (right, foreground) instructs her son Justen on the fundamentals of the sport.

A stockbroker in charge of Scottrade's Asia-Pacific division, Alex and Justen's father, Jonathan Yao, grew up in Taiwan but relocated to Missouri in 1980 to attend Saint Louis University. He's called the Midwest home ever since. Sheri was born in China and was just seven years old when she was recruited to join a state-run table-tennis academy. By seventeen, she was starring on Shanghai's regional team — an honor akin to playing for the Women's National Basketball Association.

But as is also true of its sister sport, tennis, the professional career of most ping-pong players is a short one. At 26 Sheri was retired from the game and traveled to St. Louis to visit relatives. The year was 1989. Shortly thereafter, Sheri was giving lessons at the St. Louis Table Tennis Club when she met her future husband.

Says Jonathan: "I told her, 'Why don't you marry me? It will be cheaper than me paying you for lessons.'"

The Yaos continue to remain active with the table-tennis club but say they never thought their kids would find much interest in the game. When Justen first asked his mother to teach him table tennis, the 43-year-old Sheri Yao recalls saying, "Why do you want to learn table tennis? No one in the U.S. pays any attention to table tennis. There's no money in it. Why bother?"

Ping-pong traces its roots to Victorian England, where it developed in the 1880s as an after-dinner parlor game. By the early twentieth century, the sport had spread to continental Europe and Asia. Today ping-pong remains popular throughout much of Central Europe, Scandinavia and the Pacific Rim, where professional players can demand salaries of up to a million dollars.

Nowhere does the sport carry as much cachet as it does in China. In 1971 the game warmed relations between Washington, D.C., and Beijing when the U.S. table-tennis team became the first Americans to receive an official invite to visit China since the 1949 Communist revolution. To this day, China routinely churns out the world's greatest players, even though the United States remains the biggest market for table-tennis equipment — thanks, in part, to the generous size of American homes.

"Here so many people have ping-pong tables in their basements," muses the 52-year-old Jonathan Yao. "But what do they use them for? Folding laundry!"

Balls of Fury, a slapstick comedy slated for release early next year, will likely only fuel American's perception of table tennis as a pastime for basement hacks and beer-guzzling coeds. Written by the same team who created Reno 911, the film stars Christopher Walken as the host of an underworld table-tennis tournament where a cast of goons and rejects bet their lives on their ping-pong prowess. (Think Bloodsport with paddles.)

The Yaos have little time for such nonsense. Upon returning from school, Alex and Justen follow a regimented schedule that has them exercising or practicing table tennis for as long as three hours a day. The family's basement may as well be the Midwest branch of Colorado Springs' Olympic Training Center, with four ping-pong tables, a robotic serving machine and a state-of-the-art screening room for critiquing videos of the brothers' performance in tournaments.

Weekends are spent traveling to local and national tournaments, with Justen having traveled as far as Sweden to compete. A shelf in the Yaos' basement spills over with the dozens of trophies and medals they've earned along the way, including a hefty cup Justen picked up this summer after winning the eighteen-and-under title at the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championships.

Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, both brothers have spent summers training at table-tennis schools in China. Last year, Sheri says, she was stunned when one of the Chinese coaches asked the family to consider changing Alex's nationality so he could play for the China youth team. The Yaos declined the offer.

But with such advantages afforded Alex and Justen, a few of their competitors say it's no wonder the brothers have rocketed onto the table-tennis scene. "No doubt about it, they're good," concedes Parviz Mojaverian. "But most of us have nine-to-five jobs, families and other responsibilities that take precedence over table tennis. For them, it's their sole focus — and the family is putting a lot of time and money into ensuring they get there."

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