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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.

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."

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.

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."

Yet for Sean O'Neill, the Yaos' game-plan has all the hallmarks of success. A member of the U.S. team that competed in Seoul in 1988 — the year table tennis became an Olympic sport — O'Neill now works as coach and pitchman for the Swedish table-tennis company Stiga. Three years ago he ran into the family at a tournament in San Francisco.

"They were what I call 'can't-miss kids,'" recalls O'Neill, who promptly signed Justen and Alex to a sponsorship deal with Stiga that provides the boys with free paddles, clothes and tables. "They weren't the best players in their age groups, but they were attempting all the right kinds of shots. When you see a kid with those fundamentals, you know it's just a matter of time before they grow into the shots."

O'Neill likens Sheri Yao to Bela Karolyi, the Romanian-born gymnastics coach famous for training a long list of U.S. Olympic athletes, including Mary Lou Retton. In 1996 Sheri qualified to represent the United States in the Olympics held in Atlanta, but bowed out because she'd recently given birth to Alex.

Now, says O'Neill, the Yao boys are frontrunners to represent the United States in the 2012 and 2016 games. "They need to develop and grow a bit more, but right now they're following the route of Olympic champions," he says.

"The single biggest component of their development is Sheri's day-to-day coaching. You can compare it to Peyton and Eli Manning learning the game of football from their father, Archie," O'Neill adds. "Whenever you have a professional athlete teaching their kids the game, you sidestep so much wasted movement, and you can tell the boys enjoy learning from their mom."

Last year the cable station FSN Midwest produced a documentary on the Yaos titled Spotlight: Olympic Dream. David Pokorny, a producer of the show, says the original concept was to shoot a film that could serve as a pilot for a series about parents who push their child-athletes to succeed, no matter the cost. The film turned direction once Pokorny met the Yaos.

"There wasn't an authoritative relationship there at all," says the producer, who tried to get FOX to run the documentary nationwide. "We ran the show locally but ultimately the network decided not to make it a series. They thought it would be difficult to find enough great stories like the Yaos' to duplicate it as a series."

Located along a pothole-ridden stretch of Interstate 70 in north St. Louis, the charter school Confluence Academy each day opens its doors to some 700 inner-city children. Ninety-eight percent of the student body is African-American. Seventy percent qualify for the free or reduced-lunch program.

Based on their environment, the children at Confluence run a heightened risk of dropping out of school and living in poverty. Principal William Polite is determined to change those odds. He hopes table tennis can help.

This summer the Yaos contacted Polite with the idea of introducing his students to the sport of table tennis. The goal, says Jonathan Yao, is for Confluence to be one of the first — if not only — urban schools in the region to field a table-tennis team. The Yaos hope the sport soon spreads to other city schools.

"It's really a perfect activity for urban kids," says the elder Yao. "It's cheap and easy to learn, and introduces them to other cultures. Hopefully, in the near future, some of these students will be able to compete on the international stage like Justen and Alex."

While Polite had initial reservations about his school serving as a guinea pig for the program, he says those doubts faded when the Yao brothers performed an exhibition match in front of his students.

"The kids were blown away," recalls Polite. "The game requires a tremendous level of concentration, commitment and precision — all things that can carry over to the classroom. Unlike other sports, you don't have to be big or fast or strong to play. In that sense, I think it can be a great self-esteem-builder."

So it is on a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month that Polite and three male Confluence teachers gather in the school's gymnasium dressed in shorts and sneakers. Minutes later the fashionable Sheri arrives outfitted in a crisp new Stiga-brand tracksuit and carrying a red faux-alligator purse.

Madam Yao aims to teach Polite and his colleagues the fundamentals of the sport so that they can, in turn, coach the students. But getting there won't be easy. Apart from physical-education teacher Brad Slinkard, who won a few intramural tournaments in college, none of the men in the group has much experience playing the game. What's more, they fail to measure up to Sheri's standards of physical fitness.

For a solid hour, she runs the teachers through drills in which she scoops from a bucket of balls and fires shot after shot at a machine-gun clip, working her pupils' backhand and forehand returns. When that's finished, Sheri lines the men up for wind-sprints.

They're sweating through their shirts when Sheri ends the class with an abdominal exercise that has the men leaning against the gym wall at a 45-degree angle. For 60 seconds the teachers hold the position using only their fingertips for support. Their unusual pose prompts a janitor in the hallway to poke his head in the door and ask, "What you all doing?"

To which — in shortened breath — Polite fires back, "We're playing ping-pong. Can't you tell?"

Sheri uses the same thorough approach in coaching her private clients. In any given week, the former professional trains some 70 students at the St. Louis Table Tennis Club, the St. Louis Chinese Language School and her family's Chesterfield residence.

On a recent weekday night, the basement of the Yaos' sprawling ranch home resembles a Jiffy-Pop bag, with dozens of orange and white ping-pong balls flying through the air. Hundreds more roll about the floor. Like a circus ringmaster, Sheri stands in the center of the room, directing the action.

As the students scurry from table to table, Sheri offers pointers that the pupils later scribble on the many poster boards that line the basement's walls. The posters serve as reminders for what each student needs to do in order to improve his or her game. A typical list might read: Bend knees more. Keep elbow down. Turn hips. Push the underspin forward. Stand closer to the table.

Standing apart from the middle- and high-school-age students on this night is 55-year-old Dennis Nolte, a bear of a man who sweats through a half-dozen shirts during the two-hour class. Despite being bested by the many pre-pubescent challengers in the room, Nolte boasts that he's improved his game several notches since joining Sheri's class.

"I just got beat by a nine-year-old girl, but my game is getting better," he says. "Sheri is an unbelievable coach. What this family is doing for table tennis in St. Louis is amazing."

Yet not all of the coach's advice lands its mark. As sixteen-year-old Drew Gustafson can attest, Sheri Yao's stilted English sometimes makes things a bit confusing. "Put it this way," says Gustafson. "I understand about two of every five words out of her mouth, and she's made me a much better player. Give me a translator, and my game would probably improve exponentially."

But for Sheri, the obstacle is never her students' commitment to the sport. The problem, more often than not, is with the parents. "In the U.S. everyone has their kids involved in so many things: soccer, swimming, piano," she says. "When the kids get frustrated with something, they quit, and their parents tells them it's OK. They say the important thing is 'to have fun.' But what does that teach? We don't expect the kids to be world champions, but they must take it seriously. We don't want their laziness to affect other students."

As a member of the U.S. fifteen-and-under team, Justen recently flew to Serbia to compete in the World Cadet Challenge Cup. The international competition proved stiff, with Justen struggling to compile a .500 record during a week of difficult play. Still, he did not leave empty-handed.

In recognition of his hard work and sportsmanship, the coaches at the event presented him with a trophy inscribed with the words "Fair Play Award." For Justen, the plastic trophy may as well read, "I went all the way to Serbia, and all I got was this lousy trinket."

Alex, too, had a less-than-stellar October. The ten-year-old was eliminated early from a tournament in California. Although he later won a round-robin competition among the eliminated players, Alex, like his brother, considers the trophy he picked up for the victory a mere consolation prize.

"I should have done better," he laments. "I lost to some people I know I could beat."

On a holiday from school earlier this month, the boys are back in the basement practicing with their mother and Kerry Xiao, a sixth-grader at Parkway West Middle School. Accompanying them is a Chinese professional player in his early twenties who, although he speaks no English, answers to the name James. He is one of several foreign players the Yaos have hosted over the years to serve as sparring partners for Justen and Alex.

Soon Sheri pairs the boys for a doubles game that pits Justen and Alex against Kerry and the professional ringer. The match-up is far from even, with the skilled James able to dictate control of the game. And while they lose the match, the Yao brothers rejoice in a few hard-won points, congratulating each other with an intricate handshake and chest-thump that only they know.

A short time later, Jonathan descends the basement stairs to observe the last remaining minutes of practice. Last week, as Thanksgiving drew millions of Americans around the dining-room table, the Yaos celebrated the holiday at the ping-pong table, with Justen and Alex scheduled to compete at a tournament in Baltimore. Sure, it's a break from Turkey Day tradition, but then that's just what Jonathan has in mind for his boys and the game of table tennis.

"Right now the mindset in international tournaments is that if you draw an American, it's an automatic win," says Jonathan Yao. "Believe me, Alex and Justen will change that stereotype. U.S.A. will be respected."

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