Tied at three games with a far more experienced player and down by three points in the rubber match, 13-year-old Ai Fukuhara called for a time-out. There was no coach to consult; he had refused to take sides because both players were Japanese. Nor were her parents there. They were 7400 miles away.
The lithe, pigtailed girl glanced at the white ceiling, then the net, then shut her eyes for three seconds. Finally, she took her position. She was focused. The pungent room at the Broward County Convention Center was quiet. Nobody cheered. Almost nobody was in the stands.
It's not like this at home. In Japan, many of the Ping-Pong prodigy's matches are broadcast live on national television, and thousands of fans attend. In much of the Far East, three TV cameras follow her virtually everywhere she goes. Rated the 67th best woman in the world despite her youth, she earns $3000 per appearance. And this was the year's most significant table-tennis event. It started with the Pan American Youth Championships, which finished just before this tournament began. It continued with the U.S. Open, the junior world championships, and a professional tour event, one of few ever held in this country.
Yet South Florida media ignored Fuku-hara, just as they did the more than 870 other players, including some of the world's most watched and skilled athletes, who participated in this four-day event. Though virtually all of the world's top players competed here and Chinese TV covered the competition for 190 million viewers, the Sun-Sentinel played it in a few paragraphs on page 16C. The Herald and Palm Beach Post missed it.
A couple of days at table-side made clear that the game involves big bucks, big egos, and, as event media director Dave Williams aptly puts it, "geeks and freaks." Top competitors hail from China (which dominated the professional tournament), Korea, Sweden, and Belgium. They earn as much as $1 million a year. In Germany, where many of the best compete, 10,000 clubs draw players from all over the world. Two of China's best, Wang Liqin and Kong Linghui (one and five in the world, who competed and lost here) drive matching silver Porsches through Beijing.
Some of the games I saw involved players positioned ten feet from the table whacking balls with more speed than a major-league fastball and three times the arc of a curve. Acrobatics were of the NBA variety. And recent rule changes made the game -- miniature, supercharged tennis -- more spectator-friendly. A bigger ball (from 38 to 40 millimeters), shorter games (from 21 to 11 points), and less trickery allowed on serves are all attempts to make it more watchable. The International Table Tennis Federation Pro Tour, which first came to Fort Lauderdale in 2000 and includes the world's best players, just celebrated its third year. "It's like chess on speed," Williams says.
But more on that later.
Down 7-4 before calling the time-out in the junior world final, Fukuhara came roaring back. First she tossed the ball ten feet into the air, a move meant to increase spin and intimidate. Then she hit a chopping serve. Though her 18-year-old opponent, Sanae Sugita, returned the shot and was physically stronger, the younger girl moved cat-like from one side of the table to the other, gamely returning everything hit at her.
Fukuhara plays with a backhand, pips-out paddle, meaning one side has rubber bumps to defend against spin while the other is smooth and sticky for slams and serves. Despite the defensive nature of the youngster's equipment, she quickly reduced her disadvantage to a single point with two scorching forehand slams that likely moved somewhere around 100 miles per hour and spun at a rate of about 4500 revolutions per minute. Sugita flinched.
Then Fukuhara stepped back from the table, and her opponent burned a couple of serves by her. After the younger girl bounced one shot off the corner of the table, a clear winner, the score was 9-9. Two more points were needed to win.
The match was reminiscent of Fukuhara's first-round, seven-game victory over Virginia Sung, a member of the U.S. women's team. Neither U.S. nor European players figured much in the professional part of the tournament. The best American male, Eric Owens, is rated 300th in the world and was defeated in the first round of the pro-tour event, just like Sung. He's a 26-year-old college student.
The game's evolution as a bona fide sport began in the 1950s, when a Japanese player invented a spongy paddle that allowed far more speed and spin than just rubber or sandpaper. The international federation quickly outlawed it and created a standard for equipment. Then in the 1980s, the game got even faster when some Hungarians used bike-tire glue to secure the rubber onto the paddle. Though it dissolves quickly, the stuff provides far more spin. These days, players' paddles must be checked in a "paddle box" to assure no illegal chemicals have been used.
Most of the 19 million Americans who play Ping-Pong don't use this technology. Those who attended the convention center event were both players -- the U.S. Open draws hundreds -- and fans. Seventy-year-old Hugh Lax drove 18 hours from Memphis for the tournament. He has participated in many U.S. Open events since 1979. He has placed in the nation's top three in over-40, over-50, and over-60 divisions. "I don't move so well," he says. "I had a hip replacement four years ago."
So with this much participation, why can't Americans compete with the rest of the world? "We are like amateurs playing against pros," comments U.S. Olympic Coach Dan Seemiller. "Table tennis is professional in Europe and Asia."
Perhaps what America needs is its own version of the best Swedish player, Jan-Ove Waldner, who at 37 years old is still the sport's charismatic bad boy. "Everybody copies him," says the 32-year-old Swedish national team coach, Peter Sterneborg.
"All he likes to do is chase tail and drink beer," comments one competitor, who alleges that when Waldner was in Fort Lauderdale two years ago (he didn't make the trip this time), he lost in the first round so he could play golf. Another time, Waldner kicked the ball when it was hit behind him just to get a better look at a female spectator climbing the stairs.
Ai Fukuhara is clearly no Waldner, though she may become the best player ever from her country. She¹s serious and diligent, practicing four to five hours a day on weekdays and eight hours on Sundays and weekends.
After tying the score with Sugita, she again steps back from the table. She crouches low. She focuses again. The last two points of the game, she methodically keeps the ball low to the net, letting the older girl grow nervous. First, Sugita overshoots a corner. The score is 10-9. Then, flustered, she misses again, and the game is finished.
Ever so briefly, Fukuhara smiles. For the first time, the little girl looks like a little girl. "I started play at three years old," she says. "This is my first table tennis world championship. Mmmm."