On the table

From the hallway outside of the small gym on Saturday afternoon, I can hear emphatic grunts, stomping sneakers and the rhythmic pocks of a dozen or more ping pong balls.

From the hallway outside of the small gym on Saturday afternoon, I can hear emphatic grunts, stomping sneakers and the rhythmic pocks of a dozen or more ping pong balls.

This is a rare sound in the United States, where ping pong is viewed as a recreational game to be played in basements on lazy Sunday afternoons.

But in many European and Asian countries, ping pong, or table tennis, is regarded as a serious sport, and its athletes are held in the same high esteem that we hold our professional basketball, football and baseball players in the United States.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Northwest Divisional meet of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA), being held at Portland State’s Stott Center for the third straight year, features players from a wide host of nations.

Portland State’s own team, which falls under the category of a “club,” has around 20 members, coming from such countries as China, India, Mongolia, Myanmar and the United States.

“I think we are probably the most international club on campus,” said Sehwan Kim, a senior at PSU and unofficial director of the club.

Kim meets me in the doorway of the gym and ushers me inside. There are eight tables set up, organized into two sections; four of the tables are reserved for the “B” team, or junior varsity, and the other half are for the varsity squad.

The top four players from each school make up the varsity squad, and are given a ranking of one through four coming into the meet and compete against players from other schools with corresponding rankings, similar to the way that college tennis teams face off.

The four schools present at the meet—Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Portland State—are competing for the honor of representing the Northwest Division in the NCTTA National Tournament in Rochester, Minn., in April.

My attention is drawn to a match in the far corner of the varsity section, where a small crowd of spectators has gathered.

On one end of the table, a lean young man with a shaved head and pensive look on his face sways back and forth in preparation for the serve, while his opponent, who is taller and more stoic, eyes him carefully.

“Who are they?” I ask Kim.

“The one with the shaved head is Renjith Retnamma,” Kim informs me. “He’s the No. 1 seed for PSU. He’s playing Yule Lee, the No. 1 from Oregon.”

Lee delivers the serve with a sideways swooping motion, punctuated with a sharp grunt and stomp of his feet. Retnamma reacts in a fraction of a second, shifting his feet and countering with a forehand smash that ricochets off the edge of Lee’s side of the table.

Point Retnamma.

Brian Yoder, a three-year member of the Portland State club and the No. 3 player on the varsity squad translates some of the lightning fast action for me.

“Ping pong is mostly about deception,” Yoder explains. “It can really become a serve-oriented game. There is so much spin put on the ball during a serve that you have to know exactly how to react to it.”

Despite Lee’s mastery of the serve, Retnamma outplays him with a combination of power and patience, eventually winning the match three games to none.

After he shakes Lee’s hand and wipes the sweat from his brow, I approach Retnamma and congratulate him on the win.

Originally from India, Retnamma came to PSU in 2006 to study for a graduate degree in electrical engineering. There was no question whether he would join the school’s ping pong club.

“It is a big part of my life. I’ve been playing since I was 10,” he says.

As the meet winds down, the NCTTA director, Siva Sankrithi, is all abuzz over a three-way first-place tie between the host school, Oregon State and Washington. To break the tie, he must tally up the individual games won for each school.

In the end, Washington edges the other two teams, earning a ticket to the Nationals this spring, but the defeat doesn’t dishearten Kim or any of his teammates in the club.

“It’s all about having fun,” he says. “We are always looking for more members to join, and you don’t have to be experienced.”