Wood, Rubber, and Celluloid ~OR~ What I Learned at the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championship

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It’s about 11:45 as I poke my head into the atrium area of the DeVos Place convention center. The 2014 U.S. Open Table Tennis Championship has left the city of Grand Rapids in a near-identical state to its pre-U.S.O.T.T.C mode, save for a noteworthy jump in the number of hurried pedestrians wearing tracksuits of athletic-neon making their way down Monroe Street.  On entering the atrium, I’m greeted by the familiar expo tables, program hawking barkers, and souvenir stands that one grows to expect after repeated forays into professional sporting events.  

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Here at the U.S.O.T.T.C, the driving source of financial momentum is Joola® (ITTF Approved), an all-purpose T.T. conglomerate who makes use of any and all two dimensional space to remind today’s patrons that Joola® goods are ‘for the champion in you!’ using all-caps Jurassic Park bold type.  Joola® not only has a monopoly on the DeVos place’s flat surfaces, but also the largest plot of real estate in the atrium, where one can buy everything from warm-up track suits to a full sized professional grade table.  I stop to grab a few photos and as a rep explains the advantages of table tennis specific sneakers (Joola®’s Court Blue will run you a clean $80 - a humble-to-modest pickup in comparison to Butterfly’s $120 Radial Wind Speed on display down the hall).

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I flash my handy ol’ Media-Badge-on-a-Lanyard and cross the threshold from the DeVos Hall atrium into Meijer Exhibit Hall B’s earth-and-booger fluorescence.  On entering, I’m greeted by a steady but arrhythmic patter celluloid-on-rubber-on-wood-on-rubberagain patter of countless junior, and exhibition matches in progress.  Polyglottal battle cries and vibram soled stop-and-go-squeaks punctuate the balls’ ceaseless drone. A labyrinthine grid of primary-blue tables forms a neat ring around Exhibit Hall B’s perimeter as warm-up take place in claustrophobic proximity.  Situated in the hall’s center is the  multitiered pyramid seating today’s U.S.O.T.T.C officials seated behind a phalanx of MacBooks and iPads and lit by a pallid, phosphorescent liquid crystal glow.  It is at this point that today’s table tennis hopefuls converge in order to move through the bureaucratic rigamarole necessary in competing USOTTC. 

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Once registered, U.S.O.T.T.C hopefuls move on to a RACKET CONTROL booth situated at one of the pyramid’s corners where paddles are submitted to a tough customer with a handlebar mustache who runs a series of tests using a pile of clinical looking stainless steel tools, rubber hoses, and pneumatic gauges to ensure that each paddle passes ITTF specifications for rubber thickness, flatness, and Volatile-Organic-Compounds - banned chemical compounds found in the glue used to bond rubber pads to racket blades.  The use of V.O.C.’s is treated in a similar manner to corking baseball bats and handled with cold hearted scorn.  I watch as an elderly gentleman fails a flatness test, offers up a second paddle, which immediately fails V.O.C. protocol.  He then exits Exhibit Hall B.  I do not see him again.

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Assuming one’s gear checks out, the next stop is a visit to one of six bulletin boards plastered with small print brackets, divisions and subdivisions labeled with impenetrable polynomial categories that are miles beyond my grasp as an outsider. Some of the juniors and rookie parents seem equally beguiled. I watch several kids spend up to ten minutes gazing into the cryptic graphics with near-Kabbalistic yearning  for revelation before scooping up their duffel bags with prayerfully hopeful expressions and moving into may or may not be the correct cell of the dizzying grid of Joola® barricades and primary-blue tables.

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The U.S.O.T.T.C is a demographic chameleon and a quick left to right pan across the tables lining Exhibit Hall B’s east wall demonstrates a broad spread of nationalities, ages, shapes, sizes, and genders. One can easily differentiate between high-level competitors from amateur chaff by their impeccable, sponsor provided jumpsuits, which, despite the tournament’s overall day-glo hue, provide a highlighter-like vibrance to the U.S.O.T.T.C’s finest. The favored color combination seems to be athletic orange, yellow, or blue against stark blacks, though I do notice one bold fashion deviant picking his way through the crowd in an expensive looking plaid cellulose triacetate-polyester blend.

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Despite high international attendance, the fierce nationalism one comes to expect after Olympic conditioning is not present. The presence of logos far outweighs the number of flags and the easiest way to discern a competitor’s nationality tends to be by the etymology of the product they’ve chosen to endorse rather than any outward displays of patriotism. I do not believe that it is too much of a stretch to posit that future trophy engravings might soon replace winners‘ nationalities with winners‘ sponsors which could serve as a significant boon for multinational conglomerates such as Joola®.

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The audience at the U.S.O.T.T.C is predictably eclectic.  I sit next to a volunteer pilgrim from South Bend, Indiana whose encyclopedic knowledge of U.S.O.T.T.C history and intricacy rivals the depth of the most zealous Trekkies (it also helps keep my head above water when deciphering the byzantine set of tournament rules).  Directly in front of me sits a neckless tweenager wearing a cadmium yellow Karate Kid-fashioned bandana bearing one of two Nike swooshes I encounter throughout the tournament.  Rectangular William T. Vollman glasses appear to be either a wildly popular T.T. fashion trend, or a convenient mode of eye protection for the near sighted.  Between the high volume of fluorescent track jackets, geri curl mullets, 80’s-synth-centered playlist and slight karate dojo aesthetic, the U.S.O.T.T.C carries a vague, late-cold-war-era American-Competitive-Kung-Fu-film atmosphere - think Gymkata meets the Rocky franchise.  By the time semi-finals roll around, the bleachers in the main play area are packed. 

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Younger fans cling to the outer railing - possibly out of restlessness, possibly out of claustrophobia.  As an elderly Japanese guy lightly dozes at the bleachers’ end, a wizened little old man whizzes through a roll of film using an old Nikon FM on a monopod, pumping through a roll of what can only be Delta 3200 with mechanical efficiency.  Staring into the crowd during play becomes unsettling after a few strokes - eyes flit back and forth in a unified trance, violently breaking into cheers and jeers at each points’ end.  My friend from South bend toggles back and forth between player-admiration and disdain for the scorekeepers’ ineptitude in a low mumble.

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U.S.O.T.T.C umpires wear identical maitre-D-ish navy blue and wine red suits.  There is a near-eve split between national and international officials, although they tend to skew towards the retiree age bracket.  During matches of significance, a scorekeeper sits at each corner of the playing space, and a fifth sits with a disproving, Adornian scowl of bored disdain.  Line judges call each match from over the net, moving with the same clipped brevity and speaking with the same smug terseness one grows to expecting from the Masonic-League of Sporting Officials.  Off-duty umps sit in a courtside VIP row of seats which appears to be the only place in Exhibit Hall B where they can drop their robotic countenance (at one point I catch the entire row including a 70+ Shaolin looking Japanese fella succumb stomping along with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” - queue cognitive dissonace).

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On finals day, the atmosphere of Exhibit Hall B has undergone a radical change.  The small-print Kafka-esque bulletin board has been replaced with a concise bracket of 16 that can be read at 20 paces.  A single volunteer has been tasked with disassembling the exhibition tables’ grid and wheeling them into a corner as lingering amateurs hurry to squeeze in one-last-friendly-game on the high quality Joola® tables.  For a moment, I worry that I’ve shown up a day late judging by the hall’s relative desolation until I hear a roar of applause erupt from the vacated officials’ pyramid.  A line of ticket holders waits at one of the curtains draped from the CONFLICT RESOLUTION table - something my Media Badge-on-a-Lanyard allows me to bypass.  Through the curtain sits a hot-rod-red Joola® playing space with a heavy duty, non-foldable table situated at its center.  I’ve arrived at the tail end of the mixed doubles final with just enough time to catch the awards ceremony, which boils down to 1st/2nd/3rd place pairs standing on a podium with rapidly decaying smiles as friends, fans, and family take photos.  I don’t count, but I think it’s a fair guess to estimate that the camera-to-audience ratio hovers around 1:4.  Along with the massive boom operated video camera, iPads on tripods and magic arms sit at strategic locations around the court.  Counting myself and the other photographer from The Grand Rapids Press, there are 6 other people dual wielding SLRs and Media Badges-on-a-Lanyard.  Once the next match begins (women’s semifinals), at least one person per bleacher row watches through a viewfinder, LCD screen, or smartphone.  There’s a camera toting line waiting to photograph the winners’ trophies, runners-up medals, and pile of consolation prizes on display in a corner.  And I can’t help but wonder how many people plan actually to watch two hours worth of camcorder video later on down the road when the U.S.O.T.T.C official website offers high-quality footage of each match from their boom mounted camera with the best seat in the house. 

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Finalists are easy to spot now that the competing pool has been whittled down to four men and four women.  With bumped competitors making the rounds and signing autographs in jeans and t-shirts, the contrast between contenders’ game-day-best tracksuits sharpens.  Their pre-game demeanor varies: one of the women’s semi-finalists sits alone in meditative stolidity wearing a pair of chunky headphones while men’s finalist Jin Ueda chows down on a septic looking burger from Exhibit Hall B’s concession stand flanked by a three-dude peanut gallery/entourage combo.  

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Finalists Jin Ueda (Japan) and Wenzhang Tao (China) are built like distance runners with wiry upper bodies that seem just a little bit too small for their legs and yam-shaped calves.  Ueda is a humming ball of kinetic energy while Tao plays a stoic, reserved foil.  Both move with nimble, liquid like fluidity and orphic whimsy that makes even the most balletic of field tennis players appear lumbering and barbaric.  I’m struck by the sheer artistry put into every serve: time seems to drag for an extra beat after each toss as paddles flutter and vibrate before contact, which sends the ball telekinetically veering across the table at a-bat-outta-hell velocity.  Tao plays a conservative, defensive game and rarely moves more than a few steps from his starting point while Ueda often drops back to the farthest edges of the courts’ perimeter.  Their on-court presence follows suit.  Ueda reacts to every point scored with a shout, fist pump, and semicircular trot while Tao waits for the ball return with aloof detachment.  While I find myself rooting for Ueda’s flair, after two very close games, it’s easy to spot some psychological wear and tear.  Tao returns nearly stroke Ueda throws his way and looks as though he could keep it up for a few days after the apocalypse.  By game five at three games to one Tao’s got a significant lead and wins on an anti-climactic return by Ueda that takes a sharp dive into the net.  After a brief scream and a few uncharacteristic victory pushups, Tao snaps back to his previous sanguinity, shakes hands with Ueda, and leaves the court.

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The night concludes with near identical fanfare to the doubles’ ceremony with new faces and bigger trophies.  There’s a brief cacophony of swishing waterproof fabric as the mens’ singles’ finalists are ushered from the podium and onto the court with the rest of the U.S.O.T.T.C finalists for a final group shot in front of the table.  As the noise in Exhibit Hall B fades and downtown Grand Rapids’ ambient sound begins to fill DeVos Place, Independence-Day-Weekend asserts its dominance over the quiet clatter of the remaining non-competitive volleys.  After the photo-op, contenders trickle out of Exhibit Hall B, accenting the Amway Family Fireworks Celebration’s red/white/blue blur  with highlights of high visibility orange, acid green, and magenta.

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