The vanity plate on the Decatur resident’s car reads “TBL10S.” He named his cat “JJ,” after former world champion Jiang Jialiang. His 13-year-old son is the youngest umpire registered with USA Table Tennis, the national governing body for the sport. Wetzel, himself, refereed for the table tennis competitions at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“I know everybody in this building,” Wetzel said on the last Saturday in March, as he sat in the fitness center at the Anniston Army Depot. He gestured to the nearly 50 men and women at the dozen tables set up for the seventh annual Alabama State Teams tournament.
They lunged and crouched. Dodged and grunted. Sweated. Stayed focused on table, net and ball.
“I like the competition,” said Gary Luther, a 69-year-old Gadsden resident who drives to the depot for weekly table tennis practice rounds. “And I like the camaraderie.”
Sure, this was a competition: There were the requisite cries of defeat, grunts of pain. The victorious harrumphs and pumping of paddles. But there were also hugs and handshakes, friendly jests and high-fives with opponents. In fact, most table tennis players cite that balance of physical struggle and post-match friendship as one reason they can’t get enough of the sport.
It’s the reason former Alabama state champion Ernesto Kawamoto practices for hours each day at the table, and the reason he’s taken 24-year-old protégé David Landry, a fellow Huntsville resident, under his wing. The reason Danny Feldman, of Homewood, drives hours to compete in table tennis tournaments all over the state — in spite of the fact that “everyone thinks I’m nuts, starting with my wife.”
Table tennis vs. ping pong
Feldman and other serious players know most people don’t see table tennis as a sport. Most people call it by its Parker Brothers trademark, Ping-Pong, and think of it as a game you play in the basement or a college rec room, or a camp hall.
“There’s this image as someone with a beverage in one hand and a $5 racket in the other hand,” Luther said.
But that’s too trivial an image for players like Wetzel, Kawamoto and Feldman. Although most of them started out playing on those basement tables or during college breaks, their determination to stand out in the sport set them apart.
Now, they see themselves as fierce competitors in a superior sport — one that takes focus and skill, weight-training and physical discipline, competitive drive and good sportsmanship. (It also takes some money: The rackets used by these players cost anywhere between $200 and $300. And the cost for special table tennis shoes is right at $60 per pair, Wetzel said.)
“It’s physical; it’s technical; it’s mental,” Kawamoto said. “It’s challenging. Absolutely.”
Feldman said table tennis combines skills from a variety of sports. Like its sister sport tennis, table tennis requires excellent hand-eye coordination. Like soccer or basketball, it requires players to be quick on their feet. Like poker, it calls for the ability to read opponents’ minds.
And then there’s the ability to control “spin,” the direction the ball is turning as it flies over the net.
“The best guys can read spin and anticipate spin,” Feldman said. “The way you spin a ball really makes a difference.”
A brief history of table tennis
The tournament at the Anniston Army Depot began in 2004, but records of Alabama residents playing table tennis begin in 1965, said Mike Harris, a depot employee and one of the organizers of the tournament.
During the ’60s, depot workers began to play table tennis during shift breaks, Harris said. Twenty years later, the predecessor to the Northeast Alabama Table Tennis Club was formed in Huntsville by three men with four tables and nets, according to a history compiled by Wetzel and fellow player Chip Patton.
The club held its first USA Table Tennis-sanctioned tournament in 1985 — three years before the sport was introduced to the Olympics.
When that happened, Wetzel said, interest in table tennis began to take off.
Worldwide television viewership for the sport began to increase during each Olympic season, according to a report from the International Table Tennis Museum. During the Athens games in 2004, table tennis ranked No. 5 out of all sports watched on televisions across the world.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Wetzel and several other table tennis players from Alabama did what they could to promote the sport.
For two weeks during the games, Wetzel worked as the information supervisor for the sport. Kawamoto, a Brazil native, flew in from his home country to serve as a field marshal and escort table tennis athletes. Patton worked as a table tennis statistician, according to the sport history he and Wetzel wrote. Anniston resident Joe Mitchell served as a field marshal.
“It’s very popular now,” Harris said. “And it appeals to all ages.”
For example, participation in the depot tournament has increased each year since the tourney began in 2004, Harris pointed out. This year, the players’ ages ranged from 13 to 77.
Wetzel attributes the wide appeal of table tennis to this: Anyone with a desire to learn the sport’s technicalities and a willingness to practice can be a relatively successful player. You don’t have to be 6-foot-something or run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash to be good at table tennis.
Not to mention, the sport is a good way to make new friends.
“You play somebody, and they become your friend,” Wetzel said.
Recently, a number of well-known Americans and celebrities have professed a passion for the sport.
Actress Susan Sarandon owns a ping pong club in Manhattan. In February, she was featured in a Wall Street Journal article for her efforts to bring the sport to schools around the country.
When Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith resigned from his job, he mentioned table tennis as one of his greatest accomplishments in a New York Times op-ed piece.
“My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts,” he wrote.
Will Shortz, better recognized as the New York Times crossword puzzle editor or as NPR’s puzzlemaster, is also a table tennis aficionado. He owns a table tennis club in Pleasantville, N.Y., and has given countless interviews about his love of the game.
Shortz even played at the depot last year.
Shortz was passing through the area, looked online to see if there were any table tennis opportunities and found out about the Northeast Alabama Table Tennis club, Harris said.
Shortz came to the depot for “a typical Tuesday club night” and played against some of the local athletes, Harris said.
“He actually beat me,” Harris said. “He was better than anyone else in our club.”
From winning to refereeing
Wetzel didn’t win the recent tournament at the depot. As the assistant sports editor for The Decatur Daily, he doesn’t get to practice or weight-train like he used to. But the umpire said his passion for the sport remains the same — he loves to referee the events, play in them for fun and spend time with his young umpire son.
He speaks lovingly about his fellow table tennis players: Go to a tournament anywhere in the state and you’ll likely find Wetzel, pointing out the coach-protégé team of Kawamoto and Landry, praising the serves of “Bumpernets” teammates Adam Brown and Barnabas Gonzalez.
Brown and Gonzalez, from Hoover and Pell City respectively, won this year’s tournament. It’s the second year in a row they’ve taken home the gold.
Wetzel remembered his own days of victory: He said his biggest accomplishment was winning the 2002 state doubles championship with Kawamoto at his side.
But that’s another great thing about this sport — winning isn’t everything. As far as Wetzel is concerned, serving as one of the 25 umpires in the United States who get called to referee international matches is nearly as rewarding.
“I don’t dwell on it,” Wetzel said after losing his match the depot. “I get invited to tournaments all over the world.”
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.