Tiny paddles. Tiny ball. Tiny table. Table tennis makes an unwieldy world seem manageable, and the little game has made a big comeback in New York City.
Ping-Pong's overall American popularity skyrocketed 35 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. While the game counts simplicity among its chief virtues (the 17 million–plus stateside players need little more than a table, paddles and a ball for hours of fun), some of New York's top table tennis venues offer a sophisticated twist on the old standby with cocktails, music and dramatic lighting.
Exhibit A in this trend is SPiN New York, actress Susan Sarandon's high-class Flatiron District Ping-Pong lounge, whose September 2009 debut smashed the sport back into the public consciousness. SPiN holds frequent professional and open tournaments (see our listing for details), but also features disco lights, an on-site restaurant and even a $60,000 steel table with a glass net. It's not your junior high school best friend's basement, that's for sure.
Holding down the fort for purists, the Upper West Side's modest Wang Chen Table Tennis Club is helmed by its eponymous 2008 US Olympian. It's the flip side of the racket from SPiN. There isn't enough display space for all of the trophies Wang and the club's patrons have won, so some are packed in a cluster on top of the soda machine. And the unassuming young women who often greet you at the front desk are actually some of the City's best instructors and hold impressive national rankings. During our visit, a businesslike employee took a seasoned regular through an intense footwork drill.
There's no music here, no bar and no flashing lights—but you're in luck if you want to seriously improve your game. Maybe that's why, despite a conspicuous lack of bells and whistles, Wang Chen Table Tennis Club has its share of high-profile fans. The narrow hallway leading to its register is lined with photos of Wang with Keanu Reeves, John McEnroe and other distinguished guests.
So is there a brewing table tennis rivalry? Not quite—the clubs see each other as complementary. SPiN, after all, has a large cast of professional coaches, and centers like Wang's thrive when more New Yorkers embrace the game. Wang uses the sport's newfound celebrity glow to sell it to newcomers.
"If you know how to play [table tennis]," she tells us, "you will play with Susan Sarandon. If you don't play table tennis, you will never meet her." Fame, fortune and better hand-eye coordination? We're convinced. So is Wang herself, who shared with us her hope to play a game with Sarandon.
Wang was NYC's 2008 table tennis Olympian, and SPiN is home to one of the City's future representatives: 15-year-old instructor Brad Belle. The stylish teenager appears on the SPiN website looking hopefully skyward, and—along with his twin brother, Brandon—he's set his sights high.
At the Brownsville New York City Recreation Center (one of many centers throughout the five boroughs where New Yorkers can play table tennis), the Belles practice daily and chase their dream to play in the 2012 Olympics in London. Their outgoing personalities, skills at the racket sport and the fact that they're siblings have drawn comparisons to Serena and Venus Williams, stars of a caliber to which American table tennis is unaccustomed.
"Table tennis is not a big sport in the US," says Brad Belle. "I would like to take it somewhere." With up-and-comers like the Belle brothers and venues like SPiN, the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club and the seven others listed below, he needn't worry—the small sport is now large and in charge.
See below for some tips from Coach Wang and for a list of old-school and too-cool-for-school places to get your pong on.
Coach Wang's Pointers
Get a Grip: How you hold the racket sets the foundation for your entire game. Wang recommends grasping the racket with your forefinger on the lower back of the paddle surface, your thumb on the front and your remaining fingers wrapped around the handle on the thumb side. This is the "shakehand" grip, and you'll find many online tutorials on how best to use it.
Divide and Conquer: Don't take a haphazard approach to pursuing the ball—instead, split the court in half. Righties should use forehands to return balls on the right and backhands to return balls on the left.
Move Your Feet: "A lot of Americans don't move [when they play Ping-Pong]," explains Wang as a sweaty regular completes an exhausting drill, rapidly ranging to the left and right of his table. "But in real table tennis you've got to do footwork." Treat table tennis more like a sport—chase the ball off the sides of the table and break a sweat—for an edge over flat-footed rivals.