More players come to the table

CARY - Gregg Robertshaw said the plywood table in his family's basement in Pennsylvania is riddled with dents. It's proof that when his dad first handed him a table tennis paddle, Robertshaw, who was 5 at the time, wasn't tall enough to clear the edges.

The 53-year-old Cary resident had plenty of clearance Wednesday night as he smashed shot after shot over a tiny net at the Herbert C. Young Community Center in Cary.

Robertshaw is one of the top local players competing in this week's 2010 Butterfly Cary Cup, the biggest round robin table tennis tournament in the country. Hundreds of players will whack small, celluloid balls in the community center this weekend, playing game after game for a portion of $12,000 in prize money.

Golf has Augusta. Table tennis has Cary.

The town has become a prime spot to play competitive table tennis in America.

The sport's stronghold here is indicative of a growing interest in the sport, buoyed in part by its low cost of participation and because of more exposure from events such as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Participation in table tennis spiked 8 percent from 2007 to 2008, making for more than 17 million table tennis players in the United States, according to a report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More than 18 percent of those participants are from the Southeast - the biggest concentration in the country.

Membership in USA Table Tennis, the sport's national organizing body, has increased 12 percent since 2005. The association has more than 9,000 ranked members who play competitively.

"The economy has driven people to more family-oriented things," said Michael Cavanuagh, USATT's executive director. "This sport is inexpensive, and it is intrinsically family-oriented. ... We're experiencing a groundswell."

Cary has seen a 62 percent increase in drop-in play at community centers in the last five years, according to recreation manager Dwayne Jones.

Mike Babuin, 52, runs the Cary Table Tennis Association and sits on the USATT board of directors.

He started the championship cup nine years ago.

"I just got the bright idea that instead of having to go across the country to watch all the best players, I'd attract them here," said Babuin, who also works on town's engineering staff. "It's just like 'Field of Dreams.' We built it and they come."

It wasn't easy to convince the town, Babuin added: "It took a lot of negotiation and probably had the same initial allure as tiddlywinks."

Babuin spends each year securing sponsorships to keep winnings high, prices low and to make sure players of all levels have several chances to play.

In the Cary Cup format, an international champion could play against a 12-year-old beginner.

Table tennis aficionados still say the sport doesn't receive the level of attention it does in Europe and Asia.

"In this country, not many people make a living at table tennis," Robertshaw said. "Our kids see guys making millions playing basketball, baseball or hockey. ... Not table tennis."

It's not as if the United States only recently started playing, though.

The country's history with the paddle sport dates back to the 1920s.

In 1971, 15 American table tennis players became the first to set foot on China's soil since Mao Tse-tung took control 22 years earlier.

It became known as the Ping-Pong Diplomacy, when a table tennis game ended two decades of hostility between the two nations.

Despite its important role in foreign policy, table tennis is still relegated to a recreational activity status.

There's technique to master, but it's a game almost anyone can play.

"For decades, I've had a table in my basement, and I think that's the case for millions of families. Our dilemma is how do we reach those players?" said USATT's Cavanaugh, whose 9,000 members make up a tiny percentage of those who play.

The USATT is trying, encouraging local clubs to host beginners' events and even tracking the table sales of celebrities who might raise the game's profile.

"Justin Timberlake just bought a table, we know that," Cavanaugh said.

Babuin's Cary association is a nonprofit, hosting monthly tournaments and open play at community centers three times a week. Babuin said he'd like to see more required table tennis play in schools.

"In Germany, you can go in any city and find 10 table tennis clubs and each one is packed to the gills. In China, every block on every city street, you've got a table tennis club," he said. "Here, we're at the ... mercy of city recreation centers and church halls. It's not part of the school system, there's no funding, no money for the promotion, marketing and proliferation of the sport."

Local competition

Robertshaw and about 20 other players sweated it out last week, sharing four tables in a cramped recreation room at the center. Most of them were tuning up for the upcoming competition.

The only player in the room better than Robertshaw was Sandeep Sharma, 32, whom Robertshaw says may be the best table tennis player in the state.

Sharma and Robertshaw, while not professionals, train very hard to maintain their elite status.

They have full-time jobs in Research Triangle Park but manage to practice together as many as six nights per week, hitting thousands of high-speed shots in a three-hour session.

When they're not squaring off over the table, they lift weights and jog.

Having a permanent training facility with a dozen or more tables set-up all the time would help to raise the level of local players, Robertshaw said. At the community center, several of the tables typically used for practice had already been packed up for the move to gyms at Bond Park, where they'll be among 36 tables used in the opening rounds of play.

Robertshaw won the inaugural Cary Cup in 2002. But he says younger players, like Sharma, are overtaking him. "He's so much stronger and faster," Robertshaw said. "But playing him has made my game much better."

Beyond stamina and speed, Robertshaw says the most important skills of the game are reflexes, anticipation, and knowing your opponents' weaknesses.

To beat Sharma, says Robertshaw, he'll do his best to hit wide and deep to Sharma's backhand. "He has a weak turn," Robertshaw said. "But if you're just a couple of inches off, he'll smash it." or 919-460-2612