Table tennis, anyone?
Vail, CO Colorado
PHILADELPHIA ” Jonathan Bricklin’s forearms are only slightly larger than the handle of his pingpong paddle, proving there’s likely no need for a table tennis version of the Mitchell Report.
The 30-year-old New Yorker’s play was only marginally better than some pickup pingpong match in a college dorm rec room. He was dressed more like a casual jogger than an Olympic athlete, wearing a plain blue T-shirt, black shorts, green sneakers.
None of Bricklin’s handicaps deterred him much Thursday when he traded his usual friendly games with his buddies to take a shot ” make that long, wide and errant shots ” in a match with a bit more at stake than bragging rights: This was a chance to be in the mix for a spot on the American team that will compete in the 2008 Beijing Games in August.
“In all likelihood,” Bricklin said, “I’m the worst player to ever try out for the Olympics.”
Forrest Gump was told any idiot can play pingpong. Well, anyone with $200, a cheap USA Table Tennis membership and a dream could show off their oddest herky-jerky serve with a little topspin at Drexel University and take aim at qualifying for the U.S. Olympic table tennis team.
“All I’ve got right now is my dream,” Bricklin said.
Imagine the Washington Generals trying out for Kobe or LeBron’s spot in basketball. Or even a summer club swim champ hoping to stroke goggle-to-google against Michael Phelps for his spot.
In table tennis, going from the basement to Bejing was on almost every player’s mind.
Bricklin was one of 24 players competing in Thursday’s qualifier round hoping to earn one of the final two spots available in the remaining 12-player field.
The official trials start Friday and the top four finishers in the men’s and women’s division will move on to the North American Trials in April in Vancouver, British Columbia. Team USA competes with Canada for the final Olympic spots.
There are three North American spots for both men and women available for the Olympics. All three men’s positions will be decided in Vancouver while only one more spot is open for the women. USA’s top-ranked women Jun Gao and Chen Wang are in the top 20 world rankings and earned an automatic spot in China.
“The average guy really can’t make the Olympics,” said eliminated qualifier Wally Green. “You can be average to try out, but making it is pretty different.”
The winners were Razvan Cretu, who lives in the Philadelphia area, and Tahl Leibovitz. Both players entered with ratings over 2,400, two of the stronger numbers in the field. Bricklin’s was 1,348.
The trip north will be made without Green or Bricklin, though Green did win a match. Bricklin, an entrepreneur who counts documentary filming and one day opening a luxury pingpong club as his passions, was one of the first competitors eliminated.
His $200 entry fee and $40 one-year membership to the USATT earned him a straight set loss in all of about 20 minutes. That’s right, a membership is only $40, about the price of two cases of domestic beer. Please leave the beer pong cups at home.
Bricklin started at 9 a.m. and by 9:20 he was already planning his trip home. He lost 11-2, 11-4, 11-6, 11-3. Not even close.
“If you add up all my scores, I almost won a game,” Bricklin said. “Honestly, the Olympic tryout credential is worth the money to me.”
It’s so easy, anyone with a sporting goods store racket can do it.
Take Nick Norlen, of Langhorne, Pa, who was easily swept in his qualifying match against Green. Norlen took a deep breath, adjusted his headband and actually went up 1-0 when Green’s shot was long.
Then his shots went haywire like a reveler spraying a champagne bottle of pingpong balls. Nolan smacked one shot so wide into the netting that separated the playing and practice courts it looked like Mike Vanderjagt’s playoff field goal attempt against Pittsburgh in 2006.
Green approached his fallen foe after the match, grabbed his arm and gave him some tips.
“If I play you and I kill you, then it’s stupid,” Green said. “It’s better that you learn when you’re playing.’
Surely, this was pingpong diplomacy at its finest.
The rules are simple: a best-of-seven format, games are played until one competitor wins 11 points and is ahead by two points. Serve is rotated every two points.
Bricklin said he prepared by playing games against his friends and didn’t really practice. Compare that to 19-year-old Trevor Runyan, of San Francisco, who has played competitively around the world for 11 years. Runyan said he recently returned from competing in a German league where matches were held six days a week, five hours a day.
“Everyone should be invited, I guess,” Runyan said. “Table tennis isn’t really big in the U.S. If it was bigger, there would be a lot more rules.”
Hardcore or hardly care, Runyan went down just like Bricklin.
By mid-afternoon, the shots stayed on the table instead of strayed from it as the pretenders were easily knocked off. The acrobatic Green, with his Dontrelle Willis-like windup, lost confidence in his serve and started playing tight.
“If I can’t serve, I can’t play,” he told his coach.
Too bad for the trials Green couldn’t make it through at least another day. His arching serves and rapid returns made him a few fans who cheered in amazement. The sport could use the boost. Only about 200 fans watched at the cozy Daskalakis Athletic Center and while the glut of sports from poker to rodeo, to the gluttony of competitive eating all have a home on TV, good luck flipping channels and finding table tennis.
“Everybody wants television because you get the big exposure, but it’s events like this that help,” said Mike Cavanaugh, the interim executive director for USA table tennis.
Green puts his personal highlights on YouTube, including a clip where he uses a cell phone as a paddle.
Green wasn’t exactly Beijing or bust, but he hoped to last a little longer.
“I’m ready for 2012,” he said, flashing a gaptooth smile. “I’m psyched now.
“But, man, I should have won that match.”