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July 22, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

Don't blink Don't blink (July 22, 2005)

High-level table tennis league gains momentum throughout Bay Area

A hush came over the crowd at the Silicon Valley Table Tennis Club as first curiosity and then amazement set in.

The ball was flying across the net. Blink, and you'd miss the point. The rallies were lightening fast, the ball a blur.

With not a motion wasted in this feature match of the night, Khoa Nguyen and Freddie Gabriel battled back and forth, a decisive stroke winning each point just as quickly as the point started.

The bystanders, nearly 50 of them, hung on every flick of the players' wrists, most never having seen table tennis played at such a high level.

Welcome to Semester Smash, the fledgling table-tennis league that has six teams spread across the Bay Area. In this opening-night match on July 15 -- held in a converted warehouse somewhere behind the Century Theaters on Shoreline Boulevard -- the Mountain View team, captained by two-time U.S. Olympian Nguyen, was pitted against Gabriel's visiting Concord squad. With three players from each team playing best-of-five individual matches in a round-robin format, the first team to win five matches would earn the team victory.

Behind Nguyen's perfect 3-0 showing on the night, including a spirited four-game triumph over Gabriel, Mountain View defeated its East Bay challenger, 5-2.

"It's a good start for us," said Nguyen, whose aggressive play in the fourth game overwhelmed Gabriel en route to an 11-8, 7-11, 11-7, 11-1 victory.

Concord (0-1) took an early 2-1 lead, but Mountain View found its rhythm and won the next four individual matches to earn the win.

"It was a little bit rough in the beginning. ... But as the games went on, we got warmed up and it got better," said Mountain View's Steve Nguyen, no relation to teammate Khoa. "It's enjoyable to have fans come and watch you play, and as they cheered us on, we got more excited and played better."

Shashin Shodhan, the founder of Semester Smash, welcomed the eager audience at Mountain View's debut match. He lists making table tennis more of a spectator sport among his main goals in developing the league.

"There are already so many people that enjoy playing the sport," said Shodhan, who hopes to expand Semester Smash nationwide within 10 years. "This is different than growing a sport that nobody has heard of. Everybody knows what ping pong is."

With other teams in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Oakland and Milpitas and a schedule that includes weekly matches running until Thanksgiving, the league offers ample opportunities to get an up-close view of professional table tennis.

Having Khoa Nguyen on board gives Mountain View (1-0) instant star power and a drawing card. According to Robert Chen, owner of the Silicon Valley Table Tennis Club, the local table-tennis community has been eager to lay eyes on this athlete who played in the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games.

"They are pretty excited because Khoa is such a good player and they'd never seen him in person," said Chen. "To see him closely like that ... it's very good for the promotion of table tennis."

For the players, who have had few opportunities to face elite-level competition in California in the past, Semester Smash is already a big hit.

"This league is definitely making a change," said Gabriel, 22, the No. 2-rated Northern California player behind Nguyen according to "[Now] you don't have to enter a tournament once a month to see the players you would really like to play every week."

Mountain View's Steve Nguyen, 36, agrees.

"For me personally, I'd like to get better because I'd like to try out for the [U.S.] National Team," said Nguyen, who earned his team's third point with a dominant 11-5, 11-8, 11-5 victory over Concord's Peter Zajac. "This league will help to bring up my level, more consistency, more accuracy and stamina, a lot of games and a lot of mental challenges."

But, in addition to improving their individual games, the players all spoke of wanting to see table tennis blossom within the community as well.

Echoing a sentiment heard from his teammates and competitors, Khoa Nguyen related that he was happy to get Semester Smash underway, and remains eager to see the potential of the league in developing the sport he loves.

"Hopefully, [fans] will come out and see table tennis is not just played in a garage; that it's very athletic, very quick with a lot of physical things going on," said Nguyen, 38. "Once you get people watching the sport, hopefully they'll join and have fun."

Mountain View hosts Palo Alto on July 22 and visits Milpitas on Aug. 12.
:E-mail Scott Campbell at [email protected]

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