A nondescript door opens on the sixth floor of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, and the pop of pingpong balls resonates through the spacious hall. The spot is the hotel’s Health Club, and the New Orleans Table Tennis Club meets there three evenings a week.
The tennis and basketball courts are topped with a half-dozen tables arranged side by side, pulled out from behind the drapes where they were stored. Rolls of corrugated cardboard stand upright, surrounding the tables to prevent balls from bouncing away.
The players are a diverse group. They range from teenagers to retirees, novices to competitive players.
“Competitive pingpong players” may sound strange to American ears. To most, “pingpong” evokes a leisurely activity played, with a beer in hand, at the corner of a billiards bar. But pingpong, or table tennis, as it is officially known, is also an Olympic event with an international following. While Louisiana’s competitive scene pales in comparison to that of Asia or Europe, the state has a fair share of annual tournaments, attended by players from around the Gulf Coast.
Club member Arpit Bhopalkar is no stranger to playing at a high level. Growing up in India with a table-tennis coach as a father, Arpit has handled a paddle for 22 of his 28 years of life. Ranked second in Louisiana, Bhopalkar sees table tennis as not simply a physical sport but as one that pushes the limits of the mind. With balls flying over 50 mph on a 9-foot table, players must, as Bhopalkar said, “train such that conscious actions develop into subconscious instinct during the real game. Once you think about it, it’s too late.
“Just like life,” he added, “the habits you’ve built up over time will be shown on the table.”
Martin Del Vecchio, founder of the club, played intercollegiate table tennis for the University of Virginia and is ranked fourth in Louisiana. When he moved to New Orleans five years ago, he said, he was surprised that no clubs existed. After a long search, the Hilton gave him the space and time slot. Like Bhopalkar, Del Vecchio believes the game’s highest levels require “a mind and body that are fine-tuned to respond to minute changes in ball trajectory.” Indeed, one radical difference between table tennis and its larger-scale counterpart is the amount of spin players can put on the ball, altering its trajectory much like a baseball pitcher does with a curveball.
Martin doesn’t want to intimidate potential players just in it for the fun. “Everyone can enjoy the game, and everyone is welcome at the club. It’s up to you whether you want to just hit the ball or refine your skills.”
Because table tennis is a low-impact sport that emphasizes finesse and wits over strength and physicality, people of all ages and sizes can play casually or competitively.
Evan Gordon, former Division I basketball player and brother of Pelicans guard Eric Gordon, can attest. “Unlike basketball, where I can tell if an opponent is athletic or not, in table tennis, it’s hard to tell who’s good.”
Sturdily built at 6 feet 3 inches and a former Indiana Hoosier, Evan Gordon fits the mold of a prototypical athlete. Yet he noted that more skillful players, regardless of whether they are “skinny or big, tall or short, young or old,” can beat him. He has frequented the club since its inception and visits every time he flies in to see his brother, who also is a table-tennis enthusiast.
Dr. Vern Palmisano, a family medicine physician at Ochsner, recalls “getting beaten by an 11-year-old” at the last tournament he attended. “Doc,” as the 56-year-old is called, played college baseball and tennis but considers table tennis the toughest to master. He has been hooked on the game since a friend started a similar club in Mandeville two years ago. Palmisano now prefers table tennis because it’s not subject to the whims of weather.
“You can play whenever you’d like without worrying about the rain,” he said.
Like Del Vecchio, Palmisano praises the universality of the sport: “Young or old, novice or expert, everyone can enjoy it. During tournaments, it’s a round-robin system; you come for the whole day and play for the whole day.”
This universality is reflected in the diversity of the club’s members. Keith Veizer, 72, is a retired English teacher who has taught at Carver High School, the University of New Orleans and Benjamin Franklin High School. A former tennis player, he found the club on the Internet four years ago. He has phased out tennis for table tennis, which is much easier on his body. “You can play two to three hours the night before and still wake up the next morning,” he said.
Smitti Supab, a musician who performs at numerous gigs around the city, enjoys his off nights at the club. Supab joined two months ago and plans on continuing to sharpen “my Jedi abilities.”
Turgay Yildizli, a Turkish coffee expert and consultant who sports a braided goatee, says “the sport is the best way for me to destress and mentally unwind.”
The club, along with the Confucius Institute, will host the Xavier University Confucius Institute Cup tournament on Saturday. Professor Rongyao Wen, who plays a mean game at the club, also is director of the institute. The Confucius Institute promotes mutual understanding between China and America through the learning of Chinese language and culture, and sponsors the prize money for the tournament.
The club meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hilton Health Club near the Riverwalk. For information about the club and the tournament, go to www.nolatabletennis.com.