WARREN, N.J. - Whenever Shui-Ling "Lily" Yip travels back to China, she is still "The Queen of Table Tennis." She began playing at age 7 and between 1982 and 1986 was No. 1 player on the Guang Dong Province Table Tennis Team. By age 12, she was playing professionally. "We played every day, just like they do in the NBA," says Yip, who would later come to the United States and become a member of the U.S. Olympic Table Tennis Table in 1992 and 1996. On her dining-room wall are photographs of her at the White House with two American presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Yip, 44, hopes to be in China again this summer for the Olympics in Beijing, but not as a player. Her two children - Adam and Judy Hugh - are among the top table tennis players in the United States. To land a coveted berth on the U.S. Olympic Team, both will be on hand at Drexel University beginning today to compete in the U.S. Olympic Team trials. Because only a few spots are available, the odds don't favor either of them advancing, despite the fact that that Adam, 20, and Judy, 18, are both fine players who have each gotten to the point at which they can beat their mom.
Lily laughs. "Adam beat me when he was 14," she says. "And Judy beat me last year. They are both talented players."
Which one is better?
Judy points to Adam, who is seated beside her at the dining-room table. "He is by far," says Judy, a freshman at Rutgers University. "I think I have beaten him only once. And then we were just fooling around."
Adam looks on with an embarrassed smile and says, "We have learned a lot by practicing with each other."
Table tennis is a family affair for Lily, her husband Barry Dattel, and their two children. (By the way, it is table tennis and not pingpong. You play pingpong at the Y.) Ying and Dattel were once called by The New York Times "the unofficial first couple of table tennis in New Jersey." Dattel had been a fine player himself, the sport passed down to him by his parents, who had both been top players in New York City. Yip beat him in a quarterfinal match in an open tournament in Connecticut in 1991 and romance ensued. Today, they live in a sprawling northern New Jersey home, on which they built an addition to accommodate the table tennis students whom Yip instructs. Dattel calls table tennis excellent exercise.
"I find it helps me think more clearly," says Dattel. "And it helps me reduce stress. You have to be shape to play."
When played at its highest level, table tennis is not for the meek. In fact, it can be a very demanding sport, one that requires strength and stamina. Table tennis is somewhat like conventional tennis, yet Dattel says that the spin placed on the ball is more of a factor. And Dattel adds, "If a player happens to get a lob just so, he can hit it back at his opponent 100 mph." He looks as Yip lobs the ball back to Adam, who leans into his shot and pounds it off the table. The ball caroms off the back wall.
"Occasionally, the balls gets dented," says Adam, a financial-engineering major in his junior year at Princeton. "Once, I saw a player hit it so hard that the ball split in two on his racket. I had never seen that before."
Adam agrees that it can be a physically exacting sport. "You are always on the move," he says. "To stay in position, you have to keep your weight centered, bend your knees and torque your body to a generate power. But you always have to keep a strong core. All of your movements come from your core. And in order to keep playing, you have to have excellent stamina."
But if it is a physical sport, it also has a psychological aspect. Strategy plays a big part in it, the ability to position shots to take advantage of the weaknesses in your opponent. And both Adam and Judy say they have had to overcome occasional episodes of jitters, especially just before a match. Yip knows how that feels. "I had them occasionally, but you just have to overcome them," she says. "I tell them: Breathe. Relax. And be tough."
How well Adam and Judy will do at Drexel this week is an open question. Adam concedes, "The field is very strong." Adam is seeded No. 7 among the 31 men competing, a field that also includes top-ranked U.S. player Ilija Lupulesku, of Chicago. Lupulesku, 40, won the 1988 Olympic silver medal in doubles for Yugoslavia and is vying to appear in his sixth-straight Olympic Games (and second as a U.S. citizen.) Also in the field is Yinghua Cheng (Boyds, Md.), a 2000 Olympian; three-time Olympian and reigning U.S. champion Khoa Nguyen (San Jose, Calif.) and Mark Hazinski (Mishawaka, Ind.), a 2004 Olympian. The top four finishers will compete in the North American trials in April, at which point a three-member North American team will be decided.
Judy is seeded No. 5 among the nine women. The field also includes four-time Olympian Jasna Reed (Fort Worth, Texas) and University of Pennsylvania student Barbara Wei. However, two highly ranked American players will not be participating in the trials, Goa Jun (Gaithersburg, Md.) and Wang Chen (New York). Both Gao and Wang are in the top 20 in the world rankings and earned an automatic berth in the Olympic Games. Consequently, while the top four finishers will advance to the North American trials, only one spot remains open at this point on the North American team.
Yip says she has her fingers crossed.
"China has changed since I lived there," says Yip. "I came over here to pursue the American Dream, but things have gotten better there. The Olympics will be a big thing there."
Does she plan to go even if her children are eliminated?