As countless white plastic balls rip back and forth across the Recreation Center, the sounds “ping, pong” fill the air.
Since its origins, the club has been called “Cal Poly Ping Pong Club.” That is, until this school year. The common title for the sport is often looked down upon in competitive groups, which is exactly why they are now called the “Cal Poly Table Tennis Club.”
That competitive attitude is often unexpected from the average fan of the game. One former member, mathematics junior Sean Judd, said the club’s intensity was the reason he abandoned the team.
“The main coaches there were super serious about doing everything perfectly,” Judd said. “Almost like we were training for the Olympics.”
Upon arrival to any average practice for the table tennis club, the ferocity is immediately apparent. Forestry freshman John Forst said he views the training grounds as a place to meet sparring partners to hone his skills.
“I was kind of thinking I was top dog around here, but once everyone got warmed up, it got way crazier,” Forst said. “I feel like this is the place for me to get better, here with these guys.”
For most who encounter the game casually — whether it be in a friend’s garage, in their driveway or in the corner of a dive bar — the complexities of the sport may not be immediately obvious. But computer science senior and club Vice President Ishaan Jain said people should view the game more analytically.
“The physical element is really interesting,” Jain said. “If you look at the pros, they are jumping all over the place, and they’ve got massive legs from being bent to the ground and being aggressive with their quick motions.”
The competitive nature of the table tennis club was what drew former collegiate tennis player and psychology sophomore John Lindberg to the club.
“I was just an eager freshman trying to find friends, and this seemed like a good environment to get that started,” Lindberg said. “It is a safe space on campus that a lot of people don’t usually think about.”
While Jain spoke fondly of his passions, the relentless squeaking of rubber soles meeting linoleum floors began to drown into the background noise as the team warmed up. About now, the consistent clacks of the celluloid balls hitting customized paddles became just as loud, and faint grunts slipped out of the competitors beginning to perspire.
Every sport has its hallowed grounds. Wrigley Field in baseball. The Maracanã in soccer. Wimbledon in tennis. When it comes to table tennis, players like Forst and Jain push themselves to the peak of their game to make it to their own hallowed grounds: the bi-annual intercollegiate table tennis tournament.
“If you’re into table tennis, going into that place is like Candy Land,” Jain said. “It’s like being 6 years old — you have the exact same emotions. You’re in a huge gym with more than 20 tables and it is filled with people from all different schools in their own uniforms going at it. There’s a ton of energy.”
Especially for something as niche and competitive as table tennis, this opportunity is a rare sight, according to Jain.
“Table tennis isn’t the most popular sport, especially in the U.S.,” Jain said. “Being in a huge place where everyone is a competitive player is like ‘Wow.This is very beautiful and very rare.’”
That fire for table tennis is what led Jain to his most intense moment against a rival opponent who had beat him in straight sets during the previous year’s tournament.
“I was just trying my best to read the spin on his shots,” Jain said. “I was thinking, ‘What the heck? This guy is crazy!’”
But, after honing his skills for a year with the Cal Poly Table Tennis Club, the tide had turned.
“I don’t think he remembered me, but I definitely remembered him,” Jain said. “It all came rushing back — two years of practicing, I better have something to show for it.”
Jain’s two years of practice ran down to a simple mechanic of the win-by-two rule: whoever won the next two points in a row, wins.
“My blood was cold. I could barely function,” Jain said. “After an insane rally, his ball flew out by just an inch. All I could think was, ‘Oh my god, this is insane. Those two years have paid off.’”