Two members of the Martha’s Vineyard Table Tennis Club competed in a national tournament the weekend after Thanksgiving, ultimately reaching the quarter-finals.
The 25th annual North American Teams Championships featured over a thousand players from across the country, with some of the best players from around the world.
Among the nearly 300 teams competing at the tournament, Rod Backus, from Vineyard Haven, and Alina Wen, from Edgartown, were part of the Boston Phoenix Table Tennis Club team.
Both have been playing table tennis on the Vineyard for years. And both said their time at the Teams Championships tournament was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was a lot of fun,” Backus said in a recent interview. He told The Times that all play during the tournament was in one giant room, with over a hundred tables in use at a time, and with a lot of younger players trying to make it as professionals: “The skill level is pretty wild. It was very intense.”
“It was amazing,” said Wen.
Wen and Backus are both part of the M.V. Table Tennis Club, which meets regularly at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School during the week and at the YMCA on weekends. The club’s president, Bob O’Rourke, described Wen and Backus as two very good players, albeit with different styles.
O’Rourke describes Wen as a small and polite woman, and quiet. But at the table, she’s a force. “She’ll smile and beat the hell out of you,” the local club president said of Wen.
For Backus, O’Rourke says that while most table tennis players are short and fast, Backus is really tall. “He’s a natural,” O’Rourke said. “He doesn’t practice much; but he’s just a good athlete, and very good with his hands and very smart.”
As for how they got to the tournament, Wen occasionally travels to Boston to play in tournaments there. After playing with other members of the Phoenix team, they asked if she wanted to join; she said yes, and asked if Backus wanted to join. And they were on their way to Washington, D.C.
The table tennis team championship tournament is not your average Ping-Pong game. The tournament features a team component in an otherwise individual sport. Teams of four or five players compete against other teams.
On the first day, teams compete for their seeding. Out of 20 different rankings — with 1 being the highest — the Phoenix team landed in the No. 13 slot.
The next two days were for tournament play. Teams played in a large round-robin style, facing others within the same ranking. Competitors played about 25 matches or more over the course of the three days. And there can be up to five single games within each match. It’s considered an endurance tournament.
And the players are aggressive, and play fast. Backus said that some of the highlights were defending against opponents that were trying to smash the ball on him. He said that he would be standing back from the table some 20 feet, returning each smash. But occasionally, he said, he was able to rush his opponent by running to the table, catching them by surprise, and quickly returning a volley across the table. Those were his highlights of the game.
Ultimately, Team Phoenix had a solid outing, coming up short in the quarterfinals. Backus said that he fared pretty well over the weekend, with five wins and three losses against his opponents. Wen had three wins and four losses.
But for the two players, it was about team comradery. “Team play is really a lot of fun,” Backus said. “You’re rooting for your teammates. They are giving advice in-between play, and you’re competing as a team.”
Wen said that she learned a lot at the tournament, and has some homework to do before entering another tournament.
Both encourage the public to join the club at its regular meetups. Wen said that she moved to the Island from Hong Kong more than a decade ago. At the time, she recalled, there wasn’t much to do on the Island, compared with the big city. So she took up table tennis after reading about it in the local newspaper. At first, she said, she was beaten pretty badly. But after a lot of games and coaching, O’Rourke says that she’s able to beat anyone in the club.
The chapter president is also encouraging of the sport. At 87, he says it’s a surprisingly good sport for staying fit: “It’s a lot of fun and very competitive.”
The club plays Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional; Saturdays from 2 to 5 pm at the YMCA, and Sundays, noon to 2, also at the Y.