Can't anyone here play this game? Top table tennis stars lonely at the top

Updated: January 11, 2008, 5:27 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Razvan Cretu never worries about hitting it off with his table tennis practice partner. He only cares about making sure his only ally is plugged in.

When it comes to practicing for the elite table tennis events, Cretu goes at it alone.

Well, almost.

With a dearth of Olympic-level table tennis players in the Philadelphia, heck, in most towns across America, Cretu sharpens his smash and serve hours a day at the local gym against a robot.

Does anyone have a number for C-3PO?

OK, so Cretu, a former member of the U.S. national team, isn't exactly putting spin moves on a protocol droid. While the device is called a robot, it's more of an attachment to one side of a pingpong table that's operated like a baseball pitching machine with wide netting on the sides.

The robot isn't the ideal training partner for potential Olympians, but for many of the competitors at the U.S. Olympic team trials it's about their only reliable option. It's man vs. machine for the top Americans in a country where most sports crazed fans would probably be shocked to learn table tennis is a real Olympic sport.

"I don't come across people that are really interested in table tennis," Cretu said on Friday.

Cretu was the only one from Pennsylvania of the 12 men competing Friday in the start of a round-robin tournament to decide the four players who will represent the United States in the North American Trials in April in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The women's field started play on Friday where one North American spot is open for the Olympics.

There are times when Cretu feels a bit like Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland character in the movie "Cast Away." You know, the scenes where Noland goes a bit stir crazy and forges a friendship with a bloodied handprint on a volleyball he names Wilson.

Cretu trains alone in a suburban Philadelphia gym up to six days a week, two hours a day with his robot. Cretu has no one to talk to, no pong to his ping, except his trusty Robo-Pong.

"Sometimes it gets that crazy," said Cretu, chuckling. "I think everybody does that. You know, hitting this ball back and forth, you get crazy sometimes."

This wasn't how the 32-year-old Cretu learned the game in his native Romania, where he first held a racket at only 4 and became a member of national cadet teams from the time he was a small child all the way to his teenage years. He's also played competitively in Greece and Sweden.

Cretu, a collegiate singles and doubles champ at Texas Wesleyan University, would practice more if not for his day job. He owns a Sedan limousine service in Manayunk, Pa., and even took the limo to Drexel University from the trials.

"I drove though," he said, smiling.

Whaddaya think, the robot knows how to drive?

Most top Americans spend chunks of the year playing overseas, Germany is a popular destination, where the game is treated more seriously and competitive players are easier to find.

Back home, the convenient alternatives are sometimes all in the family.

"It's just my dad in my garage," said John Leach, of Eerie, Colo. "There aren't too many players."

Leach was knocked out of qualifying on Thursday but earned a reprieve when former Olympian Llija Lupulesku dropped out with a back injury. Leach won a coin flip to advance to the round robin tournament, which concludes Sunday.

Judy Hugh and her brother, Adam, have foregone all mechanical opponents for the comfort of family. Judy Hugh, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, said she's played serious table tennis against her brother and both parents for most of the last 10 years.

"It's like you have the support no matter what," she said. "You always have somebody to play with. A lot of people don't have practice partners."

Leach said he does train with former national coaches from China and has a robot. But it's a father who knows Leach's game best.

"My dad is USATT rated, about 1,800, which is substantially below me, but he's good enough that he can drill me for a while," Leach said. "His game is honed toward training me rather than beating me. It's difficult just because there's a lack of variety. But that's why I'm here."

Indeed, behind the curtain that separates the practice courts from the competition courts, players connected with each other with the excitement of having found a long lost relative. There was laughter, encouragement, and tips from men and women players from all over the country.

Trying finding that with something ordered on a Web site.

"There's no real replacement for actual players," Leach said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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