Whatever future our nation holds as a pingpong power could be determined inside an out-of-the-way industrial park off Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg.

Hidden along a winding driveway lined with dumpsters and broken pallets is the entrance to the Maryland Table Tennis Center (MDTTC). That’s an all-pingpong, all-the-time venue where many of the game’s best and brightest swing their paddles every night of the week and all day on weekends on the club’s 12 tables. When their prowess doesn’t take them out of town, that is: Two local residents and MDTTC members, Gao Jun and Han Xiao, were away last week representing the United States at the World Table Tennis Championships in Qatar. Gao has already booked another out-of-town trip for this summer. As the top American woman, she was awarded a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team without even trying out.

MDTTC members pervade the U.S. age-bracket rankings, also. Charlene Liu is the top over-50 female in the country. Katherine Wu of Potomac was the second-ranked under-18 player. Barbara Wei of Gaithersburg was No. 1 in the under-14 girls group last year. And for the boys: Germantown’s Xiao is the top under-18 male in the U.S.; Gaithersburg’s Peter Li is the top 10-year-old in the country.

“That club is probably the best place in the country” for table tennis, says Tim Boggan, the premier historian of U.S. pingpong.

Boggan captained the U.S. team during the “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” matches of 1971 and 1972, in which the Americans were graciously spanked by the Chinese masters in a home-and-home series. That event provided the high-water mark for table-tennis exposure on our shores. Boggan, who now lives in New York, stopped by the Gaithersburg plant last month while doing research for a book on the history of domestic pingpong. He thinks he understands how the Maryland club, which was founded in 1990, became ground zero for U.S. pingpong. It comes down to imported coaching and culture, Boggan says.

“They’ve got people there who know what the hell they’re doing—Chinese guys,” says Boggan. “And the Chinese people who live around the area want their kids to excel in whatever the hell they do, whether it’s pingpong or playing piano. They’ve got affluent parents and interested parents, and since pingpong is part of the Chinese culture, they see this as worthwhile. Because of that, these coaches can make a pretty good living, they [produce] good players, and good players breed other good players. And all of a sudden you’ve really got a hotbed for pingpong, in a country where there aren’t many hotbeds.”

The main Chinese guys who know what the hell they’re doing at MDTTC are co-founders/coaches Jack Huang and Cheng Yinghua. Both are former players for China’s globally dominant national team in the ’70s who emigrated to the United States when they were past their prime. Huang and Cheng became the top two players in America as soon as they arrived. They’ve won several U.S. national singles and doubles titles since opening the club in 1991 and over time have cultivated a few generations of American-reared youngsters who can skunk recreational pingpong players while playing opposite-handed.

“The big difference between recreational players and competitive players,” says Wei, “is that recreational players think they’re really good.”

Larry Hodges, an Adelphi, Md., native and longtime proponent of American pingpong, says Huang and Cheng coach an average of 55 hours a week at MDTTC. Hodge says top coaches can charge $35 an hour for individual lessons, more for the group sessions.

“There’s money to be made as a coach here,” says Hodges.

It’s a different story for players in the United States. Wu, a senior at Churchill High, says that when she was a little kid a cousin used to bring her to the rec center at the University of Maryland and use her to win bets by having her whup the cockiest college boy in the room. But her money-earning potential may have peaked there, she concedes.

“There’s a guy at my school who was something like in the top 100 in the country at regular tennis, and the principal announces to the entire school about that, and I hear he was being recruited by Vanderbilt,” says Wu. “I hear that and I’m like, ‘Well, I’m in the top 100 in the world in my sport! Doesn’t anybody care?’”

Currently, only one American college—Texas Wesleyan—offers pingpong scholarships.

“That’s got to change if the game has a future in this country,” says Wu, whose parents come from Taiwan and who has trained in China.

The international governors of pingpong have promulgated a bunch of rules changes in recent years in hopes of bringing new attention, and revenues, to the game. Since 2001, competitive pingpong games have been played to 11 points, instead of the traditional 21 points, in hopes of increasing the importance of every point.

To mitigate the significance of the serve, players change service every two points now, rather than every five, and any serve motion that obstructs an opponent’s view of the ball is no longer allowed. Most important, the balls used in tournament pingpong have recently been increased from 38 mm to 40 mm in diameter, to slow the pace of play down.

All the rules changes are intended to make pingpong a more viable TV sport. And pingpong advocates in this country have recently been given their first reason to believe this may happen: ESPN last month debuted a pingpong series, Killerspin Extreme Table Tennis Championships. Ten episodes of the show are scheduled for broadcast this year.

As the name implies, the new series presents a sexed-up version of the game. Male players walk through a smoke screen with babes at their side during introductions, for example. Boggan says old-school players, himself included, are willing to put up with whatever rules changes and WWE-style accouterment are needed to bring greater exposure to the game.

He’s not sure the televised venture will work, however.

“What ESPN is doing is good, probably the best thing that’s happened to us for a while, even if they are trying to jazz things up like it’s wrestling,” he says. “The way I see it, it’s like that movie about chess, Searching for Bobby Fischer: Table tennis has to have some sort of iconic figure, an American hero. We haven’t ever had that. But, the truth is, I don’t know if a lot of U.S. viewers are interested in seeing a U.S. team of Chinese faces. That could be a problem.” —Dave McKenna