How can a sport that everyone knows remain so well hidden?
Table tennis is played by more people than soccer, its advocates insist. And even if their count includes those who haven't picked up a racquet since childhood, the game more commonly known as ping pong has developed a cachet among Hollywood celebrities, U.S. billionaires and the always influential Chinese government.
But except for rare moments when a miraculous behind-the-back shot finds its way onto TV highlight reels, the high-level version of this lightning-quick sport is still waiting to be discovered by most Canadians.
"Table tennis doesn't have much of a following here," said Pierre-Luc Thériault, a top-ranked lefthander from Saint-Fabien, Que., who went off to Europe to train when he was 15.
He appears to be right: Over the weekend, just a few hundred devotees attended an elite national competition in Mississauga called the Canada Series Finals. And most were players and family members, despite the free admission.
"People just don't know the game," Mr. Thériault, 19, said. "If they'd just see it, they'd find it fun. But instead they think it's this basement game."
Dejan Papic, executive director of the Ontario Table Tennis Association, said the sport's biggest challenge is that it is hard to grasp, at least initially. "When you're watching for the first time, you don't know what a player did that's so good. Other sports, like basketball, you can enjoy them from the start. But with table tennis, you have to learn to enjoy it."
The pleasure comes more easily on YouTube, where a spectacular rally can be isolated, slowed down and replayed from every angle until even a novice viewer can appreciate the game's unique combination of speed, agility, deviousness, power and controlled touch – all of it playing out in a tight space not much bigger than, well, a suburban rec room.
But for a newcomer watching the Canada Series Finals in real time, the points are won before there's time to appreciate the unbalancing effect of a backspin serve or spot the deceptiveness in a player who moves his opponent to a vulnerable position with just a hint of body language.
Instead, all you see at first glance is an impressive rapid-fire exchange that leaves one player fist-pumping with a sudden shout and the other fetching the elusive rolling ball just as kids used to do in the cluttered-rec-room version of the game.
Few sports are so successful at connecting the memories of the ungifted spectator with the talent on display; it's as if arena hockey could be miniaturized to a backyard rink without a sacrifice of skill. And the homey surroundings of the competition venue, the My Table Tennis Club, add to the game's down-to-earth status. Between noisy hour-long matches on one of the facility's six courts – each big enough to let an attacker back up his lobbing defensive opponent some 10 metres – players spend their down time at the small in-house snack bar, where their personalized Styrofoam containers of fried rice and barbecue from a local Chinese food court lie waiting on shared café tables just a forehand smash away from the courts.
But make no mistake, the rising stars at the Canada Series Final say, this is a highly demanding pursuit that shouldn't be diminished by well-meant nostalgia.
"A lot of people think this is just a basement sport, but that's completely false," said 16-year-old Anqi Luo, a top-seeded female player who just returned from a podium finish at a tournament in Sweden to win the women's championship on Sunday. "The mental game takes up a big part of the match, and you need to have a really good feeling of the ball. Every point has to be precise and you can't relax – if you relax for one point or a few points, you lose your whole game."
That intensity is characteristic of all the top players assembled at the Canada Series Finals, even 12-year-old Jeremy Hazin who unexpectedly played his way into the final 12 of the men's competition and finished a strong 5th. "It's hard, the co-relation between table tennis and homework," the poised Grade 7 student said. He trains seven days a week between school assignments, combining individual and group training at the table with three weekly sessions focused on his leg muscles (in the limited confines of a high-speed match, foot speed and quick pivoting are essential both for court coverage).
In a game that doesn't discriminate against the compact athlete, Jeremy still stands apart for his small stature. Yet he managed to beat bigger and older opponents thanks to his training regimen and analytical skills. "When I see a new guy come in, I can pick up on their tactics and their weaknesses," he said with complete confidence. "My technique is good, and my strokes are more consistent than theirs. They have more power, obviously, but I get the ball on the table more so I can overcome them in a rally."
Table tennis is physical enough that players are soaked in sweat after an hour-long match. "If you're into the game, you won't think it's tiring," Ms. Luo said. "But after you finish a match, you'll be exhausted."
The mental aspect of the game, however, is what differentiates the top players in a sport where the ball can move too fast – up to 140 km/hr – for the human body to react.
Intelligence is hard to perceive in such a fast sport – you mostly recognize it by its successful result. But the best players show a command of both body and mind that makes them look almost effortless.
"When you play well, you feel smooth," Mr. Thériault said. "When you're relaxed, you have more feeling for the ball, a better touch, you can hit the ball faster – it's relax, accelerate, then relax."
Scientists who study top table-tennis players have discovered that they respond to shots quite differently from the basement-level player. While a rec-room pongiste belatedly reacts to the movement of the ball, a skilled player anticipates a shot by scanning for fine visual cues such as his opponent's wrist position.
Much like a baseball hitter who improbably begins his swing before a pitcher releases the ball, a table-tennis player figures out a likely flight path and starts a weight shift into an efficient return point before his opponent has made contact. All that's left in the split second it takes for the ball to arrive is to prepare the fine detail of the return, the flick of the arm and wrist that imparts length and spin to the power element of the stroke.
It's no wonder, then, that when 18-year-old Hongtao Chen is asked why he likes table tennis ahead of more conventional team sports, he replies: "Because you're always thinking. If I win, that means I've controlled the game, and maybe I'm smarter."
Mr. Chen, who came to Canada from China two years ago, was in control on Sunday. He won the men's finals handily.