By Michele Willens
Forget learning pickleball. You can go back to ping pong!
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, since the former does seem to be taking over half the tennis courts in this country. But the latter is notably making a return, particularly on one street of the Upper West Side — West 100th between Broadway and West End Avenue. Though Wang Chen Table Tennis Club has been there for more than a decade, it is expanding its services, lowering prices, catching a moment, and is daily filled with paddlers of all ages.
The woman whose name it carries is the key draw. Now 49, Wang Chen started playing the game at the age of seven in China, where she won countless medals and ribbons, rising up the ranks, but never quite making the Olympic team. Then she moved here, and made the U.S. team in 2008. (And — you couldn’t make this up — those Olympics took place in Beijing!) The walls of the club’s ground floor are filled not only with gold, but photos of her with former Olympic “partners,” like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James (members of the basketball “Dream Team” that year). And there she is with John McEnroe (“thanks for kicking my…”), an occasional visitor and an Upper West Sider. “We do get a lot of celebrities now,” Chen told me, showing a photo of Keanu Reeves. “Michael Bloomberg came one day and kissed my cheek.”
Chen says that mornings in the club on weekends, and during the week from 3-4 p.m., are mostly populated by seniors. Kids from the local public schools come to the recently offered Juniors Program from 4-6 p.m. during the week. Two 14 year olds, Oscar Scribner and Melech Mahule, were warming up the day I stopped by. They are excited to be coached by a former world champion. “It’s important to stay competitive,” said Scribner. Later, a Columbia student named Genevia showed up and said, “it’s a hobby I just started, and I love it.” This summer, two sessions of a camp program will be offered as well. Local Joanne Kwong and her son Milo, 11, play against each other and he is coached on the weekends. “Every Chinese kid grew up playing,” she says, “and I too had fond memories of playing with my parents. I also want to support my neighborhood and small businesses.”
The fans run the gamut. Ariel Warszawski, of the investment business, said had been looking for a new workout and “something I could do until I’m 100.’” He goes once or twice a week for lessons from Chen. “Look at me, I’m soaked,” he said, to prove this game can indeed wear you out and still be fun. “I find it mesmerizing.”
Locals Tom Silbiger, a corporate lawyer, and his pal Barry Berkman, a divorce attorney, are regulars at the club, having played sports together some 40 years. Silbiger says he knew he was made for this sport when “I went to Europe on the Holland American Line and won a ping pong tournament. The boat rocked with the sea, but it turned out I rocked too.” Berkman says he had not played ping pong for 50 years, “and now I am back and getting coached by the best.” The two pals hit the tables a few times a week. The prices vary but are generally very affordable. ($6 an hour, $15 for a day pass, $65-80 for private lessons)
I mentioned to Chen that my parents and I were among the first U.S. travelers to China after it was opened by President Nixon in the early 1970s. We were invited by a New York professor who lived there, because my father was a well-known philanthropist and peace activist. We were taken to operas, Peking duck factories, museums, classrooms, a model city of the future called Wuhan (which would come back decades later in the worst of news) and yes, a match to show off its national sport. “It was called Ping Pong Diplomacy,” said Chen. “Basketball has grown popular there, but table tennis still represents its gold medal sports.” By the way, the difference in terms is minimal: ping pong relates more to the old-fashioned home basement variety, while table tennis is of the competitive form.
Speaking of diplomatic, Chen was invited into this nondescript building by landlord Jerry Wartski. A Holocaust survivor, he connected with Chen’s story of immigrating to a new country and needing to make a fresh start. He was a ping pong fan and started taking lessons from Chen. Now in his 90s, he has remained supportive of the former champion who offers paddles to players of all ages.
When I dared to mention that I still have some trophies I won many years ago in ping pong tournaments, Wang Chen handed me a red and black sponge paddle. Once I stopped shaking with fear, we rallied awhile. She claimed to see some rusty talent there. Sign me up!