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Table Tennis Club: Westfield’s hidden gem

Jessica Shih, Iris Commentary Editor

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“New Jersey Table Tennis Club.”

That’s what you see in white lettering stretched across a rounded green awning as you go along North Avenue.

Maybe you’re driving. Maybe you’re walking. Maybe you’re getting off the bus or train. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t think twice about what’s going on behind the door. After all, how likely are you to associate this relatively hidden facility with one of the oldest and largest table tennis clubs in the country, one that attracts many professional, nationally-renowned players?

If your answer is “not very likely,” go through the front door for proof.

With the remnants of a second-floor bowling alley that previously occupied the space over four decades ago still visible, this table tennis center may not boast the most modern amenities, but it lacks nothing in providing space for serious competition.

Other table tennis clubs offer pro shops, weight rooms and cafeterias, but the New Jersey Table Tennis Club (NJTTC) prides itself on dedicating its facility to courts and locker rooms. According to former NJTTC trustee Daniel Guttman (a member since 1999), the club offers “spaces well-lit by fluorescent lighting, top-of-the-line Olympic Butterfly table tennis tables and Olympic-quality-caliber rubberized flooring on the courts.”

Guttman added that NJTTC is a private facility that’s open nearly every day of the year, which makes it the go-to spot for monthly tournaments and even the annual New Jersey State Table Tennis Championships, which NJTTC has been hosting since the 1930s.

But above all, what differentiates the club are the players themselves.

Photo by Jessica Shih
Two players focus on a rally at the Table Tennis Club in Westfield.

Go in on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and witness the club’s advanced adult leagues at play: a noisy, high-energy environment driven by a large number of competitors playing round-robin matches. Each of the 11 Butterfly table tennis tables are separated by a barrier that extends the length of the facility. The table farthest from the entryway is for top-level players, while the table at the near end is for those who aren’t as successful in their games.

The result of each match determines how much a player’s rating—a nationwide numeric system ranging from under 1,000 (beginner-level) to 3,000 (best in the world)—fluctuates. If their rating increases, they move up a court, and vice versa.

So for many who take part in the Tuesday and Thursday leagues, like longtime member Patrick Keville, the purpose of playing is to win.

“I don’t come here to socialize I come here to compete,” he said. “I’m not looking to be the top player, but I want to get my rating to 2,000. I’m training hard to get to that number because I eventually want to move away, and other locations won’t have as readily accessible or as high-quality equipment and facility as NJTTC does.”

And for table tennis coach and ’00 member Wesley Fan, the sport has been a strong, lifelong passion.

“I started here when I was 7 years old, so I’ve been a member for 18 years,” he said. “I’m here every day coaching and playing. I use the same guidance for coaching as I do for playing: ‘What is it that they want? What is it that they can improve on?’ ”

For Keville and Fan, table tennis and the winning culture surrounding it have taken priority over other aspirations, such as occupation.

Both are in between jobs at the moment, with Keville leaving the industrial design business in San Francisco to return to his family’s home in Westfield, and Fan quitting a teacher training program after realizing he didn’t like being in a classroom all day. So when Keville isn’t trading cryptocurrency at home, he’s practicing table tennis 4 times per week for a total of 20 hours per week. And when Fan isn’t on the streets as an Uber driver, he’s on a court in the table tennis club.

For older leaguers such as ’80 member and former NJTTC trustee Chris Lehman, rating and winning are less important.

“Now, my objective is how slowly I can stop my rating’s decline,” he said. “I still enjoy competing because it’s the chance for you to test your skills.”

When ‘03 member Paul Gerson plays, he focuses on defense, softly hitting the ball in order to trick his opponent. He also plays to stay active and keep himself away from snacks and TV.

If the aggressive playing environments on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at NJTTC aren’t your thing, go in on Saturday afternoons for quieter playing and lesson time with adult non-leaguers. Although these players aren’t in a competitive league, the same drive is present.

Take player Wendy Molinari, for instance. She has only played table tennis for a couple of years, and has yet to participate in a tournament.

“I’m not yet ready to compete, but I know I’m getting better,” said Molinari. “I believe I’ll be a powerful player in terms of strength, but I’m just not quite there yet.”

Joanna Ip has also recently begun playing table tennis. With only one-and-a-half years’ worth of experience on the table, she has already participated in competitions.

“I started playing table tennis when I was 57 years old,” said Ip. “I didn’t exercise at all before, so even though I chose table tennis because it’s easier to learn than most other sports, I’m not a very good player. I still come here twice a week because when I play I forget about everything else but table tennis. Afterwards, you feel tired but happy.”

And although Ip believes she still has a ways to go in terms of her skill level, she’s on par in one aspect: the physical and mental strength it takes to play table tennis.

“In team sports like football, you specialize in one type of skill,” said Fan. “But with individual sports like table tennis, you have to know how to do everything…It’s definitely a good challenge for the mind and body.”

Photo by Jessica Shih
Club members duel in pursuit of the ‘top table’ in King of the Hill play.

As a participant in the U.S. Open Table Tennis Tournament—a weeklong series of matches played by nationally-ranked teams—longtime table tennis coach and player Zong Qi described firsthand what it takes to be a successful table tennis player.

“[Table tennis] looks very easy, but it’s actually very hard,” Qi said. “When I prepare for the tournament, I need to train for seven hours every day. I also need to run and do push-ups. It can get boring because I’m doing the same routine every day for half a year. But what makes it more fun are the spins and strategies I use when I play.”

Like many successful athletes, the start of Qi’s athletic career wasn’t glamorous.

“After my first five years of playing, I went to my first game. I did very bad,” he said. “Many people start off bad even after five years of playing, but you just have to keep going and build more skills. After eight years, you need to connect the skills you learned to the game because you can’t do one spin or tactic the whole time. And after 10 years, you need to know how to connect strategies to how you play on the court.

“It’s like when I came to the U.S. eight years ago. I went to ESL classes every day to learn English, but it was very hard. But I kept going, and after a long time I felt like I was getting better and better, so I started my college education. And now I’m here.”

So for the members at NJTTC, the club’s motto “come for a visit, play for a lifetime” certainly rings true. But for one member, belonging to NJTTC means more than just being on the court.

Current NJTTC trustee Bernard Formal said table tennis has always played an integral role not only in his life, but also in his son’s life. Formal and his family stumbled upon the facility when they first walked through downtown Westfield after they had moved to town.

“My son immediately fell in love with the club,” said Formal. “He began taking lessons. Soon, he started to beat me in matches.

“I no longer have as much time to play, so now I manage the maintenance and fees for the club. I feel like I owe it to [NJTTC] because the club helped my son, who started here as a kid before going on to Rutgers and becoming the founder of the school’s table tennis club. There, he was named Athlete of the Year.”

And, Formal added, “Being a table tennis player even helped him find his girlfriend.”

So the next time you pass by NJTTC, do think twice and do go in to see what’s going on behind the front door. As table tennis coach and player Bochao Li puts it, “[Table tennis] is my destiny” — and it just might be yours, too.

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Table Tennis Club: Westfield’s hidden gem