CLEARWATER — When Alfred Palumbo retired and moved to Safety Harbor, he decided to play a little ping pong to keep his mind sharp. Now in his eighties, Palumbo is one of only eight certified table tennis referees in Florida, and spends his days ensuring that the best of the best play fairly.
“At first it’s just fun to go out and play, but then you start getting competitive,” Palumbo said. “When I started, I was one of the lousiest players there was, every woman used to beat me. Then I changed my name to Black Bart, the notorious stage robber, and it changed my image and my game. It became a game of skill.”
The 78 table tennis players who filled the Long Center in Clearwater over Labor Day weekend for the 48th Annual Florida Closed Table Tennis State Championship have devoted themselves to perfecting that skill. There’s a list of requirements to play against the best in the state, who serve between 70 and 90 miles-per-hour and perform at cardio levels that match professional soccer players. The winners of the weekend’s match earned $300 and a chance to compete on a national level.
But most of all, the champions walk away with bragging rights and their name added to a trophy of the best players since the competition started in 1965.
“Ping pong you play in the basement with a can of beer in one hand and you just hit the ball as hard as you can off the walls or the ceiling and hope it turns out all right,” Palumbo said. “Table tennis has finesse, its a sport. You’re sprinting back and forth, calculating angles and moves — it’s very strenuous physical and mental activity when it’s done right.”
The sport takes a lot of dedication, but it’s not just for the athletic elite, said Clearwater resident Michael McFarland, state director of the Florida Table Tennis Association and owner of Spin City Sports table tennis club in Largo. Categories for the state championship range from 18 and under to senior citizens. McFarland has lost more than 20 pounds since he started offering lessons three times a week — a workout that’s not only more fun than running on a treadmill, but also exercises your brain, he said.
“Usually when you’re doing something or working out you have all kinds of distractions and your mind can start racing, but with table tennis you have to focus on the ball so you’re really out of your whole life situation when you play,” McFarland said. “Most people that play on the master level are incredibly bright and out of the 5,000 or so college kids that play, more than 80 percent are engineering students or mathematicians. That says something about how much brain power and problem solving goes into the sport.”
Table tennis, which is more popular in Asian and Latin American communities, took off in the 1990s and has grown to become the second largest sport in the world behind volleyball. However, numbers around Pinellas have begun to plateau, McFarland said. Now, Spin City and Sun Rise Table Tennis Club in Clearwater, which both sponsored the event, are hoping to recruit more young people for their junior leagues to keep the sport alive. There are more than 200 colleges that have table tennis teams, and many offer scholarships, he said. And to have a chance at ever becoming a state or national champion, you have to start young.
“When I was a junior I would practice six days a week in the summer and spend about 8 to 10 hours hitting thousands of balls back and forth,” said Kit Jeerapaet, an IT consultant from Tampa and the top player in the Sunrise Sports club. “I played tennis competitively before and racquetball, and by far table tennis is the hardest. I can loose seven pounds in a day sprinting back and forth. It’s just like one-hand boxing.”
The 45-year-old started playing when he was only 10 years old, and was named the third best player in the country when he was 16. Jeerapaet was happy to enter the weekend’s competition with the eighth-highest rating — players usually hit their peak around 25 years old, he said. The biggest advantage young players have is better eyesight, which enables them to carefully watch how the ball is spinning to predict what direction it would bounce.
That’s a skill that Austin Sullivan, a 17-year-old from Brandon, wasn’t expecting when he started the competition — his first in the sport. However, there’s still time to learn, he said.
“I came with my brother because we play every day at home and we’ve gotten pretty good,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone play like this, though. We’re nothing compared to these guys, but maybe someday I will be.”