After getting some practice by routing a guy from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, I’m ready to switch over to the elite hump. As we prepare to hit, I ask Hsing to articulate the difference between pingpong and table tennis. “Physically, the No. 1 thing is that in table tennis you have to move with your legs,” she says. “You play pingpong with your hands and table tennis with your legs.” OK, maybe it was a mistake to wear jeans. I then show her the paddle I’ve brought from home, the one I’ve used since high school—a piece of equipment, I’m now realizing, that’s older than she is. “You should change your rubber,” she says, eyeing the worn-out surface. It has never occurred to me to change my rubber.
And then we start to play, denim-wearing, defective-rubber-wielding amateur against pro. We warm up with some medium-tempo rallies, and I win a point when she hits a feeble backhand into the net. One of my fellow journalists taunts Hsing, telling her I haven’t even brought out my “crazy spin slam.” She responds by smashing a forehand, yelling “crazy spin slam!” as the ball whizzes past me. Unbowed, on the next point I slam one that she returns long. “Pretty good,” she says cheerfully. “You can tell that you, like, play.”
Faint praise in hand, our game to 11 begins. I serve first, and she bends her knees in anticipation, holding her paddle with a shakehand grip. While some pros stand far back from the table and take long, looping strokes that create massive spin, Hsing prefers to move in close, a style that takes advantage of her power and quickness. But she still generates spin. A lot of spin, the kind of spin I’ve never seen before. I hit it deep to her backhand, and she flicks back a topspin drive that hits my paddle before I can ponder my next move. My return flies off the table and Hsing catches it with her left hand. Hsing 1, Levin 0.
Next, I try a short serve to her forehand. She hits it to my backhand again, and this time I get the ball back, a small victory that loses its luster when she slams the popped-up return into my gut. Hsing 2, Levin 0.
Now it’s her serve. She bends down low, holds the orange ball next to her eye, tosses it high into the air, and cracks a low skidder to my backhand. I make contact, and the ball floats back, just barely missing the side of the table. “That was really close to hitting the edge,” she says. I groan. Hsing 3, Levin 0.
Her next serve is deep and to the middle of the table. This time, I hit a good, low return and she slices it back to my forehand. I take a big, windmilling stroke, swinging my right arm as fast as I can. The ball nestles into the net. Also, I almost fall over. Hsing 4, Levin 0.
It goes on like this: I serve, she returns, I pop it into the air or hit it long. She serves, I dribble it into the net.
At 10-0, she asks, “Can I beat you 11-0?” I tell her to go ahead—I don’t want a point out of pity. She serves deep to my backhand corner and I bunt it back short. She slices a return and I rip the down-the-line backhand that’s won me so many points in the shed. She lunges for it and her forehand floats just off the back of the table. Hsing 10, Levin 1. Victory is mine!
A moment later, I smash it into the net again and it’s all over—11-1. From start to finish, it took 96 seconds.
I ask for a rematch, and this time it’s not as close. 1-0 on an unreturnable serve. 2-0 when she slams it past me. 3-0, 4-0, 5-0, 6-0, 7-0, 8-0, 9-0, 10-0, 11-0. After my last shot sails long, she raises her arms in mock triumph.
Did I really deserve that one point, or did she set me up? Was she really trying her hardest? As I puzzle over how much to pat myself on the back, I watch Hsing take on the next wave of challengers. Now that I have more distance from the table, I can see her calibrating her game, playing up or down to the competition. Ariel Hsing and I are a lot alike—this is exactly what I do against lesser opponents, doing just enough to win comfortably but not so well that they feel humiliated. Against players who can’t rally consistently, she takes a bit off her serve and nudges the ball back instead of jabbing at it with a quick stroke. She tells them they’re “pretty good.” And then, unable to resist, she swings, connects, and sends the ball ricocheting off the table and down the hallway, leaving her victim to give chase as it skitters across the carpet.