I am amazing at pingpong—just ask me. As a kid, I was the undisputed champion of the Levin driveway, and in adulthood I’ve kept up my skills in bars and basements. Then, last year, I took custody of my former colleague Chris Beam’s table when he moved to the Far East. As Beam suffered a series of humiliating defeats to Chinese children, I stayed in Washington, D.C., and refined my backhand slice and forehand slam. My game has never been sharper. In my backyard shed, I am unbeatable.
But my backyard shed is … a shed, in my backyard. The best players in the world do not return serves on a sloping concrete floor while surrounded by shovels and an enormous paper bag full of large sticks. Pingpong as I play it and world-class table tennis are different games. If you charted the paddle prowess of every player in the world, you’d get a bimodal distribution—a graph with two discrete peaks. In the first hump are hobbyists like me, members of the driveway and shed circuit. In the second hump are those remarkable humans who treat table tennis as a profession. Hump 1 and Hump 2 are completely segregated: Hobbyists play other hobbyists and pros play other pros. To learn how good I really am, I must make the leap into the hump of the elites. That’s why I’m heading to the Chicago International Table Tennis Festival. My mission: win a point off an Olympic hero.
Ariel Hsing is the greatest athlete in history who was named after the Little Mermaid. The 16-year-old Californian came into her first Olympics as the world’s 115th-ranked player—an unproven kid from a table tennis backwater. But Hsing knocked off her first two opponents, earning a matchup with eventual gold medalist Li Xiaoxia in the round of 32. An underdog on the level of Angola against the 1992 Dream Team, Hsing nearly pulled off the Miracle on High-Density Fiberboard. The American high schooler and the Chinese champ split the first four games of their best-of-seven match before Li eked out the last two 11-8, 11-9—just barely surviving what would be her sternest test of the tournament. Though Hsing didn’t win a medal, the game’s best had to take notice: The girl in the pink barrettes can play.
In the aftermath of the London Games, Hsing—now up to 73rd in the rankings—has attained an unprecedented level of stardom for an American table tennis player. She appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and gained notice for her unlikely friendships with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. But Hsing is still more table tennis famous than famous famous—her 397 Twitter followers are just a few short of Ryan Lochte’s 1,000,000.
When we meet in Chicago, Hsing is charmingly guileless, amazed that she has even 397 fans. “I came back to my school, and like … everyone knew,” she says, expressing surprise that her classmates had seen the Olympics. Among the perks of her great showing: getting face time with her hero, world No. 1 Ding Ning. “I’m just like, Oh my God, I feel really comfortable with my idol,” Hsing says. “She’s been so nice and friendly, so I guess she’s my friend, which is really cool.” Most startling of all for the teenager, whose mother is Chinese and whose father was born in Taiwan, was the reception she got at a post-Olympic tournament in China. The volunteers “were so excited to see me and helped me pick up balls,” she says. This is table tennis stardom: You no longer have to pick up your own balls.
Hsing first picked up a paddle at age 7. By the time she was 8, as the video below shows, she could smack forehands and backhands with machine-line precision.
This is what an Olympian-to-be looks like. And, terrifyingly, this was four years before, in her words, she got “serious” about the game. When she was around 12, she started focusing on her craft. To help her along, Hsing’s parents ripped up their yard to build a table tennis room. “We had a really nice backyard,” she says. “Now it’s a small backyard with a little fountain.”
Hsing has devoted her life—hour after hour, six days a week—to commanding a tiny, hollow ball. Given my regimen of 20 minutes every once in a while, I have the skills I deserve, ones that will destroy 99 percent of non-Olympians while leaving me miles away from the YouTube marvels who make shots like this.
Yes, the elite hump is a scary place. But winning a point—just one point—in a pingpong match seems more attainable than scoring on LeBron James or outrunning Usain Bolt. It’s not just that I’m better at pingpong than basketball or sprinting. It’s that table tennis stars aren’t menacing specimens. Hsing tells me she’s “more buff and fatter” than her female opponents, which allows her to strike the ball with superior force. But she stands just 5-foot-5 and weighs 110 pounds—buff for a 16-year-old table tennis player, maybe, but not exactly Serena Williams. This gangly, 6-foot-5 nerd is not intimidated.
I’ve also played enough pingpong to know that luck is built in to the game, that the 9-foot-by-5-foot playing surface invites shots that catch an edge or trickle over the net. My plan—which, as a tactical genius, I decide to share with my opponent—is to swing as hard as I can. “It’s a good strategy,” Hsing says. She’s run up against this technique at Berkshire-Hathaway shareholder meetings, where Warren Buffett (aka “Uncle Warren”) has invited all comers to play three-point games against the teenage marvel. “If someone swings wildly, then they can get like one or two in,” she says. Just one or two, though—Hsing says she’s never lost one of those three-point games.
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.