As students filter into the Rockefeller Library on a Sunday night and prepare to start the work they’ve put off all weekend, a group of dedicated team members convene on the other side of campus. The team sets up equipment, transforming the dimly lit Andrews Dining Hall into a suitable table tennis practice room. Over a series of warm-up drills, excited chatter about the team’s recent accomplishment fills the air — in February, the team claimed the New England Division Table Tennis championship title for the second consecutive year. In April, they will send five members to Waukesha, Wis., for the National Collegiate Table Tennis Tournament.
An orange ping pong ball flies back and forth between rubber paddles as the team’s two best players, Yanqiang Tan ’13 and Jurica Bulovic ’13, rally. They back farther and farther away from the edge of the table, hitting the ball with a variety of offensive and defensive strokes. In table tennis, there isn’t a lot of time to respond to a shot, so each second matters. Maintaining focus is essential, and it’s something Tan and Bulovic are incredibly good at doing. Despite cheers from a group of teammates at the next table, the two never break their concentration.
Finally Bulovic responds with a strong spin that sends the ball flying over Tan’s reach. It drops softly onto the carpeted floor. Warm-up is over. It’s time to play a match.
A well-kept secret
Unless students wander into the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center during the activities fair, they probably won’t hear much about the table tennis club. The team may be one of the University’s best-kept secrets. Not every student organization can boast New England Division championship titles three of the past four years, nor can most student organizations claim members who played semi-professionally before coming to college.
Tan and Bulovic, two first-year players, have made “the team much stronger this year than it’s been, I think, ever,” said Andrew Tarr ’11, the club’s president. The club’s members are more actively improving their individual skills by trying to add more structure to their practices and working with a coach from the Rhode Island Table Tennis Association who attends the team’s practices three or four times a semester.
Additionally, the team may try to apply for status as a club sport. “It will really depend on how much effort people are willing to put in,” Yuan said. Club status will give the team better access to University funding and practice spaces on campus.
A taste of professional life
Tarr said the first time he saw Tan and Bulovic play he was blown away. “They were able to do a lot of looping at each other without dropping the ball,” a technique he said signals experience. “We had never seen anything like that here,” he said.
Tan, an international student from Singapore, said he started playing table tennis when he was nine. He played on the Singapore National Youth Team and even represented Singapore regionally once. At age 16, Tan stopped playing professionally in order to concentrate on his other interests, though he continued playing for fun. Tan said he started playing again before coming to Brown “in anticipation of joining the team, should there be one.”
Bulovic, who is from Croatia, also started playing at age nine. “My father bought a table tennis table and we played in the basement,” Bulovic said. “Then I found out there was a way I could play in school.” Almost immediately, Bulovic’s school encouraged him to join one of the capital city’s several table tennis clubs.
Soon Bulovic was playing between six and nine times a week, often practicing before school and again after classes finished.
“I didn’t have much time outside of practicing,” Bulovic said. “Whenever I would have free time, I would probably study. I mean, if you have tournaments and training every day, you can’t go out every day and every weekend.”
The lack of free time was a sacrifice Bulovic said he was willing to make to play at such an intense and competitive level, especially for a sport to which he said he feels strong attachment.
“You start playing and you have tournaments and then you always have higher goals to achieve,” Bulovic said. By age 12, he was playing with the best table tennis club in Croatia.
Bulovic said playing a sport at such a high level helped him learn a lot about himself. “You learn if you’re a fighter or not, how far are you ready to go to achieve some goals, how strong and determined you are,” Bulovic wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. Bulovic was named the eighth-best player in Croatia for his age group and even earned a bronze medal at one of the international table tennis tournaments held in Croatia.
After injuring both of his knees — a common occurrence among table tennis players — as well as his shoulder, Bulovic began to seriously consider taking a break.
“I would see the specialist and go to therapy but the injury would never go completely away,” Bulovic said. Even today, he said, these injuries often bother him if he plays for an extended period of time.
But his education was the biggest factor in his decision to stop playing professionally. His parents felt education was more important than his potential table tennis career, and enrolled Bulovic in the city’s most rigorous high school, a choice that meant he could no longer continue to play at the same level.
“I’m still in contact with some of the people that played with me,” he said. Now these players are traveling around the world and earning money, Bulovic said, but “it’s not like soccer or a different sport. You really can’t make a living.”
“I am really happy this is the path I chose,” Bulovic said. “Playing table tennis for all those years was amazing and an unforgettable experience, but also a lot of sacrifice and hard work. Eight years, that was enough.”
A worldly sport
It is difficult for the average college student — whose only interaction with a ping pong table usually involves red Solo cups and spilled beer — to imagine what an intensely fast-paced game table tennis can be. Overall, the sport is relatively unknown in the United States, often regarded as little more than a recreational activity.
The table tennis club is mainly comprised of international students, something Yuan said “just happens to be that way.”
“Maybe because ping pong is a more organized and respected team sport in other countries,” he said.
Club member Kaijian Gao ’13 is from China, where table tennis is the national sport. He said he feels like table tennis is hardly recognized in the United States.
“In China, there’s all this media attention devoted to table tennis,” he said, comparing it to the way the “U.S. looks at Michael Phelps.”
Though Bulovic said table tennis is not as popular in Croatia either, he said people in Europe are definitely more familiar with table tennis than they are in the United States.
Gao stressed the fact that table tennis is an Olympic sport that is very technical and involves “a lot of footwork.” He said the game is much more complicated than most people imagine.
Gearing up for Nationals
The team is excited about the national tournament later this spring and though the players agreed they do not have any strong expectations, placing somewhere in the top 10 would improve on their performance last year. “We have really dedicated players who are willing to give it their all,” Tan said.
“Nationals is gonna be really weird,” Bulovic said. He said he’s heard of four or five colleges that are so good that it’s virtually impossible to compete with them. One of these schools, Texas-Wesleyan University, has ranked first in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Tournament for the past eight years, according to the team’s Web site. “They have world class table tennis players,” Bulovic said. Texas-Wesleyan even offers a table tennis scholarship to attract pl
Princeton is the nation’s other table tennis powerhouse.
“I’m really looking forward to playing one of the top two schools,” Bulovic said, smiling as he adds, “I want to see how good they really are.”