x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Paddles always at the ready in Al Jazira club's table tennis room

Table tennis fans say they plan to watch their idols at the London Games.

Vivian Marcelino plays table tennis at the Al Jazira Sports Club in Abu Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National
Vivian Marcelino plays table tennis at the Al Jazira Sports Club in Abu Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National

DUBAI // Table tennis, a sport so beloved in China that there is even a soap opera about it, produces its own kind of drama each night at Al Jazira Sports Club.

The club's five tables are usually occupied every night, with some trying to hone their skills and others just learning.

Vivian Marcelino, 36, organises tournaments for the sport in the UAE. "It's not that difficult to play," she said. "If you continue playing and play with the good guys you will improve. For me, it's a high standard here."

When Ms Marcelino, from the Philippines, began playing at 14, the tournaments saw only five or six girls participating. Now, the games she runs are mixed and attract players from across the country, chiefly Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

She said table tennis is an easy way to keep fit."It's fun and good to meet players from different nationalities. In tournaments, it's not about winning or losing, the important part is to enjoy," she said.

Players are categorised by letter, according to ability. A national player would be +A, a top amateur would be A+, followed by B+. Regular players are called NB.

"If I am organising the tournament, I put them in the category we think they can play at and not mix them up," she said. "So if you win one level, you can progress."

Richard Chad has advanced to a B+ from a B. The 32-year-old Filipino has played in the UAE for the past four years.

"It exercises your body, your mind and you have to think how to defeat your opponent using your strategy during the game," Mr Chad said. "It also makes us relax. Sometimes you feel stressed at work and this is good to help it."

He trains during the week. On the weekend, he can usually be found around a table.

"I also like reading tips such as footwork, which is important," he said, adding he scours the internet for clips that have table tennis tips and techniques. He has special table tennis shoes, which offer more grip on the floor for playing.

But no matter how good his equipment, Mr Chad said he will never play as well as his idols.

"The best are the Chinese. Zhang Jike is the No 1 player in the world. Last year he did not come to Dubai to play, but I saw him play before.

"He'll be in London this year and we'll be watching [on TV]," he said.

Unlike Mr Chad and his fellow competitors who play in their spare time, professionals play all day, every day.

"You have to be training for at least 10 years to make it to the Olympics," he said. "I started when I was about 14, but in China they start when they're 6 and play all the time. We idolise them."

When there is an international tournament in the UAE, local players turn out to watch the stars.

"We always ask the professionals to autograph our bats and get some pictures together," Mr Chad said.