"Come on!" Mike Zukerman shouted sternly to himself after his errant shot floated several inches past the end of the table, then bounced off the floor.
After a few seconds, the sounds of the game resumed and once again filled the basement room of the Jewish Community Centers Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia: Feet shuffled and sneakers squeaked while the unmistakable clap of the paddles striking the ball seemed to take on its own steady rhythm, something like a metronome.
Zukerman, 64, in danger of losing the game, began, with his more aggressive play, to push his bulkier and taller opponent around the table, forcing the man to move from side-to-side. Zukerman eventually smashed the ball out wide, causing the other man to stretch in vain before letting out a loud groan. The only noise that followed was the labored breathing of the competitors.
Don't dare call it ping pong, at least not around these guys. On the Web site of USA Table Tennis – which organizes national competitions and oversees America's squad for the Olympics – Tim Boggan, a historian of the game, has written that ping pong denotes a leisurely game of family fun while table tennis refers to ping pong's more rigorous incarnation as a sport.
From the Table Tennis World Championships to the JCC's basement, the term "ping pong," which dates back to at least 1901, is clearly not in vogue. Some might even consider it insulting.
But not Zukerman.
"I don't care anymore," said Zukerman, whose been playing so long – he entered his first tournament at age 12 and was ranked among the top in the nation when he was 18 – he has resigned himself to the fact that most non-players still refer to the game by its less exalted name.
While waiting for his turn to play, Zukerman explained that technology has drastically changed the game he first learned at the now defunct Philadelphia Table Tennis Center near Allegheny Avenue. The spongy substance that now covers the head of the paddle offers more control, and power, than the old rubber and sandpaper paddles ever did.
"This is a major sport throughout most of the world," continued Zukerman, of Huntingdon Valley. "American players never do anything in international competition."
The tense atmosphere notwithstanding, this is not international competition; it's the JCC's Table Tennis Club, one of dozens of sports, arts and drama clubs that meet at the Klein Branch. Three nights a week, between 10 and 20 players of wide-ranging skill levels and ages use the Klein's four tables to take lessons, play competitive games or just rally around.
The setup often changes; on this particular weeknight, two tables had been set up back-to-back in the cafeteria while one was in use in the basement.
The club is the brainchild of Boris Goldenberg, a lanky 68-year-old who once ran a Soviet-era elite table tennis academy in Kishinev, now the capital of Moldova. Under Goldenberg's tutelage, aspiring players trained full time, and traveled throughout the Soviet Union to compete against athletes from other cities.
When Goldenberg came to the United States in the early 1990s and got a job working as a mechanic in New Jersey, he missed being around the sport. So he started the club as a way for players to get some serious exercise and improve their skills, knowing full well that becoming a world-class player requires more time than most Americans are willing to devote to what is viewed as a marginal sport.
"I am coach," said Goldenberg, now of Bucks County, explaining why he shows up after a full day of work and charges nominal fees for lessons. "It was my life."
One of his students is 11-year-old Anna Vasiliga, who said she got her start as a 5-year-old at a Kiev table tennis school. Rallying with Vasiliga, Goldenberg was content to chip shots back while the young girl, not much taller than the table, blasted the ball, her feet often leaving the ground on her follow-through.
"I love to run around," she said while taking a brief rest.
Yana Pekareva, 23, also got her start in the former Soviet Union. The pharmacy student has time to play twice a week, if she's lucky: not enough table time to think about entering any competitions, but enough to get a good workout and have some fun.
Rather than exploding into the ball like Vasiliga, Pekareva seemed able to generate spin and speed from a simple, effortless-looking flick-of-the-wrist. When it goes right, that is; sometimes the ball flies in unexpected directions.
Ivan Fishman looked out of place dressed in blue jeans; everyone else was wearing shorts or sweat pants. But Fishman said he spends hours playing opponents decades younger than himself. The 77-year-old is convinced that the game keeps him healthy – and young.
"First of all, this is very good for you cardiovascularly. It's very good to always be moving," said Fishman, who pointed out several mind-boggling exchanges on neighboring tables where the velocity of the ball seemed to increase with every stroke.
"This is the quickest game in the world."