Matching Interests

A Columbia-based table tennis club is serving up competition and community.
Sunday, March 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Danny Todd stands on one side of the table-tennis table. His 18-year-old son, Will, is on the other. Both are undefeated on the night.

“I’ve got to admit I’m tired,” Danny Todd says as he volleys with his son to warm up.

The elder Todd is on his second shirt, having sweated through the first after 90 minutes of playing. His son is still wearing the same polo shirt he arrived in.

Will Todd is in good shape after playing for the Douglass basketball team this past season.

He has beaten his father in table tennis before, but only in the family basement.

Danny Todd did his best to be sly as he held the ball underneath the table. His opponent’s eyes stalked his every movement.

Paul Xiong looked for any telling gesture that would give him an advantage.

The two were about to face one another in a table tennis match at the Liberty Baptist Church gymnasium.

If Xiong, wearing a “Yao Ming Fan Club” t-shirt, guessed which hand Todd held the ball in, he would get to serve first.

Xiong was not fooled. His grin grew bigger than the 7-foot-6 NBA player featured on his shirt.

Xiong pointed to Todd’s left hand and kept smiling. He guessed right. His serve.

But Xiong’s minor victory turned out to be the only positive part in the match for him. Todd switched his play back-and-forth from an overpowering offensive strategy to a defensive one.

He kept his opponent at bay and ended the match quickly.

Todd beat Xiong in three straight games and waited for his next challenger. At that point in the evening, they all had gone away beaten.

Danny Todd has defeated almost everyone he has faced in table tennis over the last several years.

He is especially dominant on Thursday nights from 6 to 9.

That is when the Columbia chapter of the USA Table Tennis club meets. Todd is its president.

Danny Todd and his wife, Judy, started the club in 1978. Ian Long was its first member.

All one has to do to join is apply for membership to the USATT and keep up with the annual dues.

Matches are a best-of-five game series. Each game is played to 11. Players switch serves after every two points. You have to win by at least two.

The club has met at Liberty Baptist since September. They can fit four tables and still allow players ample room to move around.

“For a church this size, this is really a nice gym,” Danny Todd said.

Before they played here, the club met at Christian Fellowship Church for one year. Its gym was bigger and could accommodate eight tables.

The club moved to Liberty Baptist because Christian Fellowship had run out of space. The room once used to store tables was needed for the church’s school.

Rothwell Gymnasium on the MU campus was the long-time home of the club. It had met there from 1980 until about two years ago.

Demolition of the gymnasium was called for in 2003 as part of the Brewer Project, which expanded the MU Student Recreation Center.

Melting pot of players

Club member Mohammad Sarmadi watched a match while he waited for a table to open up.

“There are all kinds of professions here in this club,” Sarmadi said as he gestured to Brett Barton, a Columbia lawyer.

Tonight’s group of 15 people was considered an average turnout. But it included players from all around the world.

Sarmadi began playing in Iran when an elementary school friend introduced him to the game.

He came to Columbia in 1970 to enroll at MU. Sarmadi received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1974 and his master’s a year later. He met Danny Todd while in school.

Sarmadi retired from teaching last year. His most recent job was at Penn State University.

He moved back to Columbia two months ago and picked up with the club where he left off.

Next to Sarmadi sat Rahul Gunda from India. Gunda, 24, is a master’s student in electrical engineering at MU.

He has played table tennis since he was 15. He found out about the club through Judy Todd.

She is the MU coordinator for non-US citizen tax and employment. She dealt with Gunda when he registered at MU.

Gunda told her that he played table tennis. Judy Todd told him about her husband’s club.

Xiong played at the far side of the gym. He moved to Columbia from Houston last year after coming to the United States in 1992.

He works as a programmer analyst for the administration information technology services at MU. Xiong cited many reasons for coming to the club.

“Exercise is my major one,” Xiong said. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. You meet friends.”

His opponent, Robert Simmons retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department 10 years ago.

He moved to Columbia to be closer to family.

“It’s a good workout,” Simmons said. “You work up a good sweat. You work out some stress.”

Father and son have not squared off at Liberty Baptist in a few months. The dream of defeating his father here shoots through Will Todd.

He learned to play table tennis when he was two years old. Sometimes he would play on the coffee table. At others, his father would stand him on a chair to practice with a Table Tennis Robot.

Will Todd wins the first game with a bang. There is determination in his eyes when he overpowers his father with hard shots that draw “oohs” and “aahs” from the small crowd.

Danny Todd roars back in the second game. The wily veteran plays more defensively, standing far behind the table to force his son into hitting long shots.

m m l m m m m m m m

This is not ping pong

Barton had a dilemma when he moved into his new house. One room was giving him fits.

“I couldn’t think of anything to do with it except for put a ping-pong table in it,” Barton said.

Now a room designated for the sport lies below his one-car garage.

He has friends over to play occasionally and also practices with a Table Tennis Robot he got from Germany.

A robot can cost between $500 and $4000, Barton said. It feeds balls at different speeds and locations.

The room has a few drawbacks. There are certain constraints there that are nonexistent at Liberty Baptist.

The ceiling is much lower than the gym’s and there is not as much room to move around, things integral for table tennis.

“People that use the terminology ‘ping pong’ really have no idea of the amount of spin and speed there is in the game of table tennis,” he said.

Barton grew up with a table in his house. The game he played just involved hitting the ball back-and-forth without technique.

“We use strokes to impart spin on the ball and shift our weight into the ball,” Danny Todd said.

There is also a great deal of running and movement involved.

“People laugh at me when I tell them, ‘Oh I played table tennis last night for two hours and I’m so sore I can’t walk today,’” Barton said.

Barton is one of the players in the club who participate in national tournaments.

Every player who plays in a tournament is assigned ratings points.

If a player beats a higher-rated player, they gain points. If they lose to someone rated lower, they lose points.

A 1900 ranking or above puts you in the top ten percent in the country.

The top player in the United States has a rating near 2800. Danny Todd’s best lifetime rating was 1933.

The showdown

The third game is closer than the first two. Danny Todd defends his son’s shots and even has the upper hand for awhile.

Will Todd takes the game after setting his father up on game point. Danny Todd returns the spin serve right to his son’s forehand.

Will Todd anticipates this. He sends a thrashing shot down the center of the table as if to say, ‘Take that, old man.’

The momentum from the strike carries Will Todd in the next game. He wins the match 3-1 to prevail on the grand stage.

But his bragging rights will last for less than an hour.

His father wants a rematch when they get home.

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