Jie Jie Liu, 13, bit her fingernails nervously as she stood at the edge of one of the eight table tennis courts set up in the Armory Sports Center.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “I think he’s going to beat me!”
Jie Jie knew that her opponent, Kerry Xiao, was good because she had seen him play many times before. They train under the same coach in St. Louis.
“I know his strengths and weaknesses, but he knows mine too so I guess it’s even,” Jie Jie said.
When Jie Jie heard her name on the loudspeaker, she and Kerry stepped up to the table and the championship match of the 13-and-younger youth table tennis singles of the Show-Me State Games began.
Jie Jie and Kerry were competing for the United States of America Table Tennis division of the Show-Me State Games. There was also a novice division for players not registered with USATT. There are 126 registered USATT members in Missouri and 7,271 nationwide.
Danny Todd, the commissioner of Show-Me State Games table tennis, said that the purpose of the novice division is to give new players a chance to learn about the sport and get playing experience.
“We try to teach them the rules and regulations,” Todd said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the game of table tennis.”
Todd’s wife, Jody, is the reigning women’s table tennis state champion. She said that table tennis is not considered a serious sport by most Americans.
“This is the second most popular sport in the world in terms of participation but, in the US, hardly anyone takes it seriously,” Jody Todd said.
However, Jie Jie, Kerry, and the three other players at the Show-Me State Games who train under their coach are an exception.
Jie Jie said they practice with their coach once a week and on their own every day. They even play against an electronic robot to build their endurance.
Jie Jie said she became involved in table tennis about two years ago.
“My dad signed us up,” she said, referring to herself and her sister Alicia, 10. “I wasn’t really thinking of it as a major sport.”
Andrew Zhou, 11, who also trains under Jie Jie’s coach, said that at first he didn’t take table tennis seriously either.
“I just started playing for fun, but now I play to get better,” Zhou said. “Now I see it as a real sport.”
Judging by the looks of determination and concentration on their faces as they played, Jie Jie and Kerry view it as a real sport too. They hit the ball back and forth so fast that the orange ball could barely be seen.
In table tennis, the first player to score 11 points wins a game and the first to win three games wins the match. After four games, Jie Jie won her third game and took the championship. Alicia ran from the sidelines and threw her arms around her sister.
Smiling, Jie Jie said she is proud of her victory but playing is what she enjoys the most.
“It feels good to do something all by yourself,” Jie Jie said. “I really like individual sports and challenges where you rely on yourself.”
Seventy-one people registered to participate in the Show-Me State Games table tennis competition this year, held from 8 am to 3 pm Saturday and from 9 am to 4 pm today.
“We had a lot of people from Columbia, which is good,” Judy Todd said.