Wang makes table tennis team over Reed
The last thing on Timothy Wang’s mind six years ago was landing a spot on the United States table tennis team headed for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Wang was about to make yet another transition in his life, going from hard-court tennis back to table tennis three years after leaving the table for the more conventional version of the sport. But on Sunday afternoon, he stood tall after eliminating fellow American Barney Reed in five sets to qualify for the Olympics.
“I’m kind of in shock right now,” Wang said. “I can’t really believe it.”
Wang didn’t play table tennis from 2003 to 2006, instead committing to tennis. His school didn’t have a team, but he was an intramural champion in the Houston area. However, at the urging of his father, Wang went back to the sport people more socially refer to as pingpong, and four years later won the U.S. national championship. That was when he realized playing in the Olympics was an achievable goal.
In fact, Wang said playing regular tennis made him better on the table. He has more power as a result, and even some of his mannerisms between points will remind one of watching many of the players on the ATP circuit.
Wang often jogs a little in place or even from one side of the table to the other and back. He also sweats like a tennis player. And after every point, Wang lets out a little grunt similar to Rafael Nadal. The movements of his feet are clearly something he adopted when playing with a racket.
“I just try to keep my feet moving,” said Wang, who will turn 21 in London. “If I stop, even for one point, I lose my momentum.”
Defeating Reed on Sunday at Bond Park Community Center, just south of Raleigh, came with some significant challenges. It was Wang’s first victory over the 33-year-old, and Reed’s style can be distracting to opponents.
Reed is rather unconventional for the sport. Rarely do players display any theatrics other than slight fist pumps when scoring points. Reed, though, clearly stands out.
Some of the histrionics on display by Reed on Sunday included him kicking the ball after losing three straight points during the second set, a series of facial expressions, notably when displeased, and even moving one of the barriers back several feet after being unable to reach the ball on a point scored by Wang.
“He does try to get you off your momentum a little bit,” Wang said. “He does try to wipe the table a little bit or talk to you a little bit . . . His goal is definitely to try to mess up your momentum. He’s trying to get you off your pace, but you just have to stay focused.”
Adding to the difficulty of the day is that Wang and Reed are friends, as are all of the men competing to represent the red, white and blue. They train in Houston, though at different table tennis clubs. But still, eliminating a friend from Olympic qualifying isn’t easy.
“We’ve gotten really close, and we’re all really good friends now,” Wang said. “No matter who wins or who loses, we’ve got each other’s backs.”
But this was about qualifying for the Olympics. Friendships were put aside during the weekend.
“You have to think for yourself,” said Wang, who is 5-foot-9, 140 pounds. “This competition is once every four years, so you have to prepare four years for this one moment. And definitely you’re friends, but you also have to think about yourself.”
Table tennis is important to the Wang family. Timothy’s mother was born in Taiwan and his father is from China, where both played the sport before moving to the States some 30 years ago. Timothy remembers following his father to the local table tennis center as a kid and watching him compete. He fell in love with the game, and now he’s an Olympian representing his country.
“I was thinking about that a little bit in my match (Saturday) when I was in the finals,” Wang said, smiling. “When I was up 3-2 I was thinking, ‘I can almost taste this, I can almost taste this. I’m doing this for my country, for my team. I’m so close.’”
In other important action Sunday, 15-year-old Lily Zhang earned the final spot on the U.S. women’s team, joining close friend Ariel Hsing. Hsing, 16, earned her spot Friday.
Zhang, who is from Palo Alto, Calif., said heading to London is a dream come true.
“It feels like I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for so long,” said Zhang, who noted that she first realized this was a realistic goal when she was 11. “It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid. And now that it’s finally here, I just feel like it’s still a dream.”