Sophia Zhou takes Pa. Table Tennis title in East Falls

Don’t call it ping pong. It’s table tennis.

And for those who think it’s just a hobby reserved to rec rooms and summer camps, meet the newest state champ, Sophia Zhou. During this weekend’s Pennsylvania State Tournament at the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in the Falls Center, Zhou executed one win after another with finesse that left the other 100 registered players without recourse.

She’s ranked high by USA Table Tennis, the non-profit governing body for U.S. table tennis, at 2600. In table tennis speak, this means she’s really good. In fact, she’s the second-highest ranked female player in the country.

So, when it was announced that for the final match she would be pitted against her student, 15-year-old King of Prussia resident Calvin Chan, Chan was nervous, right?

Well, not exactly. 

“I wasn’t too worried,” Chan said after the match, which he lost. “I mean, obviously she was going to win but I think I played very well.”

Zhou, who recently moved to America to “play ping pong and learn English,” described the win as just “okay.”

“I’ve played so much before in China so this tournament is just for fun,” the state champion said. “If everyone’s happy, it’s okay.”

And, indeed, despite Zhou’s dominance during the tournament, the love of the sport prevailed for most of the other players. Some traveled from as far as Pittsburgh, the Poconos and Williamsport to compete.

The ‘lifetime sport’ 

For the tournament’s organizer, Ken Weinstein, the best part of the game is that it is a “lifetime sport.”

“I grew up playing and loved the sport and then, like a lot of people, I stopped playing and then got back into it,” Weinstein said. Players ranged in age from 9 and 10 years old to those in their mid to late 70s.

Weinstein founded the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club, named after the Trolley Car Diner and Deli, which he owns. The club has been around for two years, and now attracts as many as 25 to 35 members every day, according to Weinstein.

“It’s sort of a build it and they will come kind of concept,” Weinstein said of the club, which is open seven days a week.

Determination and high ambition 

Alex Polyakov, a regular at the club, has written a book documenting his quest to achieve a “2000” rating from USA Table Tennis. He was pleased with the tournament, even though he didn’t make it to the finals.

“The plan is always to advance, but it would be arrogant to assume that you’re just going to advance to the finals,” Polyakov said. “It’s an incredibly difficult game. It’s more than just hitting the ball.”

Polyakov was mentored by Gerald Reid, a Philadelphia native who can’t quite pin down when he first started playing table tennis.

“That was a long time ago,” Reid said. While Reid no longer competes, two of his current students, 15-year-old Shay Sinha and 10-year-old Prasiddha Parthsarthy, participated in the tournament.

“I’m 30th in the country,” Parthsarthy proudly said, adding that he had only been playing for a few years. While he wasn’t able to defeat some of the more seasoned players, he is confident that he “will win next year.”

Reid said that he and his students will keep training in the Falls Center throughout the year in order to prep for the next state championship.

Bringing attention to the East Falls club and the sport 

Last weekend’s tournament marked the first time in 19 years that the Pa. State Table Tennis Championship was held in Philadelphia. Weinstein hopes that the tournament will bring more attention to the club, and more attention to the sport. He said that he, too, will continue to practice in preparation for next year’s tournament and other regional competitions.

“I’m still learning,” Weinstein said. “Table tennis is really an interesting game because everyone grows up playing in their basement but they have no idea that there are four or five levels above them.”

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