Ruth Hua looks barely 5 feet tall, but she can really move.
On Tuesday night at the J.A. Henry YMCA on Brainerd Road, Hua, 70, is playing a mean game of table tennis against Tim Neuendorf, 20. She's tiny, with a shock of frizzy black hair. He's skinny, redheaded and alabaster pale. They're quite the match.
Hua and Neuendorf whack the ball (regulation 40 mm diameter) back and forth. He hits a shot that bounces wide of the table. It looks like an unreachable ball, but she dives and returns it.
"She's giving me a good fight," said Neuendorf of his opponent.
The two are members of the Chattanooga Table Tennis Club. The multinational group ranges from children to an octogenarian. Several of the members work for Volkswagen.
"One of the byproducts of Volkswagen is it has really improved the quality of table tennis in the Chattanooga area," said club vice president Alice Tym, 67, who recently won a gold medal in the Senior Olympics.
One VW import is Steffen Krull, 27, who moved to the Scenic City from Germany four months ago. He began playing at age 16 after he discovered that chess wasn't providing enough of a workout.
"I became a little too heavy, so I had to do something," he said, dripping sweat onto his yellow LiveStrong jersey. "When you play (table tennis) the right way, you have to move."
*Balls of Fury
*The Squid and the Whale
TABLE TENNIS RULES
* Games are played to 11 points.
* Matches are the best of any odd number of games.
* At least 85 percent of the blade (part of the racket that actually hits the ball) must be of natural wood.
* The ball must be tossed at least 16 centimeters from the server's open palm.
* The ball must touch the opponent's side of the table to be considered a good return.
Source: uastt.org, Official Web Site of USA Table Tennis
A BRIEF HISTORY:
Table tennis was introduced in England in the latter half of the 19th century, following the popularity of lawn tennis. It was also known as Gossima, Whiff-Whaff and, of course, Ping Pong. In the first years of the 20th century, the game was introduced in Asia, then became popular in Central Europe. The first table tennis World Cup was held in Hong Kong in 1980. The sport was played at the Olympic Games for the first time in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. China has largely dominated the sport since the mid-80s, sweeping multiple World Championships and winning all gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Sources: International Table Tennis Foundation, Robbins Table Tennis
The sport has become a trend of late, spurred on by, what else, Hollywood. Actress Susan Sarandon has turned her love for the sport into a business venture, helping to launch SPiN, a table tennis bar and club, with branches in Los Angeles, New York and Milwaukee.
Actor John Stamos recently guest-starred on the HBO show "Entourage" as a paddle-happy version of himself.
And Matthew Broderick was quoted in New York Magazine as saying: "I was playing pingpong when it wasn't, 'Everybody's playing pingpong.' Now everybody's going nuts over it. I resent that ... I've moved on to jai alai."
The members of the CTTC aren't reaching for their xisteras quite yet, but don't call it pingpong in front of them. That's more recreational. Think basements and garages. These players are here to bring it.
"In pingpong, you don't sweat at all," said Ralph Jakobs, head of research and development at Volkswagen, pointing to his soaked shirt. "If you look like this, it's table tennis."
"I had to quit my Chinese," said Dr. Paul Hua, 80, who moved from Taiwan to the United States in 1973 with his wife, Ruth. "Whatever (the club leaders) say, I have to say."
On Tuesday night, Hua's opponent is Tym. She is compact, dressed in black with a blue bandana around her head. He is tall, bald, his green T-shirt tucked into his gray short. The two smack the ball back and forth, making each other run.
He played some table tennis recreationally in China, where it is considered the national sport. He started playing "for real," however, with the CTTC in 1995.
Hua and his wife often team up for mixed doubles. "But if we lose, it's my fault," he quipped. "She's my coach, but I'm better."
The coach for the team is Nedzad Dizdarvic, nicknamed Dino. Dizdarvic, 63, has been playing table tennis for nearly 50 years, since he was a child in Bosnia. He came to the U.S. in 1998, following a six year stint in Germany, where he lived after being rescued from an internment camp during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He remembers sitting at the kitchen table with his wife and mother when soldiers came banging on his door.
After his release, he suffered three heart attacks in Germany, where his doctor told him medical advances were not progressive enough in his home country to return. So he moved to Chattanooga, where he joined up with the CTTC.
Playing table tennis, Dizdarvic said, helps him to maintain his health and fitness. "It's very good recreation for me," he said.
He and the other club members reap social rewards as well.
"Here," he said, "I have many friends."
Friends are welcome at the CTTC. On Tuesday night, Mariano Herrara, an 18-year veteran of the sport, has brought his friend, Luis Bravilla, to try table tennis for the first time.
They volley the ball back and forth, not quite hitting with the aggressiveness seen at some of the other tables. They might even be borderline ping ponging. But it is, after all, Bravilla's introduction to the sport.
Herrera seems to think his friend will be breaking a proper table tennis sweat in no time.
"He's good," he called as they hit the ball back and forth. "He has potential."