A Timeless Game

There’s an intense match in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Columbus Table Tennis Club, the furious volleys on display like a three-dimensional broadcast to the parking lot of the University City Shopping Center. Two other players square off in the opposite corner, their efforts more deliberate and measured. The rest of the tables are unoccupied.

Just inside the door, Al Fish munches on a chocolate bar while he oversees the sign-in sheet at the front desk. A man walks in from the January cold.

“Where’s everybody?”

“They’re coming, Amer,” Al says. “They’re coming.”

“I hope so,” Amer replies.

“Though I can’t guarantee it,” Al says as an afterthought.

He operates the Columbus Table Tennis Club on Wednesday nights, but Al’s a member so he’s a frequent visitor. He was here two nights ago, and Saturday and Sunday, too, and the weekend before that, on and on back further than he can remember. He started coming sometime in the late-60s, he thinks. He met his wife Anne at the club during league night; she’s been competing here since 1962.

According to Anne, the club was founded by Guy Blair in the 1940s at Olentangy Village. He started it as a for-profit venture, and sold it before the location moved to Cleveland Avenue north of Hudson. Then it relocated downtown to a warehouse attic and has bounced in and out of several storefronts in other strip-shopping centers around town over the years. It was incorporated as a nonprofit sometime between 1968-71, during the era when Al met Anne, and has been run by unpaid volunteers since. She has served in every officer’s position, some more than once, and she helps behind the scenes anytime it’s foundering.

Membership has generally grown, though, and currently stands at 110-115. People can join on a quarterly or yearly basis, or walk-ins can pay on the spot – Palmer peels off a five and two ones to cover his evening. Every night features open-play pickup games, and Al estimates that 20 to 30 competitors visit on average, with weekends drawing the largest crowds. Amer drives up from Cincinnati once a week to play.

“This is one of the few clubs actually in the country that’s open every night of the week,” Al says. “There just aren’t many that do that.”

The club hosts tournaments two to three times per year, and its members help organize other tourneys around Central Ohio. For those still learning table tennis or attempting to refine their game, the club also offers paid coaching. Al points to the match in the far corner, which is actually a training session. An older man and a woman trade volleys back and forth, practicing a specific stroke. His parabolic shots appear effortless, landing near her forehand corner each time, while her arcing returns stretch slightly longer on every attempt until they no longer find the table at all.

The coach’s name is John Tannehill, and he’s one of the highest-rated players at the club, Al says, producing a Time magazine in a protective plastic stand and placing it on the desk. The cover features members of the U.S. table tennis team standing on the Great Wall of China during their storied visit in April 1971 that was dubbed “ping pong diplomacy.” As a young man, Tannehill was on that trip, which helped improve international relations between the two countries.

A young woman walks in and asks Al if he has her paddle, which he finds in the closet next to him. An older woman signs in, and within minutes she’s playing against a middle-aged man, her deft paddle movements second nature as the ball rockets between them. The room has become a mixture of ages, ethnicities and genders as the matches multiply.

“You can play table tennis your whole life,” Anne says. “Al and I are in our 70s, and we’re both still enjoying the sport very much.”

Ping pong balls rotate in the air and shoot across the tables, spinning off the surface like they were torqued by an invisible hand, the clacking sound becoming steadier and filling the space. It’s just another Wednesday, one of many before it, with many more to come.

The Columbus Table Tennis Club is open from 5:30 – 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 – 11 p.m. on the weekends. An evening session costs $7 for non-members and $5 for students. For more information, visit columbustabletennisclub.com.