Ping-Pong: The latest hip Hollywood pastime

Forget its nerdy past – table tennis is now officially cool, with Hollywood A-list stars among its new army of fans. Emily Dugan reports

Sunday 17 May 2009 00:00 BST
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It has to be one of the unlikeliest Hollywood pastimes yet, involving two people, a couple of vaguely S&M wooden paddles and a hollow plastic ball. Whisper it: ping-pong is cool.

Forget scout huts and church halls – on Saturday, the latest achingly hip New York table tennis venue will open its doors to an adoring star-studded following. SPiN New York will be an exclusive ping-pong parlour big enough to house the sport's growing number of A-list devotees who turn up, bat in hand, at ping-pong social clubs around the city.

Among the Hollywood elite captivated by the craze are the actors Ed Norton and Matthew Broderick, and the actress Susan Sarandon – who will be cutting the ribbon at SPiN's glitzy launch. Even the rapper 50 Cent wants to be seen at America's cult table tennis parties.

All this ping-pong fervour may seem like yet another fleeting Hollywood craze, but when London Mayor Boris Johnson mentioned the game's British beginnings as wiff-waff in his Beijing Olympics speech last year, he reclaimed the sport of the British dining table as something to be proud of. "Ping-pong is coming home," Mr Johnson said. How true.

There are now more than 2.4 million table tennis players in England, according to figures from Sport England, and the number of adults who play every week has risen by more than 20 per cent since 2006, going from 163,000 to 195,000.

All this enthusiasm has paid off. There are now several teenagers already showing the level of talent that could make Britain a genuine contender in the 2012 Olympics. National champion Paul Drinkhall, 19, made the final of the World Junior Championships in Madrid last year and has now moved into adult competition, where he is quickly making his way towards the world top 100.

"Table tennis was looked at as being an old-fashioned sport, but we're changing that now," says Alex Murdoch, chairman of the English Table Tennis Association. "We've become a lot more cool."

Will Lines, 32, is one of a growing number of Britons who have embraced the New York-style social side of the game. He runs a monthly ping-pong and music night at a trendy east London bar, the Fleapit. "We started the night last year and it's been packed every time we've done it," he says. "I also play competitive table tennis, but that's got a bit of an image problem. A lot of the people we play there are octogenarians or social misfits. But what we do at the bar reaches a completely different audience."

Britain's main supplier of table tennis equipment, Bribar, has also witnessed the sudden flurry of enthusiasm for the sport. Co-manager Sue Chapman says: "We've seen a 25 per cent increase in sales in the last year. In a recession, we're extremely pleased that table tennis seems to be flourishing."

Celebrity servers

Ed Norton The Fight Club star took time out from filming in China to get expert tuition.

Susan Sarandon The Oscar-winning 62-year-old was first introduced to the game by her teenage son.

50 cent The rapper recently held a table tennis-themed birthday party.

Emma Watson The Harry Potter starlet is said to be such a demon with the paddle that her male co-stars on set are too embarrassed to play her.

Matthew Broderick The actor keeps a full-sized table in his home office.

Damian Lewis When asked what he would do if he wasn't an actor, Lewis said: "I'd be a professional ping-pong player."

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