At age six, Azrai Ali remembers the day his father brought home the family’s first table tennis table. It would be at the edge of that table where Ali would master a serve that would allow him to win the first Asian Awareness Month table tennis tournament.
Still playing 18 years later, Ali continues to perfect his skills and compete through the SIUC Table Tennis Club. As a part of Asian Awareness Month, eight people competed in the table tennis tournament that tested both students’ patience and wrists. Ali, who won the competition, walked away with a $30 gift certificate to Kaya Japanese Restaurant.
Greg Dillard, SIUC’s Table Tennis Club coach, said table tennis is second only to soccer for being the most popular game in Europe and Asia. He said while athletes in America can make millions of dollars for playing football or basketball, professional table tennis players make about $300,000.
Dillard has played in national tournaments but retired from the lifestyle 10 years ago.
“It almost cost me a marriage,” Dillard said. “I was very serious about this game.”
But today Dillard coaches the eight members of the Table Tennis Club on the weekends. Ali said Dillard comes to help the players for hours a day and does not ask for money or anything in return.
“I want to improve so I can, in a way, return the favor,” Ali said.
Ali, a graduate student from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is studying mechanical engineering as well as slowly destroying opponents with mind-numbing, spin-laden serves. He said he really started playing table tennis seriously at the age of 10. Ali said the trick of the game is in the serve.
“It’s a very skilled game,” Ali said. He has traveled to St. Louis, Mo., and as far as Baltimore, Md., to play tournaments for the Table Tennis Club.
Zhe Wang, a graduate student from Beijing, China, studying mechanical engineering, received a $20 gift certificate to Kaya for placing second.
“It’s a surprise,” Wang said. Wang is also a member of the Table Tennis Club and said he plays Ali, the man to beat, a lot when practicing.
Sivaram Nagarajan, a graduate student from Hyderabad, India, studying civil engineering, said he came to have fun. Nagarajan would play his heart into third place and received a $10 gift certificate to Kaya.
“I really love the game,” Hyderabad said. “I’m going to go spend [the gift certificate] tonight. I don’t want to waste it.”
Several other players played, even though they did not receive any reward for participation. Marco Matthews, a graduate of SIUC who works at WSIL, an ABC affiliate, said he used to play when he was younger but can’t find many people to play anymore.
“I love table tennis,” Matthews said. “I was glad I got as many points as I did.”
Choi Harkwan, president of the Hong Kong Student Association, said table tennis is a much easier sport for everyone to enjoy rather than soccer or martial arts. She also said she hopes the group can have more tournaments.
“It gives us more chance to be with Americans and to help you learn more about our culture,” Harkwan said.
The Hong Kong Student Association and Multicultural Programs and Studies campus organizations sponsored the event.
Carl Ervin, coordinator of Student Development, said Asian Awareness Month is usually celebrated in May, but the University celebrates it early so all students can learn and enjoy Asian culture.
“College is about learning about each other and learning about the world around you,” Ervin said. “We all play a part of it, and we try to encourage people to all get involved.”
Reporter Julie Engler can be reached at [email protected]