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Ahead of World Championship, charm of table tennis in Houston fans' eyes

Houston, Nov 21 (IANS) There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people's eyes. But in the eyes of local fans in Houston, U.S., where the World Table Tennis Championships open on Tuesday, the sport is fun for anyone of any age.

As a game for both recreation and competition, table tennis has been booming in Texas' largest city and across America in recent years, members of a Houston table tennis club told Xinhua earlier this month.

"I think American people are starting to play ping pong more than before," said club owner Dylan Nguyen. "We have exactly 12 tables right now and are looking into increasing by eight more tables during the first quarter of 2022."

Table tennis is a lifelong sport that can be played at any age for both physical and mental health benefits, said Nguyen, noting that the Texas Table Tennis Training Center, which he set up in 2013, now has more than 150 members whose ages range from five to 84 years old, reports Xinhua.

According to Nguyen, it's safe to play table tennis in his club even during the pandemic, since all players are required to have been fully vaccinated and the width and length of the tables perfectly meet the U.S. CDC's guidelines for keeping a six-foot social distance.

Santiago "Jimbo" Valdez, one of the five coaches in the club, started playing table tennis in a local bar 15 years ago at the age of 41. "I started late and I decided I'm too old to get really good," he explained to Xinhua why he chose to become a coach.

"I really enjoy the game. I love promoting table tennis. I'm always watching videos, mostly Chinese videos on how to get better. I watch them a lot and I pass that knowledge onto my students," said Jimbo.

"It's a very friendly game. It's good for your health. It's good for your mind. So I just said, I'm going to learn this. And it's really helped me physically and mentally. It's just such an awesome game. I love table tennis," he said.

Jimbo added that table tennis can help improve people's self-discipline. "A table tennis player is very much disciplined, physically, mentally, and socially also," he observed. "I've trained kids to teenagers and most of them start doing better in school. They do better with their parents. They're learning disciplines better."

Hector Bennet, 63, comes to the club with his 15-year-old son about three times a week and likes the fact that ping pong is a safe, non-contact sport.

"My health has deteriorated. I am doing chemo and radiation and all kinds of stuff. So whenever I get a chance, I try to practice," said Bennet, adding that he started playing table tennis at six years old when he lived in Jamaica.

Bennet said his son also started playing table tennis in childhood until "electronic games got him".

"But now he is trying to get back into it. He wants to play again. I think he is using table tennis as bonding for us," said Bennet.

Elsewhere, Hannah Song is a 14-year-old U.S. junior national team member whose curiosity and desire for new experiences was piqued by table tennis. "I feel like table tennis brings me a lot of unpredictable things. I think people underestimate table tennis," she said, revealing that her dream is to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Vicktor Sabonj, a teacher and assistant principal at a high school in Houston, currently teaches about 10 students in the club during his spare time.

Starting at nine years old in Novi Sad, Serbia, Sabonj, who moved to the United States in the 1990s, considers ping pong "by far the most special sport". "You can continuously improve your skill level from being a little kid until you are a hundred years old."

Furthermore, "if you look into our club here, this feels like you are in the middle of the United Nations," the part-time coach marveled. "We have people from all over the world, from China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa."

"Honestly, we are a United Nation and table tennis is the perfect glue for everybody," he said. "Table tennis is the best way to unite people in the world, I would say."