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Released Februrary 10, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - With balls reaching speeds of 100 mph, table tennis is one of the fastest sports in the world. It's also one of the fastest growing. And like the sport's popularity, the reputation of The University of Southern Mississippi table tennis team is shooting upward.

In its first year playing competitively, the Southern Miss team has already established itself as one of the nation's best table tennis teams. This weekend the Golden Eagles, ranked sixth nationally, dominated No. 16 Mississippi State and others to win the Dixie Region Conference championship on the Hattiesburg campus. Southern Miss, which boasts the top three players in the state, will now test its mettle against the nation's 16 best teams at the NCTTA championship on April 9-11 in Fremont, Calif.

Nara "Tiger" Ramakrishnan, Southern Miss' team captain and the second-best player in the state, is eager to dispel a few myths about table tennis. Far from a recreational sport found only in game rooms, table tennis is a worldwide phenomenon with more than 10 million registered competitors and is also an Olympic sport.

"This is a physically demanding sport," said Ramakrishnan, an international student who played table tennis semiprofessionally in India. "I train with weights and run six to eight miles a week in addition to practice. You can't reach the upper levels of this sport by just playing a few times a week."

The mental aspect of table tennis compounds the physical aspect, Ramakrishnan said. With the ball spinning 10,000 times a minute and reaching tennis-like speeds - only over a much shorter distance - players must react in the blink of an eye. "Scientists have clocked the time a player has to react, and it's about half a second," Ramakrishnan said. "When you must consider the spin and the angle of the ball, and the best way to play it, that's not a lot of time."

Southern Miss should enter the national championship as the third seed. Only five teams, all with established programs, are currently ranked higher than Southern Miss: Princeton, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Florida and No. 1 ranked Indiana. No. 7 MIT, Georgia Tech, Cornell and Penn round out the top 10.

One reason for Southern Miss' initial success is its strong international presence. Although the sport is barely on the radar screen in the United States in terms of competitive exposure, in other countries - like Sweden, Korea, Germany and Japan - it is second only to soccer in popularity.

Ranked No. 1 in the state, the team's top player, Kim Bong Geun, played for the South Korean junior national table tennis team. "My sister is ranked No. 75 in the world. She is sponsored by a Korean company and plays professionally," Geun said.

Southern Miss also boasts the third-best player in the state, Kenny Thai Viet, from Vietnam. Maria Montano, a music student from Venezuela, is the only female player on the eight-person team. Montano's father played competitive table tennis on an international level.

In the Dixie Region Conference championships, Southern Miss had little trouble dispatching its competition, winning 6-0. Played like the Davis Cup in tennis, the tournament requires each team to play its top five players, and the team winning the best-of-five series is awarded points. Teams also play doubles matches. The Dixie Region Conference, in its first year, consists of Southern Miss, Mississippi State, South Alabama and West Florida. Southern Miss finished 5-0 overall in conference play.

Southern Miss faculty adviser Dr. Adel Ali said he was proud of his team's performance Saturday. "This team has the potential to be very, very good. We have a lot of strong players with a good background in the sport," Ali said.

Although it's too early to talk about a table tennis dynasty at Southern Miss, Ramakrishnan said his team has laid a solid foundation for the future. With Geun, Viet and him returning next year, the team has its essential competitive core intact. "We are just one top-notch player away from taking our team to the next level," he said.

Mississippi State team captain Wassim Chao said after the competition that he was impressed with the level of talent on Southern Miss' team. "We expected them to be very good," Chao said. "It helps your club when you've got a lot of international players. And, of course, one of them happens to have played for the Korean national team."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM