IT was a rivalry that led to romance.
He was an up-and-coming player, a national champion among players over 30 and president of the New Jersey Table Tennis Club. She was an established star, an agile athlete and a recent immigrant from China.
They were introduced as quarterfinal opponents during an open tournament in Connecticut; the year was 1991. He jumped out to an early lead, but she battled back. He led, 19-16, in the fifth and final game, but she rallied to win, 21-19.
Now, Barry Dattel and Lily Yip are married and the unofficial first couple of table tennis in New Jersey, a mixed doubles team on the court and off, a laid-back yet intensely competitive pair dedicated to their sport.
Theirs is a sport that many Americans play but few appreciate. For starters, there is the problem of what to call it: It's table tennis, not Ping-Pong.
"Technically, they're the same, except that Ping-Pong is the game you play in your basement," Mr. Dattel said. "Everyone considers Ping-Pong to be a game without any kind of skill or athletic ability, as opposed to table tennis, where you have to learn how to be agile enough to move the ball. Everything is spin."
Whereas 20 million people play Ping-Pong in this country, only 7,000 belong to table tennis clubs, according to the sport's governing body.
In table tennis competition, men and women usually play separately. But they share a magic number: 2,000. That is the number of personal ranking points, determined by a complex set of computations, that defines a master of the game, the equivalent of the .300 hitter in baseball or the 1,000-yard rusher in football.
Mr. Dattel and Ms. Yip are well above that threshold: He has a ranking of 2,432, she a ranking of 2,395, according to the most recent issue of Table Tennis Today. By contrast, a basement player who considers himself the best in the neighborhood might have a ranking of about 800 or 900, Mr. Dattel said.
The competition is intense at the New Jersey Table Tennis Club, regarded as the country's second best, behind one in Maryland. The New Jersey club has 200 members, more than 30 of whom have exceeded 2,000 points.
The club is located in a former bowling alley here and runs mostly on membership fees; adults pay $225 a year. The club is open every night, from 6:30 P.M. until midnight, or whenever the last match ends.
The decor does not recall that of a plush tennis club; there are no juice bars or carpeted locker rooms. But the club has top-of-the-line equipment: eight 20 wooden tables costing $1,000 apiece, hardwood floors, high ceilings and nonglare lighting.
Play adheres to national rules: tables measure 9 feet by 5 feet, courts occupy 40 by 20 feet of space, and nets are about 6 1/2 inches high.
And good players make use of all that space. On any given point, the server stands still, plotting strategy, eyeing the opponent's position. Then the serve is executed with a burst of speed. There is a dancelike frenzy as opponents thrust and parry with offensive and defensive shots and glide from side to side, back and forth, behind the table and off to the sides. This is not a sport in which you can park yourself behind the table, waiting for the ball to come to you. The top players aspire to a catlike blur, with the instincts of a fencer.
Mr. Dattel and Ms. Yip certainly fit that description, but others involved in the sport say they contribute much more.
"They do a lot for table tennis in New Jersey," said Dan Seemiller, President of USA Table Tennis, the governing body. "They're always teaching and doing clinics, and they really seem to help the kids."
Mr. Dattel and Ms. Yip stress that table tennis is a sport requiring exceptional hand-eye coordination, anticipation in reading the spin, flexible wrists and patience. Wind sprints and weight-lifting also help in a sport where balls can zip by at 100 miles an hour, spinning 3,500 revolutions a minute. But it is most important, they said, to have good coaching and good work habits.
Practice, after all, is what made Forrest Gump such a good Ping -- oops, table tennis player. Or was Forrest just a fake?
"People don't use those strokes or techniques," Mr. Dattel said, laughing. "Forrest Gump wasn't anything like you've ever seen before. No one can move their hands that fast. It was a little bit of movie magic, but it was good advertising for table tennis."
Which could use a boost in the United States. Players here lag far behind those in China and Europe. Think of how well Americans fare in, say, cross-country skiing in the Winter Olympics, and you get an idea of how they stack up against countries that groom players from preschool age. The top-ranked American would do well to break into the top 200 in the world.
It may not be surprising, then, that the top players here are predominantly Asian immigrants with plenty of experience. The current American champion is David Zhuang, a 31-year-old computer programmer who grew up in China and now lives in North Brunswick.The No. 2 player in New Jersey is Mr. Dattel. YOU could say that Mr. Dattel has table tennis in his blood. His own marriage was foreshadowed by that of his parents, who met as accomplished tournament players.
Yet his parents would not let young Barry play. "It was considered a parlor sport in the 30's and 40's, and they emphasized education," said Mr. Dattel, who is 36.
So he took up tennis instead, winning the New Jersey State Championship as a Kean College student. He even taught the game for a while. But after he picked up table tennis, he steadily improved, and began to win tournaments. He is now one of the top 16 male players in the country.
Ms. Yip, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, started playing the game when she was 7 years old. She worked with coaches for three hours each day after school, and after high school she joined the provincial team, the equivalent of a state all-star team. Three times, she finished in the top 16 in the national tournament.
She gave up the sport in her early 20's, however. "I was just tired," she said. She attended college, then moved to the United States in 1987. Three years later, she entered a tournament for fun, and finished third. Since then, Ms. Yip, 31, has been a regular on the United States National Team, participating in the 1992 Olympics and the last three World Championships. She has also been runner-up for three years in the United States Women's Championships.
These days, Ms. Yip is one of the few people in her sport who can play for a living. She coaches, practices and travels much of the time. Already this year, she has been to China three times for tournaments, and once each to Britain and Argentina. The next big tournament is the World Team Cup in Atlanta in August; the Olympic team tryouts will be held early next year. Mr. Dattel, on the other hand, works full time as a computer systems programmer for a Bridgewater law firm.
On the court, they are a formidable doubles team. They have reached the semifinals of the United States championships the last two years. Off the court, they live in Metuchen and want children someday.
But their days as the first couple may be numbered. Mr. Zhuang, the current American champion, was married recently to Joannie Fu, another top-ranked player. They included a poem written by a friend, "Love Is Like a Ping-Pong Ball," in their wedding invitations. The last stanza could well apply to Mr.Dattel and Ms. Yip.
So on this day of warm, spring air,
We gather and forget our troubles.
Let's raise a glass as they warm up
For a lifelong game of doubles.