‘Portland has always been a hotbed for table tennis’

WIMBLEDON, complete with its all-white uniforms and famous grass courts, becomes the center of the tennis universe every June. But when it comes to the Brits’ home version of the game—Ping-Pong—the action is on our side of the pond.

All across P-town, watering holes like Southeast Portland’s Blitz Ladd—which just added biweekly tournaments and seven tables devoted solely to Ping-Pong—have cleared space for this Brady Bunch–era throwback. Wait times for Ping-Pong tables at Rontoms can stretch to an hour. And last fall, Recess Time, a social rec league, launched an official Ping-Pong league that now has some 15 teams. (Their names—King Pong and Table Menace among them—seem to have been inspired by roller derby.)

But in Portland, Ping-Pong isn’t just for the PBR-and-tattoo set: the Portland Table Tennis Club welcomes all comers, and Portland State University, Lewis & Clark College, and Portland Community College all host active teams. In fact, in 2008 Portland State’s squad took third in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association’s regional championships.

The sport’s evolution from basement diversion to hip hobby is part of a national trend—Ping-Pong’s popularity has jumped nearly 10 percent over the past four years, according to USA Table Tennis. Even celebrities like Susan Sarandon love to paddle.

For true legends of the game, however, look to the Rose City. “Portland has always been a hotbed for table tennis,” says Judy Hoarfrost, co-owner of Southwest Portland’s Paddle Palace, a national distributor of all things Ping-Pong. In 1971, at age 15, Hoarfrost joined the so-called “Ping-Pong Diplomacy Team” that took a groundbreaking diplomatic trip to China. (Yup, the one highlighted in Forrest Gump.) And Sean O’Neill, a veteran of two Olympic table-tennis teams and an inductee to the Table Tennis Hall of Fame, recently began coaching a women’s Ping-Pong team at Blitz Ladd.

O’Neill’s first rule? Serious players call it table tennis—not Ping-Pong. But he’ll also tell you that, unlike those players at Wimbledon, you can wear whatever you like.