By Victor Chen
An electric “cho-le”—the often used Chinese table tennis term for “good ball”—coursed through each spectator’s body as Ahmed el-Mallah celebrated his match-tying forehand smash. Sweat dripped from the two players’ faces as students eagerly watched in anticipation as Tahl Leibovitz secured the 3-2 victory over el-Mallah with a crushing backhand counterattack.
The increasingly popular sport in the United States was brought to North High by senior Kevin Li, who created the Great Neck North Table Tennis Club in his freshman year. The club slowly gained popularity and now boasts more than 30 members.
As involvement in the club and competitiveness grows, so do the aspirations of its members. With the help of North’s athletic department and the American Youth Table Tennis Organization (AYTTO), Long Island schools will have the opportunity to create table tennis teams and compete against one another. Schools including Great Neck South, Manhasset, Herricks and Roslyn will be joining the league.
In an effort to strengthen the Blazers’ table tennis program, Li contacted Ahmed el-Mallah and Tahl Leibovitz to help whip the team into fighting shape. The two table tennis titans came to Great Neck North High School on Feb. 1.
In one corner stood Egyptian National Team member and 2009 and 2010 African Open champion el-Mallah, who has an aggressive playing style, consisting of an intense flurry of attacking forehands and backhands that would surely make any opponent crumble. In the other corner, however, stood four-time U.S. Paralympian and U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Tahl Leibovitz, whose playing style is more unconventional as he often uses both left and right hands to compensate for his lack of mobility due to benign bone tumors in many parts of his body.
The two athletes first demonstrated a quick top-spin warm-up consisting of fast forehand and long looping rallies. Following el-Mallah and Leibovitz’s warm up, they started a best of five exhibition match.
With the students watching in awe, Leibovitz used his ambidextrous playing style to secure an 11-7, 1-0 set lead. However, el-Mallah stormed back to win the next set 11-9, employing an extensive range of aggressive forehand loops to attack Leibovitz’s backhand. The Paralympian shook off the last game and barely got the 2-1 set lead with a 12-10 score.
With el-Mallah down two sets to one, the former Egyptian National Champion began to hit his groove as he utilized his forehands to their utmost potential. After el-Mallah won the set to level the match, both players knew that it all came down to this: the fifth and final game. With the pressure high, both competitors played with vigor and intensity. However, Leibovitz emerged victorious as he barely got the win in an 11-9, 3-2 victory.
After that exciting match, the focus shifted from the two players to the students in the club. Leibovitz and el-Mallah began to train the students, offering tips and tricks to help better their own games.
When asked about the state of the club, el-Mallah answered, “A lot of these players are very talented and I see them as the future of USA Table Tennis. The club here at North has the material which gives the players here many good opportunities that you cannot find anywhere else.”
Leibovitz added, “The club here is becoming a really good team and I can tell that many players are very dedicated.”
Feb. 1 was only the beginning for the burgeoning Blazers table tennis team.
“I am very hopeful for the long-term success of the club,” said founder Kevin Li. “It is so great to see everyone working so diligently toward our common goal of becoming the iconic table tennis school in America. Also, I can’t wait to finally see table tennis played as an official varsity sport in the near future.”
With many matches scheduled against other Long Island schools, the table tennis team is sure not to disappoint. After being inspired by the exhibition match, the Blazers table tennis team will surely practice with new strength and vigor.