Unranked amateurs will be able to play alongside some of the best players in the world at this weekend’s 2021 Edgeball Chicago International Table Tennis Open in Libertyville. During Friday night’s meet-and-reet at the Libertyville Sports Complex, a player the caliber of two-time Olympian and five-time national champion Lily Zhang might take part in a game of “Pingpong Merry-Go-Round,” where teams of multiple players take turns hitting a ball while working their way around a table.
“You see a world-class player playing a kid’s game with little kids,” says Englebert Solis, owner of tournament sponsor Edgeball Table Tennis. “It’s so much fun.”
Three-time Ukrainian Olympian Lei Kou is the highest-ranked player at this weekend’s tournament, but the tourney draws 350 players from more than two dozen countries, including the national champion of Dominican Republic, several top Nigerian players, and phenomenal teenage brothers Sid and Nandan Naresh of Lisle, who have been grabbing international attention since they were in elementary school.
“It’s very international and very diverse,” says Ed Hogshead, 68, the tournament director and 2018 senior table tennis champion in Illinois. “It’s everything from beginners to Olympians.”
The youngest player is 6 years old, and the oldest is an octogenarian, says Hogshead, who got into the sport of table tennis as a teen, enlisted in the Army and won the U.S. Armed Forces Table Tennis Championship in 1976. “Bob Hope actually presented me the trophy,” says Hogshead, who lives in Rockford.
He trained and tested for years to become an international umpire and a national referee in the sport.
“You wouldn’t think pingpong is complicated, but it has complexities,” Hogshead says.
Solis says his job is to “to increase the market of table tennis in the U.S.”
“We have 20 million people playing table tennis in their basements, dorm rooms and bars, but there’s only about 8,000 or 9,000 tournament players,” he says.
Among those tournament players are the Naresh brothers and their father, Arcot Naresh, 52, who competes in the division for players older than 40. The boys were ranked first and second in the nation in 2017 in the under-12 division, which earned them a memorable appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” They are both even better now.
Based on where players finish in earlier competitions, a scoring system allocates points used to rank players. The lowest level at this tournament is for players with rankings below 800, and the highest is for players with rankings below 2500.
With a rating above 2600, Sid, a 17-year-old senior at Naperville North High School, won the 2021 U.S. National Championship for his age in July in Las Vegas. Nandan, 14, a freshman at Naperville North, has a rating above 2500 and last month was on the U.S. youth team that won its division in the Pan American Junior Games in the Dominican Republic and earned a spot at December’s world championship in Portugal.
In addition to practicing two to three hours a day after school, the brothers practice six to seven hours a day on weekends. They play in a dozen regional tournaments a year, as well as three national tournaments and two international tournaments. Members of the highly acclaimed Experior Table Tennis Club in Addison, the brothers also practice about once a month at a top training facility in Ohio.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned to love about the game is that the technical aspects have to be perfect,” Sid says. “It’s been great watching the progress I’ve had.”
A “good rally” excites Nandan, who adds, “I like that it is an individual sport and the only responsibility is from me.”
While Sid is working toward a goal of making the U.S. team for the 2024 Olympics, Nandan says the 2028 Games are a more realistic goal for him. A future team could feature both.
“That’s the dream,” Sid says. “To both be on the same Olympic team.”
Since the pandemic canceled last year’s open in Libertyville, Solis decided to let spectators in free this year. “They get to watch their favorite players in action instead of just on YouTube,” says Solis, who won the Illinois state championship in 2001. Spectators must wear masks.
The arena has 54 tables in action. The Open Singles champion will win $2,000, and a total of $8,500 in prize money will be distributed.
“You walk around and hear every language in the world being spoken,” Hogshead says. “It’s kind of like a pingpong mecca.”