Garrett Xu and Terry Huang take turns practicing their forehand strokes with a table tennis robot. (Photo by Garman Xu)

A Past Experience in the Corner of Competitive Table Tennis

Racket in hand, anticipating the spin, the player’s muscles are tense as he prepares to receive a serve. Bam! The opponent’s powerful serve can be heard across the room. Whoosh! The prepared player effortlessly returns it into a back-and-forth battle until a chance finally presents itself. The player tenses up once again. Smash! The uphill battle is concluded in a matter of seconds.

As a table tennis student, I have personally experienced the intensity of these fast-paced matches during my training at the Sacramento International Table Tennis Association, SITTA,  a recreational center on Power Inn Road dedicated to the sport. Unfortunately, the center has permanently closed due to financial difficulties with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The facility was opened two years ago, operating seven days a week. It hosted many events and tournaments for players of all skill levels. Many athletes and students of the sport ranging from both amateur and professional went there to practice with friends or to take lessons.

My brother Garrett’s and my journey started when we got a table tennis table at home. Initially, we messed around with it for a few months, sparring with each other and our parents. Soon, our interest grew enough to where we decided to look for coaches to get better. We searched online for a competitive table tennis club nearby. We joined SITTA in June of 2019 and went to the center every Sunday to train for a few hours with freelance coach Tien Kiet Vien.I would go to Mock Trial practice at the Matthews Library afterward. 

My brother and I learned different techniques every weekend, and then practiced them at home together. We used to spend hours there drilling basic forehand and backhand passes with the many other players there eager to help each other train. 

We also picked up many friends while training there, including Terry Huang, a freshman attending West Campus High School. Terry got into the sport a year ago while on a vacation to China to visit his extended family. His aunt and uncle are also enthusiasts of the sport, and inspired him to continue training. Terry’s experience at SITTA has also been positive.

 “Table tennis rackets, balls and ball pickers can be used for free. Their membership pricing is quite reasonable, with discounts for children and seniors,” Terry said.

However, due to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders to close non-essential businesses, Dr. Han Voqui, the owner of the recreation center, decided to permanently shut down his business in early July of 2020. This was due to a shortage of “manpower” and restrictions to use the space. 

In addition, the new social-distancing restrictions on the amount of customers allowed to be in a given business had also factored into Voqui’s decision.

“We had 24,000 square feet of space, but the order just allowed us to have five to ten people. I didn’t think that it was reasonable to continue it,” he said. 

The business had been operated and maintained by a team of five employees, including Voqui. They keep the space clean, register player memberships and maintain logistics to keep track of independent coaches and events. However, stricter sanitation regulations added more procedures to implement and also made completing the tasks a greater challenge during the pandemic.

Heather Luzzi, the director of the local Small Business Association located in Citrus Heights, said the SBA has been working hard to help as many businesses get through the difficult times by implementing Paycheck Protection Plan loans, known as PPP loans. The amount distributed to businesses depends on the amount of employees they hold in hopes of retaining employment.

Despite a major national staff raise from 2,000 to  9,000 employees nationally, Luzzi expressed difficulties with providing immediate service to all applicants because of the overwhelming amount of applications for support.

 “We find ourselves in a position such as now where we simply don’t have the tools to affect the businesses in the manner which we would like to see,” Luzzi said. “We were simply overwhelmed with the applications. At one point, through our economic injury disaster loan, we had 13 million applications.”

Since its closure, the club has gotten a lot of support from its frequent customers, with some willing to pay extra for the monthly club membership. But Voqui said he didn’t accept the offers because the people in the community were his friends.

 “We didn’t take a dime from them,” he said.

Unfortunately, Voqui could not give the same praise to the government, as his business was not able to get adequate funding. With so few employees, the PPP loans the association could receive were low.

“When I applied for loans, they gave me $5,000 to $10,000, but it wasn’t worth it,” he said. “Our monthly expense was around $15,000, so we didn’t take it.”

Though this particular business was not able to pivot and get the support it needed, Luzzi said the services from the SBA have gained more attention from more business owners during the pandemic. Luzzi strongly urges owners to reach out and request assistance, as they are already covered by taxes. 

“We stand ready to help,” she said. “Our office is closed because our employees are teleworking, but we are available.”

The SITTA facility’s equipment, including the tables, rackets and training robots, have been sold to the club members, as well as to a few buyers online, who plan to open their own clubs in the future.

Like the other club members, my brother and I were also very bummed out by the unfortunate closure. Though our time at the center was short, we cherished learning about the sport and sparring against other passionate athletes in the few months we were able to spend there.

 Terry’s favorite part of playing was practicing with friends and setting new records for keeping the ball going in long rallies.

Garrett said he will miss sparring with diverse people the most.

“It’s not only about playing table tennis,” he said. “It’s also about the people you meet in the environment there because I could play table tennis anywhere else.”

Coach Vien was also affected by the closure. After the announcement of the closure, he had initially continued teaching students at his house and at a space in the First Chirstian Church on 3901 Folsom Blvd. After a month, however, Vien decided to postpone his lessons until further notice for health reasons.

“I think it is better to be safe and patiently wait for the vaccine before I resume teaching again,” Vien said.

Voqui still hangs out with the friends he has made in the SITTA community and frequently plays table tennis with them in his garage. Though Voqui doesn’t plan on reopening his business anytime soon, he is hopeful for a change in the COVID-19 circumstances in California. 

“Maybe within a year, I can change my mind. Maybe one day we’ll get together.”

— By Garman Xu

Originally published in the Feb. 2 edition of the Octagon.

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