Table Tennis by Lily Yip
1992 & 1996 US Olympian

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USATT's First Family of Table Tennis by David Fullen

Lily Yip - Ping Pong Powerhouse

Working tirelessly to win Americans over to table tennis

Published in The NJ Star Ledger. Feb. 24, 2008

Story by PETER GENOVESE / Photos by JOHN MUNSON

Leslie Liu pokes her head shyly into the dining room of Lily Yip's Warren Township home.

"What's the score?" Yip asks the 8-year-old Leslie, who has been playing pingpong for the past hour and a half.

"I won 17 games; he won two," Liu says bashfully, as if to not wanting to show up her opponent.

Jonathan Elbaz appears none the worse for wear, and the two kids slip into Yip's living room to watch television.

But Yip doesn't miss a trick.

"Jonathan," she says, in a raised voice several minutes later. "Go to the robot. It's 11:45. Your mother will be picking you up soon. No more TV. No wasting time."

The "robot" is a pingpong ball launcher that allows a solo player to work on serves and returns. It's in her favorite room in the house, a high-ceilinged addition devoted to the world of Lily Yip, table tennis legend.

There is Lily on the cover of Table Tennis magazine in 1996.

There is Lily, hair flying, at the world championships in England in 1997.

There is the plaque from the U.S. Olympic Committee honoring her as National Coach of the Year in 2004.

Nearby is a plaque that reads: USTT Hall of Fame, 16th of December 2004, Stratosphere Las Vegas.

"In my first tournament, I got killed," Yip recalls, laughing. "There were 16 players. I finished 15th."

Her coach, in Yip's native China, told her to quit; she clearly had no future in table tennis. Yip quickly proved him wrong. In her next tournament, she finished second. Four years later, she was the top junior player in southern China's Guangdong province, in a nation that consistently turns out the world's best table tennis players.

Today, at 44, a New Jersey resident for two decades, she has stopped playing professionally but works practically 24/7 to put pingpong on the American sports radar. The two-time Olympian, four-time U.S. Table Tennis Open doubles champion and 12-time U.S. national women's team member, teaches 30 students, including Da Tang, the No. 1 ranked Under-14 U.S. player, and Tina Lin, the No. 1 ranked Under-10 U.S. player, at the New Jersey Table Tennis Club in Westfield.

"She never stops," her 18-year-old daughter, Judy, says in admiration. "She doesn't know how to relax."

"A bundle of excitement," Barry Dattel, her husband, adds. "It's always, 'Let's do this, let's do that.'"

Center of community
Her home in Somerset County is a kind of way station and community center for many students, who not only drop over to practice in "Lily's room" but even sleep over on occasion.

Yip, the U.S. national junior table tennis team coach, is team leader for the U.S. squad that will compete in the world table tennis championships in Guangzhou, China, beginning today.

The men's team, which includes David Zhuang of West Windsor, is not expected to compete for a medal, but Yip has high hopes for the women's team, ranked eighth in the world. China, which dominates pingpong globally, is the favorite, with South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Singapore among the leading contenders.

Yip, ever confident, thinks the U.S. women's team can do well in the 134-nation world championships, which many table tennis players hold in higher regard than the Olympics.

"Under (the age of) 15, we can compete with any country in the world," says Yip.

Don't let the cherubic face and friendly manner fool you. When she was 15, Lily Yip was a force to be reckoned with. Still is, as a matter of fact.

It's table tennis
First of all, a pingpong lesson.

It's "table tennis," actually. Pingpong is what you play in your basement with $4 paddles and a battered, scratched table. Table tennis is what you play with $100 carbon blade paddles and, say, an $1,800 Double Happiness Rainbow Blue Table. "Ping-Pong" was a trademark owned in the early 1900s by Parker Brothers, which made paddles and balls. The trademark is now owned by Escalade Sports, the world's largest producer of table tennis tables.

The sport traces its roots to the 1880s, when British army officers in India and South Africa started playing indoor tennis with paddles made of cigar box lids and balls made from wine bottle corks. The sport became popular in Europe in the 1920s, and soon spread to Asia. Japan dominated in the 1950s and 1960s, but China, where millions of kids took to the simple, inexpensive game, ruled from the 1970s on.

Lily Yip was one of those kids.

"Pingpong," she says, "is part of Chinese culture."

She was one of three children of Mei Kam and Yip Shou Zhi. Her father was a top police official in Guangdong province, who, like millions of Chinese at the time, fell out of favor during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Yip's father was sent to a re-education camp in the countryside.

"He was one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution," says Yip, sitting at her dining room table. "He had very top position in the police department. He lost his job. They sent him to a village for brainwashing. They do nothing, maybe study Mao. He couldn't take it. He committed suicide. I was 7."

In a diary, her father wrote: "I didn't do anything wrong. I am loyal to Mao. I am a good person."

Several years later, her late father's name and reputation were restored by the government.

"They honored him, gave him credit, called him a hero," says Yip, no bitterness in her voice. "Gave my mother some money. We got a better apartment."

Her mother, forced to support three children after her husband's death, saw in table tennis an opportunity to provide for her youngest daughter.

She enrolled Lily in one of the city's top table tennis schools. It wasn't long before Lily was outplaying children several years older.

"By 9, I had beaten everybody," she says.

When she was 11, she was sent to the government-supported Guangdong Junior Training Center, living in a dorm with other students. In the morning, she would attend regular classes. The rest of the day, and night, she would play pingpong.

When she was 15, she was selected for the prestigious Guangdong professional table tennis team. The training was backbreaking, "but the food was better," Yip recalls. The team competed in 10 tournaments a year throughout China, traveling 30 hours by train, for example, from Guangzhou to Beijing.

When she was 17, she and her partner finished third in national women's doubles, and in the singles competition she beat the country's best player, Liu Yang. When Yip returned to Guangdong, local newspapers heralded her success.

"Front page everywhere: 'Lily Yip beats national champion!'" she recalls happily.

She met and married Eric Hugh, a Chinese-American and an avid pingpong player. They moved to Brooklyn and then Florida, where Yip quickly became the state's best women's player. The marriage lasted five years.

Yip sent her two children to live with their grandmother and moved to Colorado Springs to work out at the U.S. Olympic training facility. At the Olympic trials in 1992, Yip, her confidence returned, won the women's singles event. She won her first two matches in Barcelona, then lost to a former Guangdong teammate in the third round.

Invited to the White House
The highlight of her 1992 social calendar was being invited to the White House, where she met President George W. Bush, Barbara Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.

"Driven inside by a rainstorm, (team members) ate hamburgers and hot dogs sort of literally off the floor," USA Table Tennis historian Tim Boggan had said at Yip's USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame induction in 2004. "Several staff members said that in 20 years they had never seen anyone sitting on the floor in the White House."

Yip started training at the New Jersey Table Tennis Center in Westfield, where she met Dattel, a computer consultant and accomplished table tennis player. The two married, living in a house in Metuchen that was so small there wasn't even room for a pingpong table.

Emboldened by her Olympic success, Yip played at a high level through the 1990s, finishing second in women's singles in the national table tennis championships four years in a row. At the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta, she again won two matches.

By then, her own children had started playing table tennis. Adam, now 20 and a student at Princeton University, would go on to become No. 1 in eight age categories. Judy, a student at Rutgers University, did him one better, ranked No. 1 in nine age categories.

You could call this the first family of U.S. table tennis. Yip and Dattel won the Over-40 national doubles title in 2004. Yip and her son won the national mixed doubles championship in 2005; Yip and her daughter won the national women's doubles championship in 2006.

"No more Barry," Yip jokes.

"They phased me out," Dattel moans good-naturedly.

Good deal for students
The doubles match with her daughter was the last time Yip played professionally. But her pingpong life is more active than ever. She trains students six days a week, whether in her home, at the New Jersey Table Tennis Club or at a Chinese school in Edison.

"I think I work longer hours than you, Barry," she teases her husband.

Every year since 1999, she has taken a team of 15 students to China for five weeks of training and competition.

"My students get a good deal," she says, laughing. "I have good relationship (with local officials). If they charge students $80 a day, maybe they charge my students $50."

When she is in China, mayors and other officials seek games with her; when her former coaches from China visit the U.S., she takes them sightseeing.

"I think this is what they call pingpong diplomacy," she says.

The term was coined in 1971, when the American pingpong team, in Japan for the world championships, received a surprise invitation to visit the People's Republic of China. "The ping heard around the world," Time magazine trumpeted. The day the team met Premier Chou En-Lai, the U.S. government announced it would remove a 20-year embargo on trade with China. A year later, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China.

Today, it is Lily Yip who is practicing pingpong diplomacy. As national junior team coach, she has taken the team to Brazil, Taiwan, Canada, Malaysia and Spain. In Guangzhou, she is still a popular, recognized figure.

"I am still queen of Guangdong province," she says, eyes alight.

As team leader at the world table tennis championships this week, Yip is in charge of hotels, meals, transportation and scheduling. The team consists of five men and five women players, a massage therapist, two coaches and Yip.

As if all the traveling and coaching weren't enough, she also sells tennis equipment through her company, Lily Yip Sports.

"The equipment in department stores is crappy," she explains. "The students come to me with a $10 racket. Most Americans don't understand the sport; they don't know the equipment."

Her dream is to open her own table tennis school some day. She thinks Adam and Judy can make the Olympic team in 2012 if they train hard enough.

Yip visits China two or three times a year, but said her goal is "less travel." Good luck with that. In 2004, she flew from Newark to Hong Kong, stayed in China several weeks, then flew back to Newark and on the same day hopped a flight to Qatar for the world championships.

"Yeah, yeah, less travel," Dattel says, unconvinced. "She will be in China for a month for the world championships."

"And I will be back in China this summer (for her annual camp)," Yip adds. "I bought my ticket yesterday."

Additional insight:
Highlight of her career: Beating the Chinese national champion in the Chinese national table tennis championships in the early 1980s
Words that describe her best: "Lots of excitement and a warm heart"
Favorite food: Chinese!
Two people she would like to meet: President Bush and the next president
Table tennis is: "My passion"

Published Feb. 24, 2008