A local champ is mastering the sport Forrest Gump made famous.
Reggie Wilson’s athletic skills are rooted in basketball. As a senior point guard for Treadwell High School in 1987, Wilson ran the floor with classmate Elliot Perry and a freshman named Anfernee Hardaway. The focus, quickness and hand-eye coordination that helped Wilson on the hardwood has proven just as valuable in an avocation he took up in his mid-30s, one he’s come to quite master: table tennis. (The sport is “ping-pong” to you and me; table tennis to a player of Wilson’s caliber.) And Wilson is traveling with his talents.
Last April, Wilson (and his wife, Sylvia) traveled to Hilo, Hawaii, where he entered the annual Big Island Open. As the only mainlander entered, Wilson won two divisions, the Super Round Robin event on a Saturday, and the more challenging Open Elite the next day. Each event required Wilson to win seven matches. In the Open Elite, matches were best-of-seven-games, with each game played to 11 points. (For the record, Wilson beat Clyde King four games to two for the title.)
A fueler for FedEx (where he’s been employed more than 20 years), Wilson caught the table-tennis bug seven years ago when his older brother, Jeffery, bought a table and needed a playing partner. “He called me over when he got the table,” says Wilson. “We’re very competitive, and he was beating me all the time. But I’d go every day, and we’d play for hours. At the time, I was working at night, so I’d go over around three o’clock and we’d play until seven or eight.”
As with any sport, improvement at table tennis comes with identifying weaknesses in one’s game, then practicing until the weakness turns to strength. “I’d see expert players looping the ball,” says Wilson, “and I couldn’t do it at first.” (Looping is waiting to strike the ball between your hip and knee, with enough top spin to send the ball well above the net, but back down to the table.) “I knew I could learn how; just took a lot of practice.”
He describes his game as defensive (or “anti” in the parlance of the sport). “Some elite players look at my style and underestimate me,” he says. “But you can wear a player out just by chopping the ball.” (To chop the ball is to lightly strike it, but with significant backspin or sidespin.) Wilson has an unusual grip, his thumb placed in the middle of the paddle, and he deftly switches sides of the paddle between strokes, the rubber on one side producing more spin than the other. An opponent is left to guess what kind of spin and trajectory is coming across the net, but in less time than it takes a batter to see a pitched baseball.
Not long after his brother introduced him to table tennis, Wilson went on a cruise to the Bahamas with his wife and learned there was a tournament on board. (Tropical climes seem to go with the hobby for Wilson.) Encouraged by Sylvia, Wilson entered the field of 25 and won the tournament. Since then, he’s played events in Decatur, Alabama, Little Rock, and St. Louis.
As for nerves, Wilson acknowledges things can get tight at the start of a tournament. But with a best-of-five match often played in less than 20 minutes, there’s simply no time for anxiety. “You have to identify your opponent’s weaknesses in the first game,” he says.
What inspired Wilson to cross much of the Pacific for a shot at the Big Island Open? “I was just searching for tournaments,” he says. Wilson wasn’t sure what to expect in the Hilo field (each division he won had around 20 entrants), but knew a trip to Hawaii would cushion any blow should he be overmatched early in the tournament. Wilson beat Yen Fang — the top-ranked player in the field — in the semifinals after losing the first two games and trailing three games to one. King didn’t stand a chance in the final.
Should you be familiar with a paddle, you can find Wilson at the Davis Community Center on Monday and Friday evenings, when members of the Memphis Table Tennis Club gather to loop, chop, and slam their distractions away. (For information on joining the club, call 626-9762.)