PLEASANTON -- As one of Pleasanton's newest business owners, Steven Feng can only smile as his customers flick, loop and chop their way to a good time.
Feng is the owner of the Pleasanton Table Tennis Center, a new club for fans of one of the fastest and fastest-growing ball sports in the world. With 13 tables in a 10,000-square-foot building, he's already hosting tournament play for competitors from all over.
From beginners to champions, he's seen it all.
"I was a player when I was 6 years old in China," said Feng, who emigrated to America in 2003. "I played competitively and represented my province when I was 14 or 15."
When he arrived in the United States, Feng began coaching the sport he loved.
"I had lots of students before I opened this club," he said. "Some came to my house and played in my garage, and I'd coach in other places. (Today), most of my students are beginners, and they love to play very much. Most are children ... but my oldest student is 80."
Table tennis clubs are becoming a common fixture around the country, said Andy Horn, a membership director for the United States Table Tennis Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The organization oversees all national teams and junior programs, which includes about 260 clubs nationwide.
"We have about 9,300 individual members nationwide," Horn said. "We do really feel the sport is taking off. We had
really good attendance at our big tournament, the U.S. Open, last July in Las Vegas, with 1,100 players from around the world."
Developed during the late 1800s as an after-dinner parlor game, table tennis -- or pingpong -- has evolved over the years, and is considered the world's number-one racquet sport. China dominates competitive play, but the game is growing in several countries, including Germany, Korea and Japan, Horn said.
"Where we lag behind other countries is having competitive players," he said. "Everybody plays pingpong in their basement, but as far as actually competing, we don't have as many athletes as other countries."
That's beginning to change, with table tennis clubs burgeoning nationwide, especially in the Northeast and the West Coast. The game easily conforms to the player's abilities, making it popular with all ages.
"The ages of people that compete and train at these clubs range from 5 to 85," Horn said. "It's a sport that can be played at any age. Studies have shown it's very beneficial for elderly players. It's low-impact, the hand-eye coordination is huge, and it (improves) reflexes and reaction time.
"You can get involved in leagues, do training with coaches or do open play," he added. "Or you can just knock it around with a friend."