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Teens taking over at US table tennis trials

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POSTED February 10, 2012 10:44 p.m.

CARY, N.C. (AP) — Ariel Hsing is back for her second shot at the U.S. Olympic table tennis trials. Her rating of 2,340 was good enough to secure the No. 2 seed in the women's round robin tournament.

By most reasonable measures, she's a veteran.

Except one: She's only 16.

So, what's it like being considered a veteran at such a young age?

"It's kind of weird," she said with a smile.

Yes, the teens have taken over the table tennis trials, which began its round robin Friday at a community center in this Raleigh suburb. Five of the top 10 seeds in the women's competition are between the ages of 14 and 16.

"They're our future," said top-seeded Gao Jun, a 43-year-old four-time Olympian.

The youngest is Prachi Jha, a 14-year-old ninth-grader from Milpitas, Calif., who's seeded seventh. Hsing, who put on a show at the trials four years ago as a 12-year-old, won the singles title at last year's U.S. national championships and is among the favorites to claim a spot in the North American Trials.

"A few years ago, I was just 12, 13, and I was one of the youngest on the team and everyone else was a lot older," Hsing said. "And now, all of a sudden, I'm one of the older ones."

The top four male and female finishers qualify to return to Cary for the continental trials in April, with the top three men and two women finishers at that event earning spots on the U.S. team.

"I think it's completely attainable," said fifth-seeded Erica Wu, a 16-year-old 10th-grader from Arcadia, Calif. "It's just not easy."

One of the day's most popular matches — no two cheering sections were louder — produced one of its biggest upsets.

Wu knocked off Hsing in five sets in the second round for what she said was her first victory against her best friend and practice partner. Wu's rating was 176 points below Hsing's.

"We always joke with her family that it's easier to get on the national team than beating her," said Wu's father, Peter, an actuarial consultant.

Of course, when you're away from home, it helps to have someone of a similar age to hang out with — and sometimes cut a little bit loose with — without those grown-ups getting in the way.

"When you have kids around your age when you go out, it's definitely pretty exciting and you guys are overwhelmed — all of you are overwhelmed, unlike the older people, so you can get excited and it's OK," Hsing said.

Said Wu: "We're all pretty close — we've been going out to tournaments for years and always room together. At the same time, you know in a few days, you're going to try to beat them. So it's just interesting to kind of balance that. We chat and everything, but usually after the tournament is really when we have fun together."

They also seem to know that, for all their talent and skill with the pingpong racket, they still have plenty to learn.

A few hours after her upset of Hsing, Wu faced Jun in a third-round matchup that pitted student against teacher; Gao is listed as one of her coaches. Both players had won their opening two matches.

During one particularly spirited volley, Gao had Wu running from side to side. Then, she smoked a shot that barely clipped the side of the table on its way past Wu for a point.

At least on this day, Gao's experience trumped Wu's youthful energy.

"Every time I tried to smash, she'd just hit it back. It was really frustrating," Wu said, then added with a laugh. "She's a little older than when she was at her best, and I know she hurt her elbow — she has tennis elbow — but she's still good enough to beat me."

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