There’s a new spot in Albany where ping pong lovers of all levels and ages can play with and learn from some of the highest ranked competitors in the world.
ITT, a table tennis club that opened last month in the building at 533 San Pablo Ave., is a joint venture between Albany resident Benny Fong and table tennis coach Hailong Shen.
Fong, who owns the property, and Shen, who coaches and runs classes, came up with the name ITT together.
The Chinese word meaning “to love” is 愛, which is pronounced like the letter “I”. Because Fong and Shen share a love for table tennis, the name ITT was born.
Membership at ITT costs $40/month, or non-members can pay $5 for every visit to the club. It offers recreational play and classes for both adults and children and, according to Fong, the biggest difference between ITT and other clubs in the area is the coaching.
“I don’t think you can find any club in the nation—certainly not in the North Bay—with coaches of this quality,” he said.
At ITT, all of the coaches hold USA Table Tennis ratings of more 2500—a distinction that only about 40 players in the nation can claim—and several of the coaches, like Jianxu Liu, are ranked in the top five nationally.
All of these coaches hail from the California Table Tennis Academy, the Fremont-based club that Shen started in 2010.
Shen, who is only 23 years old, has already made a name for himself as a coach.
After coming from China to the United States in 2006, he became the private coach for his first student, San Jose’s Ariel Hsing.
Hsing—who still trains under Shen and whose family housed Shen for his first year in the United States— competed for the United States in the 2012 London Olympics, but recently lost in the third round.
While Hsing is certainly Shen’s most accomplished student, he has more than 100 pupils at the CTTA, including several who have won national championships for their age brackets and competed on the national team.
Shen, joined by his fellow CTTA coaches, comes to ITT three times a week to teach classes for adults and children, switching off between his native Mandarin and the English he has taught himself.
Despite the language barrier, the former professional competitor has no trouble understanding how to help his students improve.
“I want the kids have more confidence, more consistency, and focus more on footwork training,” Shen said.
His knowledge as a coach stems from his experience as a player in China, where school was a secondary concern since he practiced as many as eight hours each day.
Though he has had success as a player—once ranked as high as No. 14 in the United States—Shen said his focus lately has been coaching because he loves helping players grow and improve.
“Not much time for my practice. The kids improve—that’s what’s important,” he said.
Two of the kids who have been training under Shen are Fong’s sons, 12-year-old Scott and 8-year-old Shawn, who are the reason ITT started.
About two year ago, Fong said he encouraged his sons to start playing ping pong because it was a safe sport that they would be able to continue their whole lives.
After moving from just the ping pong table in his garage, Fong decided that if his sons were going to be successful players, they needed the best coaches available.
According to Fong, table tennis has exploded in popularity in the South Bay, and as such there are many clubs in that area with high caliber coaches, such as CTTA.
But in other parts of the Bay, especially around Albany, Fong said he was unable to find the same level of high-ranking coaches.
So after several months of commuting to Fremont so his sons could train under Shen, Fong convinced Shen to start a new club in Albany and, earlier this year, .
After months of refurbishing the 3,500-square-foot building, acquiring the necessary materials for the club, and , Fong opened ITT in early July.
Fong said he is very grateful for the support of the Albany community, and with about 30 members of the club so far, he said he is pleased with how things are progressing.
“Now we just need enough students to break even,” said Fong, whose full-time job is as a clinical engineer for Kaiser. “Hopefully people will enjoy coming here and playing ping pong.”
Albany resident Don Driscoll is one of the eight participants in ITT’s Monday night adult beginners class.
Driscoll said he found out about the club through a friend, and decided to try it out. Though he has played ping pong before, he had never learned actual techniques, so the concept of training with ping pong coaches was a bit weird, he said.
“But it’s like any other sport—they know what they’re doing and they teach the proper techniques,” he said.
Fong said many of the people who have come to ITT live within walking distance but, on Monday evening, there were also several players from nearby cities who had heard word of the new table tennis club.
Daniel Chu, a 60-year-old Hercules resident, came for the first time on Monday night and played for several hours. Chu said that he usually goes to a club in Oakland, but since ITT is closer to his home, he will probably become a member.
“I really like it,” he said. “It’s well decorated, brightly lit, and it has better ventilation than Oakland.”
Fong stressed that, although he is the property owner and helped start the club, Shen is the business owner and will be fully in charge after the first few months.
Fong said he wanted to open ITT not to make a profit, but to provide a place for his kids and other children in Albany to play ping pong in a good environment.
“Mainly it’s fun—it’s a healthy sport,” he said. “If my kids don’t play ping pong, they’ll play video games all day.”
Fong knows firsthand the health benefits that can come from ping pong.
He began playing at the same time as his oldest son about two years ago and, by practicing four times a week, an hour and a half each time, Fong said he lost 25 pounds and cut his waist-size by five inches.
Fong said he hopes ITT will allow more Albany youth to become involved with ping pong and, ideally, he envisions ITT becoming a place where students can come after school to train and have fun.
His own sons practice at least an hour every weekday, and as many as six hours on Saturdays, and the training has paid off for Shawn, who is ranked No. 8 in the nation and No. 1 in California for his age group.
According to Fong, ITT will offer the quality coaches and the positive environment necessary for players like his sons to become top contenders.
But for the less competitive players, there will always be tables open for recreational games and, as the name of the business indicates, Fong said it’s all about fostering a love for ping pong.
For more information about classes and prices, visit the ITT website.
Do you plan on playing ping pong at ITT Albany? What are your experiences with table tennis? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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