Published December 7, 2021
UB senior Joseph Baptista picks up a table tennis ball and stares at it straight on, willing it to go exactly where he wants on the table. With the swift move of his wrist, he delivers his signature reverse pendulum serve.
This side spin-top spin two-for-one combo makes this move almost impossible to counter. A skill he picked up from his greatest inspiration, Timo Ball, it has helped him win matches from the Philippines to casual pickup games at the Student Union.
For more than 13 years, the globally trained Baptista has studied with former Olympians and played against current Olympians and U.S. National Team members. In 2019, he won the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA) Great Lakes Region championship with the UB Table Tennis Club.
“I came to UB in 2018 and started playing with the table tennis club, which I heard about from an old UB friend,” says Baptista, an exercise science major. “We went on to win the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association Great Lakes Region championship, which meant we could compete at the national level.”
At the national NCTTA tournament, Baptista and the UB club placed fifth in the nation.
“It was amazing,” says Baptista.
On first glance, Baptista might resemble a typical student navigating his way through college classes. He radiates intensity when he picks up the paddle. His movements take on the agility and certainty of an Olympic-trained athlete.
His training began when he was 10 at the Lily Yip Table Tennis Club in New Jersey. The young players were coached by Lily Yip, a former 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympian.
“I was playing in a tournament against a student of Lily Yip,” Baptista says. “I had a good match, so she invited me to play with her club in New Jersey. My dad and I went to check it out. There were a lot of good players — the Lily Yip family was very strong, and there were Adam and Judy Hugh, who were on the U.S. National Team.”
After joining Yip’s club, doors opened for Baptista to play against some of the most skilled players in the world.
“I started playing in big tournaments like the U.S. Nationals and U.S. Open,” he says. “Eventually, I competed against some of the world’s best 11- and 12-year-olds. Some of those players now represent their countries in the Olympics.”
One particular match became a defining moment in Baptista’s career: playing against Jeremy Hazin, Canadian Table Tennis 2020 Olympian.
“It was my most memorable match,” Baptista recalls. “At that time, he was probably the best junior player in Canada. I had a pretty good fight against him.
“Since it was a good match, we had a huge crowd watching. Some national team players came up to me after and told me I had a good game. That was pretty surreal. Jeremy Hazin played in the Tokyo Olympics this past summer, so it was really cool to be able to play against him.”
The pendulum-like ticking of a ping pong ball gliding across the table rings in the ears of anyone passing by the lounge in Dewey Hall in the Governors Complex. A sudden silence interrupts the steady rhythm, marking the defeat of another one of Baptista’s opponents. Baptista stares down the little white ball again, preparing to serve.
His serve is more finesse and angles than sheer power. His backhand serve comes winding over the net with a swirling topspin. Seen in slow motion, the ball’s path resembles smoke coming from a genie’s lamp. Just a lot faster. As expected, the return flies straight up, near the ceiling and out of bounds.
Baptista says he knew that would happen.
On his next serve, Baptista delicately places the ball in the farthest point away from his opponent. Even someone with unusually long arms could have only lunged at it. That ability to place the ball exactly where he wants sets him apart as a table tennis player, he says.
His defining skills of control and “mental toughness” have led to success against top-notch players around the world.
“The most important thing about table tennis is keeping the ball on the table,” he says. “You can have all sorts of fancy shots and everything, but if it doesn’t stay on the table, it doesn’t matter, since the other person will get the point.
“You need to think of what move your opponent is going to make before they even do it,” he says. “That is what I love about it. It’s a real test to figure out in such a short amount of time exactly what you need to do to win.”
For Baptista, table tennis isn’t all about perfecting his skills and winning tournaments. Relationships and friendships are the heart of the sport, and there is nobody more influential to Baptista than his parents.
“My dad introduced me to table tennis; he was my first coach. He was the one who trained me before I went on to compete in bigger tournaments. My mom and dad have been my greatest supporters through it all.”