There’s a big difference between ping-pong and table tennis, a point that Sara Newens’ and Mina T. Son’s documentary hammers home. While the former conjures up images of casual play in bars and rec rooms across America, the latter is a sport, albeit a Rodney Dangerfield sport that gets no respect (in this country anyway). Top Spin has all the hallmarks of a typical ESPN documentary: It’s rife with action, struggle and conflict. While it doesn’t venture into any groundbreaking territory, the coming-of-age storyline for its three teenage protagonists adds a welcome depth to the little-known Olympic sport.
The documentary follows California girls Ariel Hsing, 16, and Lily Zhang, 15, the top- and second-ranked women’s table tennis players in the country, and 17-year-old Long Islander Michael Landers, who became the youngest U.S. Men’s Table Tennis Champion in 2009 at age 15. The film tracks their progress as they train for qualifying matches and tournaments for a chance to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Each of the young players is introduced with their playing style: Hsing is a “two-wing attacker,” Landers is a “two-wing looper,” and Zhang is an “all-around attacker.” Of course, the audience doesn’t know what any of that means, but basically, “loops” are shots with a lot of spin, and attackers employ a more offensive style of play, as opposed to defensive. These definitions also apply to the personalities of the players themselves.
Ariel and Lily are friends, but competitors; Zhang, the younger of the two players, comes off as the more intense of the two. She has something to prove because she generally loses to Hsing in tournament play. Outside of the matches, the only time we see Zhang flustered is when someone off-camera asks her whether she has time for boys and dating: She blushes. Hsing, the No. 1 seed, has an easygoing confidence, but her ferocity behind the table is unparalleled. She’s trained by her dad Michael, who acknowledges that he’s a “tiger” parent, focused on his daughter’s success in the table tennis world. The two girls’ competitive nature, as well as several hours of rigorous training a day between classes, have built them a fan base that includes “uncles” Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. They seem well-adjusted, and their close friends don’t seem to realize, or be privy to, the extent of their excellence in the sport.
The outlier in the group is Landers, a seeming loner, who’s the flashiest among the three. He trains at the posh SPiN table tennis club in New York, of which actress Susan Sarandon is part owner, and is featured in photo shoots for the club. While his training is just as extreme as the girls’, he seems mentally and physically exhausted by the end of a two-month training session in China. His dedication to the sport is questioned by one of the Chinese coaches who doesn’t believe that training intensely for only a couple months can help Landers reach the next level.
Newens and Son start their documentary off slowly, both figuratively and literally, with slow-motion camera work on the cast of pro players as they hit the ball during the opening credit sequence. The slower pacing not only allows us to watch the focus in their faces and eyes, but also see the movement of the ball itself, which proves tough to do later on. As the film’s action builds toward a climax, the matches get more intense, and the ball travels at an inordinate speed, making it difficult for the untrained eye to follow easily.
Top Spin only includes a few scenes from China and interviews with Chinese players and coaches, and that’s a missed opportunity for the directors to highlight the chasm that separates the two countries in terms of training and prestige. Since table tennis first bowed as a sport at the 1988 Olympics, 20 out of the 24 gold medals were won by China. The U.S. women’s and men’s teams ranked 25th and 48th internationally at the time of the documentary’s filming. Barney Reed, a 30-something professional table tennis player, doesn’t mince words in the doc when he points out that the national table tennis champion receives $3,500 and the World Series of Beer Pong winner gets $50,000. To know these professional table tennis players are playing for the love of the game or country, because they’re certainly not doing it for endorsements, is admirable.
There’s triumph, heartbreak and loss in Top Spin for the three teens on a quest to become Olympians, and we won’t spoil what happens here. The film is a little rushed at the end—slowly building to the Olympic qualifiers, then speeding past the results to an epilogue three months later. We were a bit incredulous when table tennis was described early on in the film as a combination of martial arts, boxing and chess, but watching the teenagers balance rivalries, undergo intensive physical training, think a few steps ahead in split seconds during matches—all while balancing high school’s trials and tribulations, convinced us otherwise.
Directors: Sara Newens and Mina T. Son
Starring: Ariel Hsing, Michael Landers, Lily Zhang
Release Date: August 21, 2015 in select theaters
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.