KELLY EXELBY | 25th September 2007
Shannon used to beat Matt but now it's Matt who has the wood on Shannon. But both have to bow to a former women's international who wipes the floor with the pair of them.
Shannon Smith, 22, and 17-year-old Otumoetai schoolboy Matt Hetherington will fly the Tauranga flag tomorrow in the New Zealand table tennis championships in Cambridge.
Smith, a relief teacher and tennis coach at Welcome Bay, will play in the national C (outside the top-100) and D (outside top-200) grades, while Hetherington will have a busy 10 days, lining up in the under-18, under-21 and the men's B and C divisions, as well as the teams' competition for Waikato.
The pair are part of the Otumoetai table tennis club and are regular combatants, although they'll happily concede former women's international Kadia Keller-Rice's speed and dexterity wins out whenever the challenge is laid down.
Keller-Rice, a former New Zealand champion who was based in Switzerland for 15 years and went to her first world championships in 1981, is top seed for the women's 35+ division and will also compete in the open grade at the nationals.
The 42-year-old completed a notable return to the sport at the recent North Island championships, winning the masters (over 40) division and winning through to the semifinals of the open division.
Keller-Rice's son Marco, 12, will play in his first nationals in the boys' under-13 grade.
While the sport is booming among the midweek seniors at the Otumoetai club, with 40-50 regulars filling the Matua Community Hall each week, interest amongst the younger set has dwindled.
"We used to easily get upwards of 40 here on a Tuesday and Friday night but now it has dropped to between 10 and 20, and that'd be a good night," said Hetherington, whose national under-18 ranking has slipped from 25th to 44th.
"We're struggling and have to face the reality that table tennis isn't really considered a sport in Tauranga."
Hetherington and Smith have taken table tennis into schools but fear Tauranga may have dropped the ping pong ball when it failed to support Chinese player Sun Yang, now ranked No2 in New Zealand, and her plans to develop the game here.
"She spent three years in Tauranga but there just wasn't the interest to make it financially viable so she's now coaching in Christchurch," Hetherington said.
"Coaches in other areas are getting $50 an hour but Sun Yang could barely scrape together four kids for a coaching session."
Smith started playing table tennis six years ago and said the pace of the game left tennis for dead."You also have to think a lot and be quite strategic, whereas slugging a tennis ball back and forth across the net can get quite boring. I'm more stuffed after an hour of table tennis than I was after two and a half hours on court playing in the (Welcome Bay) men's tennis final."
Smith is a big hope in the men's D grade, with his main competition coming from Papamoa-based top seed John Lea.