Ping-pong, or table tennis, has been a part of the Olympics since 1988, and the three teen players profiled in Top Spin make it clear why. Their athleticism is undeniable; they move so quickly the footage of their competitions looks undercranked. The level of technique is further mystifying, as they make the ball move in ways never seen by the casual player.
Ariel Hsing is the most charming and engaging. She seems remarkably free from any neuroses typically associated with overachievers, even with a proudly tigerish father. It’s ironically her normality, in this context, that makes her worth watching. “Did you guys hear anything about me, like that I was weird or something?” she asks into the camera before laughing. It’s playful and honest, and I found myself surprised that I’d never heard anyone ask that before in a documentary.
Lily Zhang has not grown up equally unscathed. For one thing, she is used to being number two behind Ariel, and the strain occasionally shows. And as she pushes herself to make the Olympic team, she begins to suffer from serious muscle pain, but she grits through it.
Michael Landers, not unlike a young Michael Cera, has a gawkiness to his playing that’s amusing to watch. His relationship to his parents, especially his mother, is the emotional center of the film. They note what he has given up—he goes to school online at home, to better handle his traveling schedule—but they express real pride and joy at his having the opportunity to pursue his dream. Still, he comes across as the loneliest of the three, the least socially developed: he’s continually isolated.
U.S. coach Jun Gao, a former Chinese champion, says most players start out in the sport for their parents. Asked when she started playing for herself, Gao has to think. “After I retired,” she says. This film invites comparison to Spellbound, the crowd-pleasing look at the National Spelling Bee. Though that film was upbeat and funny, it did have one mother passing on the idea that putting this much pressure on a young person is a form of child abuse. The tears in Top Spin are few and far between, but all three, even the ebullient Ariel, have moments of doubt about the course they pursue. It’s not at all surprising to see one of the players, after London 2012, put away the paddles.
One of the things directors Sara Newens and Mina T. Son do very well is help explain why one-on-one sports are so fascinating. They slow life down, or at least concentrate on a single thrilling moment. They also reveal what we are capable of, physically and mentally, as these athletes draw on substantial inner resources to battle through a match. Top Spin makes no effort to wring extra drama out of its material: the filmmakers wisely know that Olympian efforts are compelling enough.