Vandita Chopra’s table tennis medals and trophies are still at her parents’ house in her native India, but visitors to her home in Robbinsville understand quickly the significance of the sport.
In the basement is a table tennis board, and its sole purpose is table tennis.
“When ladies would come, I would not let anyone touch that board because I would not want them to keep their glass or anything on the board,” Chopra said. “They knew I was pretty passionate about it and to stay away from the table.”
Chopra only started to get back into playing table tennis after her and her husband, Amit, moved to Robbinsville in 2015 with their children, daughter Ananya and son Dhruv. She already had lived nine years in the United States at that point.
“I hadn’t played in a long time,” Chopra said. “My last tournament I played was 1994. After that, I hadn’t played for the longest period. Now my kids are playing. When they started playing, that’s when I went back to it, and I practice with them. They go to tournaments and I started going with them.”
Chopra can start another award collection in her Robbinsville house after a strong showing at the U.S. Open in December 2018. She medaled in all four categories that she entered. She teamed up with former Olympian Lily Yip to win gold in the 40-plus women’s doubles with a straight sets win over Sheila Quirk and Valerie Rolph. Chopra had been thrilled just by the invite to play with Yip, who asked her after watching Chopra warming up at her club.
“I thought she was maybe joking about it, but she said, ‘I like the way you play,’” Chopra recalled. “I was happy just with that compliment. I didn’t think she really meant it. Every two or three weeks, when we’d cross paths, she’d say, ‘I hope you’re practicing because we’re playing together.’ After a month or two, it settled down and I realized she was saying she’s actually playing with me. That’s when I started seriously practicing. I didn’t want to go there and play bad with her. If I was doing it, I wanted to play well.”
Chopra teamed up at the last minute with Anjana Rao, and the duo finished second to Claudia Ikeizumi and Virginia Sung in the over-30 women’s double final.
“We were in the same group when we were playing our singles rated event,” Chopra said. “We got talking. She said, ‘I’ve come all the way from India to play.’ We had common friends because we played in the same area in India. Although she and I never played at that point, we had a lot of common friends that we knew were playing. It happened I was playing 40-plus doubles with Lily. And Lily was playing 50-plus doubles. You could only play two age categories. I did not have a partner for 30-plus and she did not have a partner for 30-plus. We just went and checked if we could put our entries in together and we put it in.”
Chopra also placed third in the singles divisions for over-40 women and over-30 women. It wasn’t a bad showing for only resuming playing a few years ago.
“I felt very good about the getting the medals,” Chopra said. “But there was also the realization at the same point when I looked at the participation level, the participation level for women was a lot less than it was for men. If we had 20 or 25 participants for a women’s category, there were probably 70-80, if not more than 100, for men. There was a lot of disparity. Once you grow older, the women somehow lose their passion. I’m sure there were a lot of players that were there, but they don’t play much or get to play much. Somehow there’s a large disparity between the number of women playing and men playing.”
Chopra knows how quickly she was able to get back into the sport, and she’s hoping that others will join her.
“There are a few people that play from Robbinsville,” Chopra said. “Preeti (Mulbagal) played professionally in India. There are some men that come to Princeton Pong. I know that they live in Robbinsville. More people should play.”
Chopra has found a way to balance returning to the sport with her job as a consultant with Bank of America and another hobby, teaching art to children in her Creative Kidz group. While her husband favors badminton and tennis, Chopra was overjoyed to find she lived so close to Princeton Pong in West Windsor, where she and her children play four nights each week, and her children train at Lily Yip Table Tennis Center in Dunellen on weekends.
“Even in Princeton Pong when I go and play the leagues, in the group I’m playing in, I’m the only woman playing there,” Chopra said. “If 50 are playing that night, if you count the women there’d be two or three. I play with men only most of the times. It’s either younger girls—including my daughter—they’re 10, 11 or 12-year-old girls. And then only two or three women. My league matches are against men.”
Part of that is due to her higher player rating. The United States Table Tennis Association has a rating system based on a player’s success and ability. Professionals are rated higher than 2,500 points. Chopra is at 1,788 and has been climbing since being reunited with the sport.
“I have another friend (Sheetal Shankam) who was a professional player in India,” Chopra said. “A common friend introduced us. And she is the one that actually took me to Princeton Pong. We practiced together sometimes, then she had a baby last year. She’s also going to pick up and play again.”
William Mayweather is another Robbinsville resident who plays at Princeton Pong. He can remember when Chopra started coming.
“When I first met and her and the family at the club, she was good but she wasn’t nearly as consistent and solid as she is now,” Mayweather said. “She’s probably improved 300 rating points in the last year. You could tell right away she had played before. As soon as the rust came off, she was really, really good again.”
It’s no surprise to him that Chopra did so well at the U.S. Open which is open to players from around the world. He’s seen her playing well against a variety of opponents at Princeton Pong.
“It’s probably 95-97 percent men,” Mayweather said. “There are maybe two women that play regularly in the league. And there are a few girls that are good, maybe four or five. Vandita is one of three or four adult women who play in the league. She’s the best of the adult women that play in the league.
“Table tennis is a very egalitarian. With the USTTA ratings, people will play anyone at their level. She’s very intense, and she’s very good. She has a good backhand and forehand. She has a lot of tricky serves. And mentally she’s very tough. When the pressure is on, she raises her game.”
Chopra grew up playing at high level in India. The daughter of a tennis coach, she started taking table tennis lessons and training before she turned 10. She finished third in her state in 12-and-under. In 1994, after winning her district, state and zone titles, she advanced to India’s K.V. School Nationals and earned a silver medal.
“Vandita is excellent,” Mayweather said. “She used to play for her state back in India. After a few years of not playing and having kids, she’s gotten back into it. After a few years off, she’s beating men, women and children.”
Chopra was rusty when she resumed playing, and her age gave her a new challenge. Last year she turned 40. She has worked her way up to playing well again.
“It took me some time,” Chopra said. “When I started back, I was 1,000 points and I lost to a lot of people at that point. It took me some time. I was used to playing at a very high level, and after not playing so long, when I went back to it I pulled muscles. I had to go through physical therapy, six weeks, also not playing for six months. And again I went back slower, I was wiser and didn’t jump right into it.”
Chopra tries to take advantage of the opportunities that she has to practice and play. There are plenty these days.
‘I would rather have my kids
playing table tennis than
playing Fortnite on the iPad
or doing something else.’
“My kids started playing, so I have more chances to play because every day I’m taking them to play,” Chopra said. “I get a chance to play too.”
Ananya is climbing up the girls rankings. Dhruv was ranked as high as third nationally in 10-and-under in December. All three will travel to the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas in July for their next big tournament.
Chopra also helps to coach their children. They have professional coaches at Lily Yip with Ananya coached by Yip’s daughter, Jenny Hugh, and Dhruv under the tutelage of Yip’s son-in-law, Cory Eider, but on weeknights at Princeton Pong, Chopra passes along pointers to her children.
“They beat everybody,” Mayweather said. “She’s a wonderful mother. You can see she’s really coaching them. You know it’s serious when she switches from English to Hindi.”
Chopra expects that her children will be good enough players to beat her by the end of the year, and that is saying a lot. The best female player in Robbinsville, Chopra has found her passion again and is happy to share it.
“I would definitely say I’m the one making an effort to do something that I like to do,” she said. “And I would rather have my kids playing table tennis than playing Fortnite on the iPad or doing something else.”