Knight of the rectangular table
LONDON(AP) In the rough-and-tumble world of inner-city life, a youngster needs to find an outlet for his aggression.
Table tennis may not be the typical form of therapy for an urban kid in London, but Darius Knight took that route and is making the most of it. Now ranked No. 2 in England, he expects to be playing for Britain at the London Olympics in 2012.
“Definitely," the 18-year-old Knight said Wednesday. “Just got to keep my head down. Keep working."
Knight started training seriously when he was 10, quit school at 15 and recently moved to Sheffield to train at the English Institute of Sport. He spent years playing around the country, first under the tutelage of amateur coach Gideon Ashison and now with England's national team under Liu Jia Yi.
But it wasn't that easy to get there for a black kid from Battersea, an area of southwest London that borders on the River Thames.
“I used to hang out with the boys my age - playing football, riding bikes. Things boys do," Knight said. “And table tennis was in fashion, so we all played."
The 15 or so friends all took up the sport and played at a local club, where they met Ashison. As the months passed, more and more of the kids got bored and dropped away, but the left-hander stayed with it - if only to prove he was good enough after starting out as one of the worst among his friends.
The breakup of his parents also fueled his desire to play.
“I could be angry hitting the ball and not hurt anyone," said Knight, who recently lost a friend when he was stabbed to death in gang-related violence. “I wouldn't say I was unhappy, but it was a way to get my anger out."
To Ashison, Knight really proved his desire when he was 10 and decided to skip a family vacation to Jamaica to stay in London and train - traveling far across town to do it.
“That was how I could see he really wanted it," said Ashison, who has since become a professional table tennis coach. “That's when I took him serious.
“He could have fallen into bad company because of the area he lived in. All the kids there have nothing to look forward to."
Knight's career soon took off, winning youth and junior championships around the country and world after being recruited to play for England. Despite all his success and hours of daily practice, however, he's still the second-ranked senior player in England - and the second-ranked junior.
That's because doubles partner, friend and rival Paul Drinkhall is ranked No. 1.
“We're like double destruction," said Knight, who heads to Madrid, Spain, for the junior worlds, which start Saturday. “No. 1 and No. 2, juniors and seniors."
At the senior level, Knight is only ranked No. 314 as of last month's list, but that's mainly because he doesn't regularly compete at that level. That will likely change after Madrid, which is to be his last tournament as a junior.
Knight's success led to a sponsorship deal with British clothing maker Fred Perry, named after the last British man to win the singles title at Wimbledon in 1936 and also a world table tennis champion in 1929. At the company's Urban Cup in London on Dec. 13, Knight will be there to talk to other inner-city kids who want to play table tennis, and maybe even take them on in a game.
That's something Knight would certainly be happy with, because he's ready to show his skill.
“I'm so fast, so powerful, so quick," he said.
Ashison, however, thinks there's something else about Knight that will “definitely" make him an Olympian.
“He's very offensive. He goes for everything," said Ashison, who has become like family to Knight but is also one of his harshest critics. “Sometimes when he's on his own he goes over the top. He doesn't know when to wait for things and when is the right time to pass."
In 2010, Knight will likely be going to New Delhi, India, for the Commonwealth Games.
“If I get a medal there, that'll be a good indication," Knight said of his chances to win a medal at the London Olympics, where he'd love to play for his country in his hometown.
“The city I grew up in," he said. “My first Olympics in my back yard."