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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2007, 08:13 GMT 09:13 UK
Teen star making 'ping pong' cool
Darius Knight helping table tennis
17-year-old Darius Knight has helped take table tennis into inner-cities

By Mark Ashenden

Just as Formula One rejoices its renaissance thanks to a boot up the rear wing from Lewis Hamilton, table tennis may have found its own saviour.

Darius Knight, a 17-year-old raised on the streets of south London by his mum and who resisted the temptations of crime, has become a star in a sport not known for its role models.

He already plays for Great Britain on the World Pro Tour, is the national under-21 champion and is the figurehead for a new initiative called the Urban Cup which promotes the sport in inner-cities.

"Table tennis is like my baby," Knight told BBC Sport. "It was my saviour and I will promote it any way I can. It gave me a new direction from a young age but I was very fortunate.

Darius Knight and Lewis Hamilton
Knight and Hamilton are helping to boost the popularity of their sports
"Most of my friends were in trouble with the police and I was the gang leader but I stayed strong. It was all about 'want want want'. Nice clothes, nice cars.

"They wanted the quickest way of getting that and sometimes that meant doing negative things. My father and uncle liked sport and even they went in the wrong direction.

"My mum couldn't get me those things so that was why I got into table tennis. It opened a lot of gates and has made my life easier."

Knight started playing aged nine "whacking balls at mates" in the playground and within a year was paying 50p to receive three-hours coaching in a shed.

"It was worth loads more and we couldn't even afford that but the coaches kept us because they could see our potential," he said.

"When I didn't have any money I would ask someone for a pound on the street to go training. We all learned watching each other play, maximising every second to improve."

Darius and doubles partner Paul Drinkhall (current GB number one) are products of investing large amounts of time and money into talent; something performance director Steen Hansen is very proud of.

The former Danish teacher first came to work in British table tennis in 2001, a time when the sport's national academy was closing, investment had dried up and "it was embarrassing to lose to the English".

I don't want any regrets saying I should have done something. The way I have been brought up has taught me you are always in control of your own destiny

Darius Knight
Hansen now works for the English Table Tennis Association and the GB Olympic team, calling it a "privilege to make a living in the hobby he loves".

"Vision is not the strongest word in English sport," Hansen told BBC Sport. "My philosophy is to invest in youngsters and push from below.

"It's my job to guide them and make sure they practise with the right attitude and give them the tools to have a chance on the international scene.

"My main job is to deliver in 2012 and create a legacy. We need people playing table tennis afterwards. We need results but the more talent I have to choose from the better.

"Darius and Paul have been found. It's probably too early for them to qualify for Beijing but if they play at their best they have a chance against anybody in the world."

The immediate future looks good, but what about post-London? What happens when government investment runs out? Where will the next Darius come from?

These are the sort of questions keeping chief executive Richard Yule, the man in charge of the ETTA and the British Table Tennis Federation, awake at night.

Mark A, BBC Sport

"If Darius and Paul continue to do well, we will have a tremendous spin-off effect," he told BBC Sport. "We need the media to be attracted to winners.

"If we had a Lewis Hamilton situation then clearly that would be a fantastic driver for participation.

"We are very focused that these kids get the best opportunity to win medals in 2012 but we need to grow the sport again and increase membership."

According to Yule, membership numbers have been "down every year since 1978" but initiatives like the Urban Cup have been designed to address the issue.

The competition, a collaboration between the ETTA and clothing manufacturer Fred Perry, recently featured representatives from eight cities who played the final in London.

And Yule hopes it will "get right into the grass roots, generate activity and resurrect and reenergise table tennis in the youth club centre.

"The event was a huge success and we want it to grow locally but on a much bigger basis, reaching those parts of society other sports cannot," he said.

Paul Drinkhall
Paul Drinkhall is another bright hope for British table tennis

"There is a huge pool of talent in there. It has been a struggle in these areas getting the right property and facilities, but it's cheap and democratic."

Fred Perry brand manager Richard Martin, who helped set up the initiative, said a lack of funding from traditional sectors meant governing bodies were developing more commercial partnerships like theirs.

"This is all about getting kids playing," Martin told BBC Sport. "Fred Perry was table tennis world champion in 1929 so we have the historical link. We want to rediscover our sporting roots within table tennis.

"We wanted something fun with a music element that kids could relate to and wasn't patronising. But we're in it for the long term. We aren't just throwing money at something trendy and moving on after six months."

Yule and Hansen have every reason to be optimistic about the sport, particularly with the dedication of Knight and co, who are now training full-time at the academy in Sheffield.

"I will be giving it everything to be at the Olympics," said Knight. "I don't want any regrets saying I should have done something. The way I have been brought up has taught me you are always in control of your own destiny.

"Everybody has played table tennis, for fun or seriously, but we have to take it to the next level. London is a great chance to really sell the sport to the next generation and put it on the map.

"Talking to kids gives them a realistic dream. They can relate to me coming up from nothing. 'If he can do it, so can I'."

Darius Knight and Paul Drinkhall can be seen on BBC TV's Olympic Dreams documentary due to be shown in November.

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