TOKYO — The Voice of Table Tennis, aka Snakeman, isn’t quite at the top of the sport he loves. Maybe three levels below the U.S. national team, he says.
But Adam Bobrow is still very good, able to hang, for some rallies, at least, with the best. More importantly, perhaps, he possesses an arsenal of tricky spin shots — including the Snake, which explains his nickname. All have been captured on YouTube and watched by millions, leaving opponents gaping and then, as the wildness sinks in, delighted.
What he really likes, though, besides his main job as lead commentator for the International Table Tennis Federation, is to travel the world as an ambassador for the sport — part earnest evangelist, part clown prince entertainer, wholly invested in showing the world the delights of what he considers the best game there is.
“There are an infinite amount of possibilities in any moment, and the spin on the ball can make the ball curve, jump, kick, bend. It’s just like wizardry,” Bobrow said, speaking with The Associated Press during the Olympics in between his commentary for an exciting table tennis tournament that saw powerhouse China reign supreme yet again. “It's like a puzzle in real time that involves speed and strategy.”
Bobrow's passion for the game, which is infectious, comes with a certain amount of self-promotion. In fact, he's the reason this story exists. He came into the AP office in the Olympics' Main Press Center this week and said, in effect, “Write about me!”
Bobrow, an American who lives in Taiwan and who has also worked as an actor, often favors multi-colored fluorescent shirts and pants with designs that look like paint splatters on a canvas. It's part of his goal to amplify his sport — and himself.
“The more table tennis grows, I’ll grow with it. I don’t think of that as a bad thing,” Bobrow said when asked about his push for media coverage. “If my (YouTube) channel gets a million subscribers by the end of this year, that’s good for table tennis because that means more people are watching table tennis.”
The featured video on Bobrow’s channel, called “A Year of Ping Pong,” has more than 17 million views and shows him playing against people around the world.
The games look fun, and the victims of Bobrow’s spin shots are usually delighted with the wizardry. Bobrow has an endearing habit of saying “good” when trying to return an opponent's winning shot. He plays one point mostly sitting on the ground, and claims he's “No. 1 in the world for bloodshed in table tennis,” pointing to head gashes from points gone wrong.
He sees his job as teasing out the personalities of the star players. The athletes need an ambassador, he says, because they're so busy working on their games that they have little time to develop their brands.
After losing in one video to the then-No. 7 player in the world, Lin Yun-ju, of Taiwan, Bobrow hangs out with Lin and his family, going to waterfalls, playing tennis, eating dinner. Bobrow seems genuinely delighted when someone on the street in Taiwan recognizes him.
In another video, he challenges two very skilled Japanese sisters, 6-year-old Miku Matsushima and 3-year-old Aira. He's particularly thrilled when Miku employs a deadly “reverse tomahawk” serve. After the table tennis, the girls give him a “massage” — piling clothes on his head and jumping on his back while giggling.
Bobrow has been the ITTF’s main commentator since 2014, when he won an online competition looking for the “voice of table tennis.”
“I don’t have a very big vocabulary because I don’t like to read much. So I can speak in very simple terms, and I can break down the game in a very simple way," he says. “Even if you’re not a competitor, I hope I can make it exciting and engage viewers, pique their curiosity to go, `Oh cool, interesting, I never knew that,' or, `Oh fascinating, it’s spinning as fast as a NASCAR tire."
Perhaps the secret to Bobrow's online success is that people simply enjoy playing the game with him. It was evident during a recent trip to a Tokyo table tennis club.
First with a reporter who couldn't remember the last time he'd played, then with the skilled club manager, finally with a young woman who'd just started playing, he seemed to bring out the best in each of his opponents. His play encouraged long, hypnotic, satisfying rallies that would often end with one of his amazing trick shots, followed by a laugh or a stunned look of wonder from the victim.
“I can hit a ball that goes up in the air in one direction, comes down in the opposite direction and bounces back in another direction. Now, physics can explain that, but most people don’t believe that when they see it," Bobrow says. “The pros, at any given moment, can hit a ball in a way that will make it curve, kick, dip and dive."
When the pandemic allows, Bobrow, who describes himself as “extremely social,” plans to keep traveling the world, both for ITTF commentary and to meet people. He wants to add to the more than 45 countries he's been to and the tens of thousands of games he's played. Until then, as the Snakeman likes to say in his videos, he'll keep on pongin’.