On a recent Tuesday inside the Hi-Tone Café, the culmination of a three-hour Ping-Pong tournament results in a rematch 30 years in the making.
The stage is bare, and despite the black ceiling and dark walls, the lights shine brighter than usual. The tables and chairs have been moved aside, and spectators focus intently on two men in the center of the room and the tiny ball flying between them.
Donny Flowers and Jimmy Wise are the last men standing out of 16 competitors at the end of the night's tournament. The two played together in a table tennis club in Memphis in the '70s, and tonight, they go head-to-head once again.
Sweat drips from their foreheads in the final intense moments of the game. After hitting one through the net, Wise rubs his hand across his face in frustration. Both move swiftly, hoping to zip the ball past their competitor for a precious point. With clutched knuckles and determination, they swat the ball back and forth until Flowers delivers a lightning-fast serve for the win.
"There were a lot of great people here tonight, a lot of competitive players," Flowers says afterward and laughs. "I tried to play a little dirty."
Flowers is a tennis instructor and plays Ping-Pong about once a week. He says, "You don't have to be great at table tennis to play in the tournament. It's all about having fun."
This is the Hi-Tone's second ping-pong tournament, and the bar plans to host tournaments twice a month on Tuesdays. Matches are played simultaneously on three Stiga pro tables, two on the "dance" floor, and one in the side room where the billiards tables used to be.
Throughout the tournament, balls zoom across the floor, bounce, and ricochet off walls — and people. Balls land in trash cans, fly behind the bar, and roll into corners, never to be seen again. Some players keep spares in their pockets for a quick serve.
The competition follows standard Ping-Pong rules: Each game goes to 21 points; best two out of three games wins. The tournament is currently "singles" pong, but the organizers may do a doubles tournament in the future.
Clay Hardee, ping-ponger and Hi-Tone regular, says, "The Hi-Tone has had a face-lift. ... It's not just a dirty, late-night bar anymore."