Lily Zhang, left, and Ariel Hsing are expected to represent the U.S. in next summer's Olympics in London.

It could be semantics to some, but ping-pong and table tennis are not the same thing. “You say ping-pong when you play recreationally,” says Rajul Sheth, director of sports and recreation at the India Community Center (ICC) in Milpitas. “When you go out of a garage, then it becomes table tennis.”

Sheth takes his sport seriously, as do his students. Running one of the most successful table tennis training centers in the world, Sheth and six internationally acclaimed coaches oversee the maturation of some of the game’s youngest stars. As of August, a total of 24 ICC players were ranked in the Top 10 nationally. Included in that group are two local teenage girls expected to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Lily Zhang, 14, and 15-year-old Ariel Hsing make up the 1-2 punch that is setting a new standard for American table tennis. Hsing won the 2010 U.S. National Championship for her division, while Zhang is currently the second-ranked player in the world for Under-15.

“A player from America to reach No. 2 in the world—that has never happened in history,” says Sheth, adding that the chances both girls will compete in London next year is “kind of a sure shot.”

This weekend, Hsing and Zhang will be joined by many of the best young table tennis players in the world for the International Junior and Cadet Table Tennis Championships, which will be held Saturday and Sunday at the ICC Table Tennis Center (1453 N. Milpitas Blvd.). Currently, 115 players are entered in the tournament, with some coming from as far away as Sweden, Trinidad, Mexico, China, Ecuador, Canada and Singapore.

Short shrift in respect for table tennis may come from the inherent silliness of watching a paddle swing so hard at such a small ball on such a small table, but the level of commitment needed to excel in the sport is no less demanding than that of traditional American pastimes. The hours dedicated to mastering a particular style, such as a two-wing looper or an all-around attack, oftentimes reaches 25-30 hours a week, Sheth says.

“As far as training is concerned, we have a lot of kids who play soccer, baseball and basketball as well,” Sheth says. “You need more stamina to play table tennis than most other sports.”

If time and energy don’t express the level of commitment many of these players have, money should do the talking. Instruction and equipment isn’t cheap. A 2009 New York Times profile of the ICC reports that Hsing’s parents spend “at least $40,000 a year fostering their daughter’s talent.”