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Of ping-pong and pretty people

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Tennis star Anna Kournikova was on hand for last weekend’s (June 27-28, 2009) Hard Bat Classic table tennis tournament at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.
Erik Kabik/ RETNA

What do former pro tennis player Anna Kournikova, actor Antonio Sabato Jr., Autumn Reeser of The O.C. and 30 Rock funnyman Judah Friedlander have in common?

Besides all enjoying varying degrees of celebrity and appearing on TV in one capacity or another, most people would answer, "absolutely nothing." However, the four seemingly different stars recently aligned at the Venetian, united by the love of good old-fashioned ping-pong.

The first annual Hard Bat Classic was held at the Sands Expo Center this weekend, and yesterday the tournament featured a handful of familiar-faces during exhibition play.

After play wrapped for the day, everyone - A-listers, B-listers and ping-pong players of no star status whatsoever - gathered at the Venetian Sports Book for a post-play reception.

From there, some of the star talent moved the party to Lavo, where they mixed and mingled in the VIP area.

Sunday afternoon a fresh-faced Friedlander was back at Expo Hall C as the final match was being played. The comedian, who did not partake in the early-morning revelry at Lavo the night before, is no stranger to the game.

"30 Rock" star Judah Friedlander was among the celebrities who were on hand over the weekend for the first annual Hard Bat Classic at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.

"30 Rock" star Judah Friedlander was among the celebrities who were on hand over the weekend for the first annual Hard Bat Classic at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.

"It's the fastest game on Earth," he said. Friedlander said the retro-styled Hard Bat Classic is a great thing for the modern day sport.

"It's enhanced the profile of table tennis," he explained. While he himself did not play, Friedlander still had a blast during ping-pong party.

"It was a lot of fun," he said. "It was great."

The final stage of competition saw two generations of players go head to head across the net. Twenty-three-year-old Jack Baker took on 73-year-old Wayne Obertone in a best-of-three match-up. The young Mobile, Ala. resident defeated Obertone in two straight games to win the title.

A cloud of silver confetti burst overhead as Baker scored the 21st point in game two to win the grand prize. As the bleachers erupted in applause, a collection of frat boys rushed onto the court to congratulate Baker, now $100,000 richer.

Baker said he had no clue who the enthusiastic supporters were, but smiled and posed for photos with them anyway.

The Gravesend, England-native was presented with a Deal or No Deal-style briefcase of cash and posed with a collection of well-appointed Vegas-style showgirls after his victory.

Judah Friedlander, star of TV's "30 Rock," (center) was on hand for this weekend's first annual Hard Bat Classic table tennis tournament at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas.

He will soon take his winnings back to the University of Southern Alabama, where he began his studies in sports management on a tennis scholarship, and is set to graduate later this year.

Before the tournament, Baker was an unranked ping-pong player who stumbled upon the Hard Bat after a friend suggested he play in a qualifying round held in a local bar.

He said he heard it was sponsored by Bud Light and thought he'd give it a shot. Baker won the contest at the pub and soon found himself on a plane for Las Vegas.

Despite his qualifying round victories and previous success on the full-size tennis court, the Brit didn't expect to walk away a winner today.

"I was just happy to come here for a free trip," he said.

As far as his plans for his weekend's worth of winnings, he said he will probably give much of it to his parents, who have supported him tremendously in the past. And the remaining sum?

"I really don't know," he said. "I'm still in shock."

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Melissa Arseniuk

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