U.S. Play at 2011 World Championships

May 25, 2011, 12 a.m. (ET)

Those entered in the Men’s Singles with a #130 World Ranking or higher had to qualify for the Main Draw proper, which meant they had to play in beginning round robins (100 of which had three players, the other 2 four—all players positioned by rankings so as to almost ensure the advance of the strongest player in each group). The 102 winners of these groups would advance to single elimination play—the highest-rated 26 players (#130-#201) to a first round in which they’d draw byes, while the remaining 76 players engaged in 38 knock-out matches.  After that, the 26 byed players and the 38 knock-out winners would come together in a second round of single elimination play to produce the 32 players who would join the 96 exempt—thus forming the 128-entry Main Draw proper.

In only one of the 102 round robin groups did the #3 player play and defeat the #1 player to advance.  That distinction went to the U.S.’s  Fan Yiyong, ranked a ridiculous #1775 because he hadn’t been competing in ITTF events. Fan gave us a glimpse of the high-ranking world-class Chinese National Team member he was years ago when, first, at 15, he was the All-China Junior Champion and then had placed third in the All-China National’s. Though handicapped when the umpire, using a measuring device he himself didn’t seem too familiar with, finally, finally said, in effect, face up to it, fella, this rubber’s uneven—you can’t use that racket—Fan still, with a not too satisfactory back-up, took out the Netherlands’ World #285 Barry Wijers.

 But beating the Dutchman—he was the National Singles runner-up in 2008 and for half a dozen years the perennial National Doubles Champion—wasn’t easy. Wijers throws the ball pronouncedly back on his serves, and for whatever reason Fan’s popping up a lot of them. He loses the first two games badly. Then is down 6-4 in the third. Now, though, there seems to be a turning point—Wijers puts two successive serve returns into the net, and at 7-all Fan gets an edge. Three easy points, and from 8-all our guy runs it out. His play is spirited—he hurries after loose balls like the best of them. But in the fourth he’s back in serious trouble—his snap- backhands just aren’t going in. He’s 10-9 down, 11-10 down…but pulls it out 14-12. Two apiece.  In the fifth, Wijers looks to be in the psychic nether  lands—he’s down 6-3, and his body language shows it. But Fan makes an error—has a ball to hit, but instead drops it…high, and loses the point. But from 8-all he plays well—is fearless with his backhand, makes a good forehand counter, and, though Wijers fiercely smacks in Fan’s 10-8 serve, Fan comes away an 11-9 winner.

Fan’s getting more juice now. He flicks sweat off his shaved head, fist-pumps out a shout, and for a moment seems to paralyze the Dutchman, for Wijers literally in mid-point just stops playing. But can you count him out? Give him a minute to compose himself. Time at 8-all to slap hands with his coach—only  on taking leave of him he’s 10-8 double match-point down. Yet he survives that game. Three apiece. Then, in the climactic seventh, down 7-4, it’s Fan’s turn to call Time. He rallies, but down 10-9, 11-10, 12-11, 13-12, can he again tough it out? He can—wins 15-13. Naturally Wijers is not happy. He comes out of the court, tosses his racket at his bag—it misses, bounces a little.  A Blue Badge umpire, one of the 250 here, chances to be standing by. He can’t resist—gives Wijers a red card.

After escaping the Dutchman, Fan, in his first single elimination match, blanks Congo Brazzaville’s World #335 Suraju Saka, who’d played in the 2010 Volkswagen Men’s World Cup. (Counting both Congo Brazzaville and Congo Democratic there are 47 countries in the ITTF/African TTA.)  Only in the second game is Fan challenged. Up 9-8, he serves, misses an easy follow, spins around, throws out his arms…then, no answer to his entreaty, a mite upset, he fails to return serve. But, game-point down, he powers in a backhand, then scores with a serve and follow, and wins it when Saka mishits.  In the third and fourth games, looping with off-the-bounce abandon, Fan has, first, a 9-1, then a 9-2 run.

Next for Fan, in the first round proper, is the Australian Champ, William Henzell, World #152. But this time Fan can’t come up with a winner. He takes the first. Then in the second, after having waited while Henzell , faulted for not throwing the ball high enough on serve,  argues with the umpire, then the scorekeeper, Fan  has a chance to go two games up. But at 9-all he makes a bad error and down 10-9 serves and whiffs his follow. In the third, he’s again at 9-all, again is down 10-9, and this time puts his serve return into the net.  After those disappointing finishes, he gets behind in both the fourth and fifth games and can’t contest them.  For a man in his 40’s, he looks to be in great shape. But making a living doesn’t allow him to practice seriously. He’s not used to playing against Tynergy—the ball jumps out at him. And he hasn’t been allowed to use his regular racket. So he’s done what he can, has had by far the best showing of the U.S. men.

                Our 19-year-old current U.S. Men’s Champion Timothy Wang has played two years in a Dutch league. So he must be well aware that, though the title sponsor of this World Championship is the Guangzhou Automobile Group Co.  Ltd. (GAC Group), 83% of the 16.5 million people who live in this small, densely populated country own bicycles. And though I don’t know how cars are selling in Rotterdam, the Netherlands TTA has 35,000 members, and the turnout for the matches at the Ahoy Arena that can accommodate 15,000 spectators was quite good—especially when there were strongly anticipated Asian vs. European match-ups, most commonly among the men. Tim (ranked #623) downed Bader Saleh Bin Hayee (unranked), playing for Bahrain, one of the 215 countries affiliated with the ITTF, second now in any Sport Association’s total member-countries only to Volleyball. But Tim was not expected to, and could not, take down England’s Daniel Reed (#176).

                Mike Landers, 16, the 2009 U.S. Men’s Champion, won, as we knew he would, against Djibouti’s Farah Abdourazack (#1699). But then fell to India’s Subhajit Saha (#228). Mike wasn’t in the first game, but in that side hall where they were playing you could usually sit up close, didn’t have to have a bird’s eye view (suddenly there was one, a bird, flying over the courts) to note that Mike was making a 7-7 contest of the second game—that is, until Saha, playing aggressively and Michael a little soft, went on to win 11-7. But after losing the third, it was Mike who ran out the game from 7-all. And his streak continued into the fifth, where he was up 9-3—a 13-3 wipe out. Except Mike didn’t win that 9-3 game—dropped 6 in a row, and finally ended up losing, 13-11, and with it the match.

                Mark Hazinski (#455), three-time U.S. Men’s Closed runner-up, knocked off Pakistan’s (unranked) Yasir Iqbal Bhatti, but was beaten by Venezuela’s Jonathan Pino (#397) four straight in a match bookended by 12-10 games.  Mark also contested in the Men’s Consolation, losing the first two games badly, then rallying, only to lose from 9-7 up in the deciding fifth.

                Adam Hugh, U-2600 winner at the 2010 U.S. Open, stopped Mongolia’s (unranked) Anar Soljarga, but lost a tough fight with Chinese Taipei lefty, Lee Chia-Seng (#365), whom Adam felt had taken a point from him when he knew he should have lost it. With games one apiece, Adam’s up 9-1 in the third and lookin’ good. And in the fourth he’s up 6-4…then 6-6, at which point he misses what should have been a forehand winner and goes five more points south. Two each. Then, playing much too defensively, with a useless patty-cake block, he retreats from the table and from 4-2 up goes 7-4 down and can’t recover. He tries grittily to come back in game six, moves from 8-4 to 9-8 down, but, oh, he whiffs an easy forehand and is gone. Disgruntled he is. But, hey, not enough to act like that Brazilian fella—when he lost, he hit himself in the face with his racket and knocked out a tooth.

                Those entered in the Women’s Singles with a #164 ranking or higher had to qualify for the Main Draw proper, which meant they had to play, like the men, in beginning round robins (of which there were a convenient 64—59 of which had three players, the other 5 four players). The 64 winners of these groups would play one round of single elimination to produce the 32 players who would join the 96 exempt to form the 128-entry Main Draw proper.

                U.S. National Champion Ariel Hsing (#184) advances out of her round robin with wins over Finland’s Jannika Oksanen (#1064) and Mexico’s Nancy Sanchez (#877). She’s then drawn to meet, in the one single elimination round that if she wins qualifies her for the Main Draw, the winner of Group 59. Except her opponent won’t be the anticipated #1-positioned Pakistan’s Yelena Shagarova , for, after downing the Seychelles’ unranked Janice Mellie, the Group’s #2 player defeats Shagarova, and so will meet Ariel. And who is that player? Ariel’s teammate Erica Wu! With only 58 ranking points separating Shagarova (#446) and Wu (#504), it’s of course quite possible Wu would win, so somebody’s goofed. Yes, yes, o.k., understood—the draw is changed. (Rules say:  No geographical separation after the first round.)

                Ariel now meets Chile’s Pauline Vega (#449). Our girl’s off to a bad start, is 7-2 down, and loses the first game. In the second, where I can’t help but note the Chilean player foot-stamps on her serve (30 years ago—see Vol. XI of my History of U.S. Table Tennis—they were trying to outlaw that), Ariel 11-6 makes it one each. But again she’s slow to start. Gives Vega a 5-0 spot—in the course of which Ariel is faulted for the second time. I think unconsciously she’s slightly moving the hand that holds the ball as she serves. But then—wow!—Ariel, her backhand setting up shots, scoring, has a 9-1 run. But, coaches, again, in the fourth, Ariel’s again 5-0 down. But again rallies—from 9-5 down, she wins it, 12-10. As Vega moves to her corner, she gives her racket a little spin, chest high, easily catches it. The Blue Badge umpire gives her a yellow card. You can bet that when later the Chinese spin their rackets so, ain’t no umpire gonna card them.

Ariel’s getting  good practice coming from behind. But can she always do it? In fact, can she always win when she’s ahead? Nope. Game five to Vega. In game six, Ariel is again faulted on her serve, and perhaps it’s not clear to her WHY that’s happening. In fact, Coach Stefan Feth, concentrating on the play as if he’ll brook no distraction, including any thought of a signal to his player, is also carded by this fault-happy umpire (which Stefan, ever focused, unblinkingly treats as an irrelevance). Ariel, though, is apparently very unsettled, is at her worst—missing a hanger, mishitting balls. She gets only five points. Into the seventh, the pressure’s on—how confident can she feel? In this game she’s got to win, she’s making errors, is 6-4 down. Then 7-5 down as she misses another hanger. But Ariel’s a Champion—Champions win. She finishes with a 6-point psychic burst.   

                On shakily getting by Vega,  Ariel can go no further—but she puts up 3, 11, 9, 7 respectable resistance against Luxembourg’s 47-year-old Ni Xia Lian (#44). Remember her? As the 1999 Defending U.S. Open Women’s Champ, she won again, beating Gao Jun. Then 10 years later, in 2008, she and Gao are again in the U.S. Open final, and this time Gao wins.

                Our Erica Wu, U.S. Cadet #2 behind Lily Zhang, defeated Shagarova in straight games—which wasn’t surprising, not after, down 8-2 in the first (“C’mon, fight!”), she went on a 9-1 streak. Then was up 8-1 in the second. (That’s 17 out of 19.) In the fourth, exasperated, Shagarova swiped a ball out of the court. Apparently sympathizing, the Blue Badge umpire didn’t card her. Then with the changed draw, facing not Ariel but Poland’s Katarzyna Grzbowska (#180), Erica, though always fighting, was outclassed.

                Lily (#198), World #2 in Cadet Girls, advanced with wins over Kosovo’s Amare Janjeva (#1191) and Guatemala’s Analdy Lopez (#865). Then she faced Luxembourg’s Sarah de Nutte (#420). After winning the first, then in the next three going 3-1 down, losing a swing 13-11 second game, Lily was in trouble. But now… what a wrap-up finish for her—4, 1, 7! As expected then, Lily lost to one of my favorite players, a real fighter, the Czech Iveta Vacenovska (#59). Vacenovski won in five, but what a strange-scoring finish. Down 3-0 in games, Lily swamped this World Top 60 player 11-2 in the fourth! That was something to write home about. The fifth was too…Lily lost that game 11-0! Rightly, there was no condescending give-away point at the end from tough-minded Vacenovska.

                Like Fan Yiyong, Judy Hugh, not competing in ITTF play, but the current U.S. Women’s and Mixed Doubles Champion, was positioned in third place with an unrealistic ranking (#1284). Consequently, like Fan, she had to beat a good player to advance. So not surprisingly, after getting the better of Luxembourg’s Vinita Schlink (#785), she found the Czech Katerina Penkavova (#228) too strong.

                Prachi  Jha, U.S. Cadet #3, also because of her ranking (#1026), would have to catch a good player. She could defeat Karla Perez of Spain (#907)—after which Coach Feth considerately, encouragingly took a photo of her standing against the scoreboard—but she couldn’t stop the Slovak Republic’s Barbara Belazova (#168). Later I’d heard that Prachi had reached the semi’s of the Women’s Consolation.

                In Men’s Doubles, Adam and Mike, trying to qualify, finished off a Laotian pair in straight games, but then lost a nightmare match. Up 2-0 against Indonesians Ficky Supit Santoso (#342) and Agus Fredi Pramona (#593), they dropped the next three, -12, -9, -10. Mark and Timothy got to the third and final Qualifying Round, but it’s as if they never went out to the table, receiving a first-round walkover, then beating a pair of unranked Icelanders, 3, 5, 7. Not good preparation for trying to stave off Denmark’s Allan Bentsen (#111) and his weaker partner (work on him) Mikkel Hindersson (#404). But Hindersson didn’t hinder their partnership enough and the Danes prevailed, -10, 4, 10, 6

                In Women’s Doubles, Erica/Prachi lost in the first Qualifying Round to two Bulgarians, presumably sisters, Zhana (#482) and Detelina Petrova (unranked), 12-10 in the fourth. (Detelina would be runner-up in the Women’s Consolation. ) Ariel/Lily positioned in the Main Draw proper, met the too-formidable Wu (“Du Du”) Jiaduo (#16) and Sabine Winter (#132), heroines in Germany’s bronze medal win over Hong Kong last year. The Germans lost a first game to our players, but then settled down to a 1, 5, 3, 6 easy win.

                In Mixed Doubles, Judy again sat out (with brother Adam), presumably because our coaches,  Feth and Doru Gheorghe (who could often be seen in between games with one of our players talking intently and gesturing for emphasis), wanted to give the girls as much experience as possible. Our three allowed teams were quickly cut to two when, through an unusual mix-up, Tim, paired with Lily, didn’t show up for their first qualifying match. But Michael Landers/Erica Wu carried on, downed a Uzbekistan team in straight games. Then, playing on two tables, took out an Irish pair in four (#880/#829). Two tables? Yeah. Water was dripping from the ceiling—and the umpires didn’t seem to know what to do. A guy comes out with a mop, but the players switched tables, ‘cause mopping doesn’t stop the dripping, right? And now for Mike and Erica there’s bleeding—well, figuratively speaking—and so death, from Hong Kongers Cheung Yuk (#57)/Jiang Huajun (#20), is 7, 7, 4, 2 quick. As for Mark and Ariel, they don’t have to qualify but they’re not prepared to beat the Australians Henzell and Lay Jian Fang (#169)—they lose in six.

                The U.S. Bid for the 2014 World Veterans Championship in Las Vegas was not accepted. I thought Dan Seemiller and Dave Sakai, with an assist from our CEO Mike Cavanaugh and me, gave a good presentation. But the ITTF and particularly Oceania is at the forefront of a successful Development kick, and Auckland, New Zealand, the city awarded this Veteran’s bid, is focused on establishing training camps; women’s, umpires’, and marketing courses; and on hosting senior, junior, and cadet championships. It may be we had no chance to get the bid from the beginning.