66-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 66, June 27 - Junior Commission Chair Dennis Davis
“I am very much influenced by the culture of innovation and outside-the-box thinking.”
Back in 2009 you were appointed the North American representative on the ITTF’s Junior Commission. Then in 2013 you became the Chair. Before we visit about that, I’d like to ask you some questions about your involvement in table tennis, beginning with how did you get started?
I started to play by accident. When I was 18 I took some courses at the St. Petersburg Junior College in Clearwater, FL and I happened to visit the Student Recreation Center and saw two decent players playing and became fascinated by the sport. Those two players started to teach me how to play.
I joined the US Air Force shortly afterward and moved to Bitburg, West Germany (yes, before the Berlin Wall fell!). I located the local table tennis club in Bitburg and joined one of their lower level teams that participated in the well-organized German league system. I was basically a beginner when I arrived there but eventually over 3 years improved and won the Bitburg City Championships in Men’s Singles. I also won the US Air Force in Europe championships.
After leaving the Air Force I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I started to go to college again and also decided to train as hard as I could to get better. I know I started very late in table tennis, but I was a decent athlete and I did not want to regret not giving it my best effort.
I was introduced to Diana Gee, 1988, 1992 US Olympic Team Member, and she asked me to start to practice with her. I wanted to train overseas, so she gave me an introduction to the famous Angby Sport Club in Vallingby, Sweden as the US team had trained there before competing at the 1989 World Championships that were held in Germany.
I was able to connect with Mikael Frank at Angby and he approved my visit. He also found me a host family to live with. They treated me very well and I trained at Angby for about 3 months per year for 3 years. I was fortunate that I was able to train with good players and worked hard to provide good practice with whomever I could train with.
I was also fortunate that it was a special time from 1989-1991 for Swedish table tennis. Mikael Appelgren trained and played for Angby and we became friends. He was a very nice guy and was open to answering my table tennis questions. In 1991 Jan-Ove Waldner joined the Angby Team as well and I was able to watch him and Appelgren train on a regular basis. It was very educational and almost a dream situation for me. My level increased significantly and I was able to reach maybe in the top 30-50 players in the US.
I started to be involved with the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club in California around 1988-1989 and trained there and helped operate the club. By 1990, I was the head of the club until we closed the club in 2012 to open our new full-time club, PongPlanet.
Can you tell us next how you transitioned over to coaching? And, don’t be shy, please tell us about some of the members of the USA national team that you worked with when they were quite young.
I started a junior training program in 1990 because many parents would ask me to coach their kids. I was still competing at that time, but I stopped seriously training and competing in 1993 to focus on coaching. Each generation I coached through the years were getting better and better at a younger age. The list of players I have coached are below:
Shashin Shodhan – US Junior Team Member
Auria Malek – US Junior Team Member
Jackie Lee – US Women’s National Team
Atha Fong – US Junior Team
Trevor Runyan – US Junior Team
Ariel Hsing – US Olympic Team
Lily Zhang – US Olympic Team
Prachi Jha – US Women’s National Team
Kanak Jha – US Men’s National Team
You must be so thrilled to see one of your former students, Kanak Jha, win the North American Championships that just finished. Can we shift gears for a minute and look at the success of this year’s youthful finalists?
Yes, I was very proud to watch the next generation of US Junior players rising. Tonight, 14-year-old Kanak Jha won the North American Cup Men's Singles and 12-year-old Crystal Wang made it to the Women's Finals but fell to Mo Zhang of Canada. Kanak has earned his place in the Men's World Cup, taking place this October.
Kanak has been very active in the Global Junior Program (GJP), starting with the 2011 World Hopes Team. The activities of the GJP have provided opportunities that provide exposure to top-level coaching, training and competition. I have seen the great strides of juniors from "non-traditional" table tennis countries.
It is important that the Junior Commission continues to push forward with broadening the reach of these programs to expose more players from "developing" table tennis countries to these opportunities. I can tell you without hesitation that without the GJP many of the players like Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Adriana Diaz and Kanak Jha would not have reached such a high standard of play at their young ages."
Getting back to the GJP, you played a huge role in bringing the World Junior Championships to Palo Alto in 2007. What about that event spoke to you? And who worked with you to make that vision a reality?
I coached the US Girls Team at the World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile and thought it was a great event to promote junior development. Mikael Andersson and I spoke about an idea of bringing this event to the US. I thought it could be done. Before seriously pursuing this I really needed to decide what were my main motivations for considering it. There were a number of reasons but the one that was the most important to me was we needed to give a vision to the next generation of US Junior players that was missing.
At that time, if a player made the US Junior Team that was their final goal and they did not think about being competitive internationally. I wanted the young players to learn to compete and win internationally and providing this kind of stage and exposure, I believe, was an important step. At that time I was coaching Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Prachi and Kanak Jha. Ariel and Lily were only 11 or 12 years old at the time and they were selected for the US Junior Team because the host country is allowed to enter 6 male and female players instead of only 4 for the other countries.
I connected with Anne Cribbs, CEO of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee (BASOC), and asked her if she was interested in bringing this event to the bay area. I had known Anne from our previously working together on the San Francisco Bay Area’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. She had the connections with Stanford University and they supported the bid to host the event there. It was quite a risky undertaking but with a lot of help from BASOC, Stanford, local volunteers and the ITTF we were able to pull it off.
Later you became North America’s representative on the Junior Commission. What were your initial impressions of the Commission’s progress?
I was very impressed by the passion of the Commission members and the staff that were involved. They really wanted to make a difference and showed a track record of doing just that.
And now, since 2013, you have been the Commission’s Chair. Can you tell us how the Commission operates and what your main goals are as Chair?
The commission physically meets annually at the World Junior Championships. There is business that takes place through electronic communication throughout the year. Normally the Chair will meet with ITTF staff and Executive Committee liaison, currently Patrick Gillman, at the World Cadet Challenge to prepare and finalize the agenda for the annual meeting at the World Junior Championships.
There are a few main goals I have as Chair. One is to enable more training and competitive training opportunities for players and coaches that they would not normally have exposure to without ITTF involvement. I would also like to have more involvement in the Junior Commission from table tennis powerhouses like China, Korea, Japan, Germany and France. I believe their active involvement in helping to raise the overall level of table tennis in countries throughout the world is in their long-term best interest.
Obviously, the “Road to Nanjing” leading up to the Youth Olympic Games in August is a huge priority right now. Can you tell us more about that?
The “Road to Nanjing” series of events has been an exciting build up to the YOG. Dispersing the qualification tournaments and promoting activity is the key with an eye on universality.
After Nanjing, what will be the Commission’s main focus for the rest of the quad?
For the Commission to increase its effectiveness and continued growth in activity, we need to think about how to best accomplish this scaling process. Since resources are always difficult to find, we need to be creative to ensure that we do not slow our growth because of finite resources. I will share my thoughts with the Commission members soon so we can start engaging on this topic. Since I live and work in Silicon Valley, I am very much influenced by the culture of innovation and outside-the-box thinking to solve problems and to move things forward. I hope that the Commission and the ITTF is open to doing things differently at times and taking a risk on some new ideas.
As this Countdown series is to honor Adham Sharara for his 15 years of service as ITTF President, do you have any comments to share with regard to the progress and changes that have taken place since 1999?
The ITTF has changed and moved the sport forward drastically during Adham’s time as President. I think he was willing to push forward some ideas that were not the status quo and were risky in many people’s opinion. Now we look back and see that some of the major changes that were adopted made a tremendous positive impact in the growth of table tennis.
I personally would like to thank Adham for his engagement and support of the 2007 World Junior Championships at Stanford. Adham had the vision to create and support the Global Junior Program and let Mikael Andersson run with it full speed ahead for many years.
Thank you very much for your comments and insights.