USA Table Tennis

 Four-time U.S. Women’s Champion Amy Feng’s first coach was her father, Peishing, whom she’d accompanied to a local table tennis club and found that playing the game was fun—certainly better than studying. By 1981, 12-year-old Amy had been accepted as a professional member of the Tianjin, China Women’s Team. Later, in 1993, a year after she’d emigrated to the U.S., Amy would tell interviewer Gwyn Jones that, as a promising pre-teen at her specialized table tennis boarding school, “her typical day would start at 6 a.m. with an hour of exercise, including running and calisthenics. After breakfast, students would continue their table tennis training for five or six hours.” [Reflecting back, Amy would say, ‘Five hours a day is too much. You can’t think for that long. After a while you’re just playing, not thinking.’]  Mixed in with this regimen were two hours of studies. However, athletes in training did not receive the same academic background as other students. For example, unlike many other students her age, Amy did not study English in school; it wasn’t considered important for table tennis players.”   

            In another interview, this one in 1996 when Amy was representing the U.S. at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Info ’96 interviewer asked her, “Just how strong a player were you in China?” Amy answered, “I was a professional. In 1986 I came second in the Chinese National Championships. But, though I represented China as a traveling player, when I wasn’t given the chance to go to the major international tournaments, particularly the World’s, I thought that very unfair.”

            And with good reason: after she’d won the 1985 Polish Open over Hungary’s about-to-be European Champion Csilla Batorfi, she was ranked World #26. At the 1987 China National Championships, she had a 5th-Place finish, defeating three future Chinese World and/or Olympic Champions—Qiao Hong, Gao Jun, and Chen Jing. “In China,” said Amy, “if the coaches like you, you’re favored. And that means a lot—because, since there are so many good players to choose from, anyone from #1 to #20 can go to the World’s and win. But the coaches didn’t like my European style of play. I played shakehands and with smooth rubber on both sides of my racket.”

            In 1990, after being the Tianjin Champion from 1985-89, and a coach as well, Amy was finally put on the Chinese National Team, but really only as a practice partner. Soon, wanting to try other things and given the opportunity, she joined her friend Andy Tan in the U.S.       

            And of course right from her April, 1992 arrival in the States, it didn’t take her long to regain her playing touch. At the 1992 U.S. Open, she won (with Cheng Yinghua) Mixed Doubles, Foreign Women’s Singles, and reached the Women’s Singles’ quarterfinal’s by defeating Yugoslavia’s Jasna Fazlic (now Jasna Rather) who’d partner Amy to a 3rd-place Doubles finish in the ’93 Japan Open..

            Amy went on to capture the Women’s Singles, Women’s Doubles, and Mixed Doubles at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto. Then, at the Pacific Rim tournament in Portland, OR, Amy had Cheng Yinghua (who’d be the 1993 U.S. Open Champion) almost beaten—down 1-0 and at deuce in what would have been the deciding second. Finally, she capped off this ‘Hi, I like it here!’ first-year nine-month streak by winning the U.S. Closed Women’s Singles and (with fellow Hall of Famer David Zhuang) the Mixed Doubles (the first of four straight Championships in both these events she’d win).”

            Chinese faces dominated our winning Women’s Team at the 1993 U.S. Open Team Championship. Wei Wang, Coach Zhang Li, Lily Yip, Virginia Sung, and Amy (who’d beaten Wei to win the North American Championship) defeated the visiting Japanese in a 5-2 final.

            Amy and Lily were teammates that fall, but, wow, what almost monthly battles they’d been having and would continue to have at many a tournament. In the ’93 U.S. Closed final, Lily pummeled away at Amy in an amazing game—routed her 21-4. But, almost as amazing, Amy retaliated with 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 serve-and-follow winners the very next game, then finally won in the fifth. However, tabulate the points each scored and it’d be an 83-83 tie.

            Amy will twice be USATT Athlete of the Year, and in 1993 she was chosen from over 60 nominees as one of the 10 finalists for The Women’s Sports Foundation’s Sudafed Sportswoman of the Year Award. She didn’t win, but received honor enough I presume at a black-tie dinner held Oct. 4that New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

            In 1994 Amy’s at the Sun TV Open in Pittsburgh, and—hello!—who’s coaching Amy in her zillionth final against Lily? Former World #3 Gao Jun. Turns out she and Amy have been friends since they were both nine years old and playing in junior competition. Now Gao, too, has immigrated to the U.S. and they’re practice partners.          At the 1994 U.S. Open, in the quarter’s of the Women’s Singles (“the best women’s match in U.S. history” someone proclaimed), Amy prevailed in five over lefty, pips-out shakehands attacker Chen Jing, the 1988 Olympic Champion. Amy then met Gao in the final and lost in straight games. However, at the Sept., ’94 Toronto CNE, Amy beat Jun three straight. But then, oh, oh, at the ’95 (and ’96) North American Championships, Amy faced a Gao Singles and Doubles counterpart who’d settled in Canada—Geng Lijuan, 1985 World Singles finalist to China’s CaoYanhua and also (with Dai Lili) World Women’s Doubles Champion. How’d their match go? Alas, Amy, looping lousy, lost.  

            The 1995 World’s were in Tianjin, Amy’s home town. She made the U.S. Team, but could only play in the Individual events, not in the Team event. China argued that the ITTF rules were clear—Amy was not yet eligible to play for another country because she had played for China at the 1985 Polish Open, and they would not grant her a waiver. U.S. Team Manager Bob Allshouse argued to the ITTF that “Amy was 16 at the time.” Said that the “Tianjin Club had sent a Junior Team to this tournament. But it was registered as a Chinese National Team event to allow the Juniors to compete.” I, too, tried to talk China TTA President Xu Yinshing into letting Amy play in the Team’s for the U.S., but, mirroring the ITTF rejection, he politely refused.

            Although the 1995 Closed was the last in Amy’s four-straight string of Singles wins, in ’96 and ’97 she lost only because her opponent in the final was her winning Women’s Doubles partner Gao. Said Larry Hodges of their ’96 match, “Just another night at the Club.”

            At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Amy, in her opening match, defeated Valentina Popova, the 1980 and 1984 European Champion. Then was beaten by China’s Liu Wei. When the Interviewer asked, “Does it feel funny to play against the Chinese—as if you were playing against your own country?” Amy replied, “No, I’ve been a U.S. citizen for four months, so I don’t feel uncomfortable about competing against players from China.”

            1997 brought Amy, by this time a licensed Maryland cosmetologist, a new partner—her husband Xiao-Lei “Charlie” Hu. In 1998 they parented a son, Max.

Then Amy, back playing again, shared in the U.S. pot-of-gold at the Canadian Pan Am Games.

            With the coming of the new millennium, Amy retired from table tennis and she and her husband “Charlie” moved to Hong Kong. There in 2003 she gave birth to a daughter Ashley. Then the couple moved on to Hangzhou, where Charlie started his own company. However, since he was very focused on his work and traveled away from home a lot, the marriage, following a separation, ended in divorce. In 2007, Amy met her present husband, Yanjun (Jack) Shi. They had a daughter Emily, then, last year, they moved to the U.S. Amy began coaching at Richard Lee’s Joola Club in Rockville, MD, and got along so well with everyone that Richard turned the Club over to her.

            Back at those Atlanta Olympics, an Interviewer had wanted to know if players were getting better in the U.S. “Well, said Amy, “recently there have been very good Chinese coaches here, former world champions. Zhang Li, who’d been our Women’s Coach, was great technically—she helped to improve my game. Her husband, Li Zhenshi, also very popular with the fans, was our Men’s Coach, and he, too, was very helpful. There are a lot of kids in the U.S. who’d like to play, but they don’t have a club to go to. And even if there were a club, players would still have to pay money to play. It’s particularly hard for girls to play. After high school they either go on to college or have to work for a living. They think that even if they play as well as they can, they haven’t much chance in international competition, so they just stop playing. It’s pretty much the same for the boys too.

            When asked if she’d like to coach, she’d said, “If I do coach, I don’t want to work with just anyone. My students have to really want to play table tennis, have to be really motivated. And they can’t be over 20 years old—it’s too late for them to be good. I myself started way back when I was eight and played every day.”

            Whether Amy still holds to such strictures regarding her students, I don’t know. But I do know the importance she places on perseverance. “The most important quality for a table tennis player,” she says, “is a determination never to give up. You must keep going no matter what.”

            And Amy has kept going—which is why she’s here tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to the first of our deserving inductees this evening, Amy Feng.