Five-time Hungarian World Singles Champion Victor Barna once advised, "Don’t take up table tennis too young. Fourteen is quite young enough." Our next inductee to be honored tonight, Attila Malek, who immigrated to the U.S. from Barna’s hometown, Budapest, might have taken the Master’s highly suspect suggestion to heart, for he didn’t start playing until he was 15. "At first," he said, "I didn’t think I could be a good player. But I played 6-8 hours a day, and after 5 or 6 years I started to get better."
Malek was one of the 5-player members of the well known Ganzmavag Club that was third best in the 12-team Hungarian League. Best was the team with Jonyer and Klampar, the 1971 World Doubles Champions, and second best was the team with Gergely, Takacs, and Berczik, who coached these players to win the World Team Championship in Pyongyang in 1979.
During this time of his intense table tennis activity, Attila had to serve in the army, but, as he told me in an interview more than 20 years ago, "I wasn’t really a soldier"--and so he was allowed to go to tournaments in Germany, Austria, North Korea, and elsewhere. "However," he added, "about this time I began to get a bad feeling about the Association. Because, after I’d won a deciding match for our soldier team that allowed us to go to Germany for a big tournament, the people in power decided to send another player in my place who wasn’t as good as I was."
Attila could see that unless he was one of the favored few he wouldn’t have many opportunities for advancement. Of course, he understood that it wasn’t enough to play well, that you had to be nice to the right people. But another serious drawback to traveling to tournaments was that his Hungarian money really wasn’t enough for him to get along on. Which meant that he was stuck with tiresome practice partners and couldn’t get out, and try to become a more knowledgeable person and a better table tennis player. "If you wanted stroke-practice," he said, "you wouldn’t have any problem finding partner after partner who could loop 200 balls or counter 200 backhands, but a daily life of that wasn’t about to make any of my dreams come true."
After he was out of the army, Attila married--and some time later he and his wife Sylvia decided to see if they couldn’t get out of Hungary. Her father, Imre, had already come to the U.S., was establishing himself in a Hungarian community in Chicago, so they decided they’d try to join him. Hoping to avoid problems, the Maleks left Budapest, ostensibly for a vacation in Rome, thinking that perhaps they could get into the U.S. in several weeks. "But," said Attila, "we were seven months in Italy, being checked out by the CIA while waiting for the U.S. Immigration Service to give us permission to enter the country. Dirty hippies, they go, but we stay. Why?"
In the spring of 1978 they finally got to the U.S.--and Attila’s father-in-law, knowing how much the Sport meant to Attila, was very nice and agreed to sponsor him for a year. Shortly after their arrival, Attila and Sylvia, who’d find work as a physical therapist, went to spend a week with the Dick and Sue Butler family in Iowa City, where Attila was kept busy 6-8 hours a day coaching 11-year-old National Champion Scott--which meant not only playing table tennis with him but exercising, biking, and sprinting to get the young ‘un in shape for his upcoming 6 weeks stay in Sweden.
Regaining his balance as a player of stature would take Attila time. During those seven months in Italy he’d played no serious table tennis. In the U.S. he began by winning the Aug., ‘78 Milwaukee Summer Open--I believe his first out-of-town final--from several-time Minnesota Champ, John Soderberg. By the summer of ‘79, he’d raised his rating to U.S. #5, and had been picked to represent the U.S. in Team Matches at the Canadian National Exhibition tournament over the Labor Day weekend. He lost in the Singles there in 5 to Vincent Purkart, but after seeing the fabulous comedic exhibition that Jacques Secretin and Purkart put on, perhaps he was glad the 43-year-old former French Champion had come to Toronto.
There were willing practice partners for Attila in Chicago, but they weren’t steady enough, and so he kept trying to hit the ball into their strength. Above all, to get better he knew he had to play in tournaments. "Only through tournament play," he emphasized, "can you learn again and again that you must continue playing your own game--must never be afraid to take your usual shots."
"Problem was," he said, "the best competitive tournaments were often so far away and the prize money so small that you couldn’t even guarantee your expenses." So, though it cut down on his practice time, he got a job as a delivery driver for a bank. And now maybe he had second thoughts about leaving Hungary? After all, he was taking a special two-year coaching course there and, had he not interrupted that by leaving, he might have gone on to do well. "In Hungary," he said, "a table tennis coach is a respected job, a good job."
"Still," he concluded in that 1979 interview with me, "though the table tennis would have been better in Hungary, as far as my life goes, it’s much better here. I can eventually get a house for my family, travel, and have much more freedom. Although there seems to be no opportunity now for a table tennis coach to make a decent living, perhaps that will not always be so."
At the 1979 Southern Open in Atlanta, Attila beat Danny Seemiller for the first time--in the Team’s--then, after getting by D-J Lee 19 in the 5th, lost to Danny in 5 in the Singles. Seemiller was having trouble opening against Malek, especially when the Hungarian served short and then went into his topspin attack. Also, Attila’s quick-snap, rubber-band wrist of a backhand was capable of penetrating Danny’s weak wide forehand and even if Seemiller lunged it back Malek could get into spin position and keep Danny pinned. In the Doubles final, the Seemillers downed Malek and Dave Sakai, as they would in the final of Bill Hornyak’s Duneland Open that followed.
Playing for Joola in the ‘79 USOTC’s, Malek, Lee, and Eric Boggan failed to win the Championship after they’d been forced into a three-way tie-breaker precipitated by Eric’s deuce-in-the-3rd losses to Errol Caetano and Derek Wall.
At the National’s that followed, the Boggan brothers lost in the semi’s--Eric to Danny, Scott to Attila who it was said had switched to his new Joola Stratos rubber only three weeks before. The 5-game final was won by Attila, who, though earlier he’d been 2-1 down to both Ben Nisbet and Quang Bui, seemed to me more hungry for the win than Danny. Down 20-18 at the end, Seemiller courageously went for a 3rd-ball attack, missed, and, grimacing, followed through down, down to the Caesars Sports Pavilion floor.
Malek, lean as a professional bicycle racer, hands often clinched over a victory point as if he were holding on to some imaginary handlebars, had really been wired to play. With him it’d been a day-after-day dedication of "Practice! Practice! Practice!" Indeed, just before this final, a friend watched Attila seem to practically exhaust himself practicing footwork drills. With, then, extreme dedication and relentless tournament play, Malek had quickly achieved one of his goals--to play again at a professional level.
"Attila’s precision methodology unique to Hungarian coaching"--that, according to the Topics ad, was what the new National Champion and "Guest Coach" at D-J Lee’s Super Camp at Caesars the summer of 1980 would be able to offer. Meanwhile, at the April West Coast Open, two exciting semi’s--D-J over Ray Guillen, deuce in the 4th, and Attila over Scott Boggan, deuce in the 5th--were played away from the ESPN cameras because both D-J and Attila had refused to appear in shirts that didn’t show their Joola-sponsor’s logo. This point of view nixed any televised final, and Attila departed sans prize money.
"Hell hath no fury like a Texas scorch," gasped a headline in the Fort Worth paper. This, as the damned at the 1980 U.S. Open will remember forever, alluded to the 113-degree temperature that was suffocating those staying in the un-air-conditioned official tournament hotel. Malek lost to the eventual winner, Sweden’s Mikael Appelgren, in the quarter’s, after forcing him to deuce one game.
Attila now followed D-J’s lead and moved to Las Vegas, where for the next seven years he would have a steady job as a casino dealer and, with the birth of his two sons, Chris and Scott, new family responsibilities. You might say, his lot in life had improved, that he was playing his cards right. Still, his table tennis would have to suffer. That summer in the final of the California State Championships he lost to Guillen, about to head off to South Korea and Taiwan with a U.S. Team captained by Sakai.
But at the USOTC’s, Malek’s Joola team, with D-J and the Boggans, not only again beat the Butterfly Seemiller team, but this time bested Ontario, despite ex-Yugoslav National Zoran "Zoki" Kosanovic’s three wins. Though Attila rose to the occasion to win the climactic 3rd-game, 5-4 clincher against the Seemiller team’s Perry Schwartzberg, he wasn’t always at his best, perhaps because he wasn’t as tournament tough as he had been, or perhaps because back in Nevada he’d been involved in an accident. The car he was riding in had caught fire and was ready to explode, so he’d had to worry about saving himself, not the paddle locked into the too-hot-to-open trunk he’d won the U.S. Championship with.
The 1980 National’s found Attila losing to Ricky in 5 in the quarter’s. Attila also lost his place on the ‘81 U.S. World Team to Scott Boggan when he failed to hold a 1-0, 19-17 lead in the 2nd.
Though Malek wasn’t playing as much as he had been, he was still a contender. At Hornyak’s Duneland Open that fall, using some new Friendship rubber and practicing indefatiguably, he again threatened Danny in 5.
Since the Boggans were playing abroad, Attila had to have a new team at the USOTC’s--and so joined forces with U.S. Captain/Coach Houshang Bozorgzadeh, former U.S. World Team member Lim Ming Chui, and former Philippine star Rey Domingo. Along the way they upset the winning Seemiller team, 5-4, when Attila downed brothers Ricky and Randy.
At the 1981 National’s, Attila lost to Ricky in the quarter’s, but, winning a great match in the Trials from down 20-15 match point against that year’s U.S. Champion, Scott Boggan, he made the U.S. Team.
For the next year Attila played sparingly, but, prior to the ‘82 National’s, he’d begun lifting weights and practicing daily with D-J. As a result, he split matches with Danny, lost to him in the Singles, but beat him in the Trials, and so with the Seemillers and the Boggans would make the trip to the 1983 Tokyo World’s. This U.S. Men’s Team, with Captain/Coach Bozorgzadeh, beat both Denmark and Russia to insure their place in the First Division at the next, ‘85 World’s.
Attila had lost to Mario Alvarez in Tokyo, but at the June U.S. Open he scored a gutsy (-21, -19, 21, 7, 21), come-from-behind thriller over the Dominican #1 before losing to the eventual winner Eric Boggan in the quarter’s.
At the 1985 U.S. Closed he debuted in the Over 30’s and won it. But obviously, though his love of table tennis continued to surface, his dedication to competing had waned. Nor was his casino life any big deal. He was looking for something more. Rather soon, he and his family would leave Las Vegas for California, where Attila would get into the mortgage, then the insurance business.
Back playing in the ‘87 U.S. Closed, he was beaten in the 8th’s of the Men’s by former Thai and Defending U.S. Champion Chartchai Teekaveerakit, but he did get to two finals--losing in the National Amateur to O’Neill, and in the deciding 3rd in the Over 30’s to Insook Bhushan.
Handling playing cards or business cards did not seem satisfying enough to Attila. But then perhaps it was no surprise that he suddenly found his calling, became a born-again Christian--for "God," he says, "always gives you the desires of your heart. He changed my life, put me back seriously into table tennis. Not just to play, but to do the work of the Lord, whatever in the Sport that might be."
He continued to compete locally in California--"I still love to play in tournaments," he said,"but I hate to travel alone, and it’s just too expensive to take my wife and kids East." Perhaps being eligible for the Over 30 event gave Attila more impetus to play, for, as might be predicted from his first victory in the ‘85 U.S. Closed, he would continue to be a threat in that event wherever it might be held--as, for example, in the 1990 Laguna Hills, first-held "Meiklejohn" tournament for Senior’s where, in the final against Rey Domingo, from 16-19 down in the 5th, he took full advantage of his serve and attack game and ran out the match.
In 1990, too, in Vegas, though Attila didn’t make the U.S. World Team, he proved that even in his -mid-thirties he was still a powerful player, for he forced two of the country’s best players--John Onifade and Dhiren Narotam--into deuce-in-the-5th matches.
Invariably Attila was called on to play for the U.S. in East vs. West matches against visiting Japanese and Chinese players. At the Pacific Rim International in June of ‘88 he had a fine upset win over Olympics-bound Takehiro Watanabe, and in late Oct. of ‘93, at the Both Memorial Pacific Coast Open in Costa Mesa, where he’d been "coaching youngsters and promoting youth development," he won the $500 1st prize over Kazuyuki Yokoyama. He and Sylvia had also been promoting youth development in another way--welcomed daughter Brittany.
More Over 30 majors followed in the early ‘90’s, and in 1993 Attila won the U.S. Closed Over 40. In 1994, in the three majors, the U.S. Open, the Meiklejohn National Senior’s, and the U.S. Closed, Malek was in 1-2-3-4-5 age-event finals--and lost them all...to Danny Seemiller.
In the Meiklejohn Over 40 final ($1,000 to the winner, $500 to the loser), there was a bit of drama in the 5th game, which I found poignant. Attila is up 13-10, then loses 6 in a row to go down 16-13. At which point he calls to his son Scott who’s been rooting for him to "Please go away." Which the kid--who’s wearing a T-shirt with the definition of "Holy" on it: "set apart in the service of a loving God"--knowing his father didn’t mean to hurt him, quickly, dutifully does. Naturally I’m struck by this, am sympathetic to both father and son, for it’s deja vu in reverse for me, for how often had my son Scott, my Eric, told me to "Go away," and how often had I still watched and rooted from a distance, as did this Scott.
At the ‘96 Closed this same Scott Malek, with Attila not playing but devoting himself to coaching his Santa Ana, CA Calvary Chapel School students, won the U-1500 National title. But whether his sons chose to excel at table tennis or not, it’s quite clear he and Sylvia love them and are very proud of them.
"God is the greatest," Attila says, more than 20 years now after immigrating to this country and making a productive life for himself and his family. "He does work miracles." And we, on realizing that the two children Sylvia and Attila had only rather recently committed giving foster care to, Amanda and Casey, have now become the Malek’s own adopted children, might say that Attila himself, embodying God’s love, works miracles.
Although down through the years Attila, because of circumstances, has not always been able to enter tournaments or been prepared to play his best in them, he still loves to compete. At the 1998 U.S. Open, he was pleased that in a very strong field he’d again gotten to the Over 40 final, and had picked up an additional $400 for being a finalist in the much hyped Hardbat event.
However, much more important to Attila at this new millenium stage of his table tennis career is working with kids and their parents at his Newport Beach, CA full-time Training Center. He wants, through competitive table tennis, to teach these kids Christian values, Bible reading values, make them aware that being civil and decent is important--he wants them to be, you might say, gentle fighters. He feels God has given him the vision to bring about Local, Regional, and National Scholarship Fundraising Tournaments so that "Juniors as young as 7 years old will be able to start to earn money toward their education." Hence, he’s formed Power Pong Youth International, a non-profit organization that he prays will attract sponsors. " I dream" he says, "of an Association that has the know-how to make the U.S. the Table Tennis capital of the world."
For the many who have dreamed, who have given much of their lives to passionate play, Table Tennis has always been, and always will be, something more than Ping-Pong. "What is Sport?" someone once asked. Then answered, "Not merely a game, nor yet solely a pure physical exercise. Rather a momentary, if make-believe, exaltation of effort."
An exaltation of effort, a light that floods the soul--for this inductee, Attila Malek, the two are inseparable.