Cheng Yinghua (or just Chen, as his familiars--that is, everybody--at his Gaithersberg Club comfortably call him), is of course, at age 42, our three-time National Champion. Many of us first came to know him--well, know of him--when in 1985, as one of the Top 40 players in the world, he won the Miami Beach U.S. Open by beating in succession players from four different continents: Sweden’s 1984 European Champion Ulf Bengtsson; ‘83 U.S. Open Champ Eric Boggan; Nigeria’s #1, Atanda Musa, who in ‘81, ‘82, and ‘83 had piloted his Skypower team to repeated successes at our U.S. Open Team Championships; and, finally, Chinese Taipei’s 1984 U.S. Open Champion Wen Chia Wu. All, obviously, then, still formidable players. For good measure Chen then paired with World Champion Jiang Jialiang to win the Men’s Doubles over Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner and Erik Lindh, 13 and 7--this after, uh, being extended, 19 in the 3rd, in their Team tie with the U.S.’s Danny Seemiller and Eric Boggan.
Where--with this show of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy"--had this 26-year-old come from? China, yes, but what was his background, how had he become so accomplished? Only when we could see more of him, his play, only when he returned to stay, to eventually become a U.S. citizen, would we gradually find out the answers to what made him a winner.
In the spring of 1988 Chen did return. Was hired by the USTTA to position himself at Colorado Springs as a practice partner for the National Team, with a special emphasis on trying to better prepare our players to make a respectable showing in the Seoul Olympics. He was also to work with the Resident Training Program hopefuls, such as Todd Sweeris, who that year had set a goal to reach 2000 in the Ratings.
Chen could coach? Yes, indeed--he’d been Head Coach for China’s Sichuan Province. In fact, his coaching, he said, helped him to maintain his own level of play. "When I coach," he said, "I must think myself how I do things. As I remind my students, I am reminding myself." That same Todd Sweeris in the years to come, a mite improved from his RTP days--would be good enough, intense enough, to win a tournament from Chen and to partner him in the 2000 Olympics.
Chen was speaking of how he had a level of play to maintain. And, goodness, he did--does--say, 2800, as those who saw his thrilling play Thanksgiving weekend at the 2,000 Baltimore Team’s. By 1988 Chen had been a member of the Chinese National Team for maybe 10 years. Had started playing for fun on entering grade school, on tables both inside and outside. His Phys. Ed. teacher, whom little Chen sometimes beat, liked him and encouraged him to play--even loaned him a penholder racket, since Chen had no money to buy one of his own.
Actually, young Chen might have become a penholder--except he lost that penholder racket his teacher had given him. Very embarrassing. But bless the teacher--he had one more he could spare. This of course, as History would have it, was for a shakehands player.
In time, a table tennis coach recommended that Chen enter his province’s table tennis school. So, as a 12-year-old, Chen began a play-for-pay career, began drawing a table tennis salary. His parents were proud and encouraged him, "You must listen to the coach," said his mother. Not that she saw him very much, for at his home away from home "he trained six hours a day, six days a week." Time now for serve practice, Chen, for multi-ball; time now to run here, run there; time now to exercise, stretch, lift weights--time to feel the weight of it all. And, oh yes, there were two hours of academic studies daily.
Learning English was not a priority--that would come years and a new life later. Any kind of Dick and Jane primer would be easy to follow, but close up the book and conversation would be difficult. One day, though, Chen would get his U.S. citizenship--would pass another trial by combat, so to speak, by being able to write such sentences as "The President of the United States can usually be found in the White House--he likes his Oval Office." And Chen’s wife, Stacey, and daughter, Jing-Si, would beam--and there he’d be, far from his youth in Chengdu, the protective and respected patriarch of his family.
Although, with his European-like, two-winged inverted shakehands game, Chen was most valuable to the Chinese as a world-class practice partner for the National Team, he had, throughout his 20’s, a number of tournament successes of his own. In 1982 he got to the finals of the Chinese Elite Championships, in ‘83 he won the Finland Open and was a determined, or, rather, not so determined semifinalist in the Swiss Open--I say not so determined because, for whatever reason best known to the Chinese, he was not allowed to win that semi’s match. In ‘87, with World and Olympic Games Doubles Champion Chen Longcan, he won the Men’s Doubles at the prestigious 6th China National Games.
One of the very experienced coaches allied with Chen at the Gaithersberg, Maryland Training Center is former Chinese National Team member "Jack" Huang. Another is Table Tennis: Steps to Success-author/coach Larry Hodges who summed up Chen’s game in an article some years ago. "He is basically an all-around topspin player who is equally comfortable blocking or looping." Watch his "consistency and placement" advises Hodges. Chen "is always in position, ready to spin from both sides, and rarely makes mental mistakes. Watch especially how he backhand loops against pushes--he never overdoes it, always spins it deep, and never seems to miss. And then, when an opponent least expects it, Boom! he rips a winner."
At his second, 1988 U.S. Open, Chen lost a strongly contested match to Sweden’s Mikael Appelgren, 3-time European Champion and World Doubles Champion, who, as China’s famous player/coach Cai Zhenhua said, always looks like he’s doing "nothing" before the ball goes by you. But that Nov., Chen, representing Stiga, won the World Corporate Games in San Francisco, beating the strong U.S. player Khoa Nguyen, who twelve years later would be Chen’s doubles partner at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Then, playing for Brother International, Chen teamed with U.S. Champions Sean O’Neill and Chartchai Teekaveerakit, to take the U.S. Open Team Championship over Musa’s Union Bank team, and received the Most Valuable Player Award.
In 1989, Chen and Sean, joined by three strong Chinese players--"Jack" Huang, Xiao Zheng, and Xu Huazhang--again won the USOTC’s for Brother by defeating a team from Great Britain.
By 1991, Chen and "Jack," along with Xu, who was preparing for a lengthy stay in the U.S. as a student, had settled in the Potomac, MD area. Chen thus began a dynamic dual career of coaching and competing in his adopted country. One later "Profile" of him had it that from 1992-1996 he and "Jack," at the Potomac Club and at the National Training Center in nearby Rockville, MD, coached more than 30 of the 50 National Singles winners at the U.S. Junior National’s. No wonder in 1996 Chen was named USOC National Coach of the Year. And while spreading "Chinese coaching methods in over 50 training camps and over 10,000 hours of private lessons" here in the U.S., Chen also went round the country winning tournament after tournament, beginning with the $1,000 1st prize Oct., ‘91 Southern Open over Xu, and the Butterfly Potomac Open that followed over Canada’s "Johnny" Huang, whom he’ll exchange wins and losses with into the next millenium.
At the Jan., 1992 Westfield, N.J. Open, however, Chen suffered a setback--lost 23-21 in the 5th to the home-club’s "David" Zhuang whom he’d beaten so easily in the Potomac Open. David must have made some needed strategy changes--for even Chen’s notoriously baleful prolonged stare couldn’t work its basilisk effect. But come the February New Year--that’s the Chinese New Year--Chen, for one, didn’t monkey around: this time at Westfield he was a straight-game winner over Zhuang.
In March it’s out to Costa Mesa, CA for another taxing New Year tournament where he again got the better of Canada’s World #22 Huang in 5. And--surprise--no, it’s not what Chen told a reporter: that it would be at least eight more years, that is, the year 2000, before we could have a world champion. It’s that Colorado Springs-based National Team Coach Li Zhenshi, who’s brought a group of RTPers from the Olympic Training Center, is going to reprise his role as World Doubles Champion as it were, and play winning doubles here with Chen.
Chen’s April title is the Louisiana Open--over Jimmy Butler three straight. In three years’ play in the U.S., Chen has yet to lose to a U.S. citizen. His May title is--whoops--that Hall of Fame title is Jimmy Butler’s...over Chen, deuce in the 3rd. It won’t be the last time Jimmy beats Chen--and it’ll begin to give him the confidence he needs to become our National Champion and Olympian.
At the June, ‘92 Midland, MI U.S. Open, Chen and new arrival from China, Amy Feng, grittily outlast the Koreans to win the Mixed.
One celebration leads to another....
It’s Halloween!....It’s Turkey time! And Tournaments!...And Exhibitions! Chen and Jack play China matches. Wang Tao is the visiting celebrity--he’ll soon win four World Doubles titles. But in the Nov. U.S. vs. China tie, Chen gets by him, deuce in the 3rd, for the U.S.’s lone win. Chen and Jack then play a match--or no, sometimes it’s hard to tell, play an exhibition--that leaves the crowd alternately "gasping and laughing." But it’s the feature headline in the local papers--"Cheng Yinghua of U.S. Defeats Chinese #1"--that more catches the eye and gives exposure to the Club.
At the Detroit Team Championships, though Chen continues to be undefeated, it’s his teammate,Wang Tao, the crowd loves to see. How they appreciate it when in Davis Cup fashion Chen and Xu lose the semi’s doubles to Seemiller and O’Neill, the final’s doubles to 1988 Women’s Olympic Champion Chen Jing and "Jack." For this means that Wang, sporting one red shoe and one blue shoe throughout, will colorfully come on stage again.
As Fall turns the Circuit to Winter, Chen travels--Greensboro, North Carolina, Portland, OR--wins here, wins there. So many tournaments, so many wins, season after season. What energy! He must do sprints, jump rope....
Ah, here’s something different. It’s Jan., 1993--and Chen’s in Tokyo...coaching the U.S. Team at the the First Annual Global Youth Championships. Alas, it’s obvious to Chen that technically the Americans need to improve their "first three shots in a rally--the serve, return of serve, and the serve follow-up." Tactically, too, they’re not prepared. Five points of technique had to be emphasized--"speed, spin, ability to end the point (‘killer instinct’), control, and variation." Our players have to be professionally trained, compete internationally. Good luck to them.
Chen won his second U.S. Open in ‘93 at Indianapolis--where for the fourth straight time he beat Johnny Huang, now World #14. Larry Hodges in his write-up pointed out that, after spending an unusual month training in China, Chen looked remarkably trim and fit. 1994 brought another Team win at the USOTC’s for Chen, and a revitalized Danny Seemiller, and a $2,000 first for a here-comes Todd Sweeris. Climaxing his 1994 season is his deuce-in-the-3rd win at the World Cup in Taipei over France’s Jean-Philippe Gatien, the eventual winner of the tournament.
Of course Chen continued to coach at the National Training Center, maybe 40 hours a week, where his newest phenom was 8-year-old Han Xiao. Within a handful of years he’ll be the U.S. Under 14 #1.
At the July, ‘95 U.S. Open, Chen played a great but losing 24-22 in the 5th quarter’s match against the Chinese Taipei youth, Chiang Peng-Lung. Was age catching up with him? Perhaps, for at the Aug. World Team Cup at Atlanta, he was reportedly the oldest player in the field. Ah, well--give it a try. In the U.S.’s first tie against Sweden, Chen opened against the former World and reigning Olympic Champion, Jan-Ove Waldner, and what happened? Chen k.o.’d J-O, 19 in the 3rd. A result that prompted one Swede to say, "Waldner makes more money from being ranked #1 in the world than by being World Champion. That loss to Cheng Yinghua cost him many thousands of dollars."
Belgium’s World #27 Philippe Saive is Chen’s next victim, and with teammate Jimmy Butler enjoying some of the best play of his life in beating both Saive and his teammate Cabrera, Belgium is out of the tournament. Then, in the quarter’s, in a combined team effort, the U.S. surprises France--with Chen showing the way by downing, in a key 29-27 2nd-game clincher, World #26 Damien Eloi, who, after Zhuang beats Christophe Legout, will also fall to Butler, named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. A great triumph for the U.S. then, getting to the semi’s, where their run will finally be stopped by South Korea.
China didn’t win the ‘95 World Cup and they didn’t win the ‘95 U.S. Open Team Championships either. Ex-Chinese National’s--Gu Yunfeng, Zhao Weiguo, Gao Jun, and Zheng Yuan--came second to the Chen, Xu, Sweeris "U.S." (actually Maryland) team. Todd had been in Taiwan at the same time Chen was coaching the Chinese Taipei National Team there and maybe he’d picked up a few pointers from him along the way (an effective flip return of serve perhaps?), for Todd’s two wins in this Championship tie were key.
By year’s end, Chen, age 38, was World #34.
And more honors to come. In Oct., ‘96 he represents North America at the World Cup in Nimes. Then at the Vegas Closed, Chen gets by Xu from 18-all in the 5th, and in the final downs Butler in 4. Says 1971 U.S. "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" Team Captain Jack Howard, "Watching Chen is like reading a textbook on table tennis. His feet are never still --he’s always re-positioning himself to win the point." Chen also takes the Men’s Doubles (with Sweeris) and the Mixed (with Women’s Champion Gao Jun).
Deja-vu at the U.S. Closed in ‘97--this time Chen beats Butler in the semi’s, and, making more winners, and fewer errors, with his forehand than with his vaunted backhand, overpowers longtime arch-rival Zhuang in the final. Chen and "Jack" win the Men’s Doubles, and again Chen pairs with Gao to take the Mixed. Naturally, he’s our Athlete of the Year.
The Spring of ‘98 has come and gone, and Chen apparently doesn’t know yet he has to be a citizen to defend his Closed Championships. So, though of course he’ll continue to win circuit tournaments, there’ll be no major title for him this year? Au contraire. He pairs with U.S. Open Singles winner, Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, and, from the quarter’s on, they survive three strong challenges to take the title.
Chen’s eligible for the Meiklejohn Senior "National’s"? He’ll "humble" himself to play in the Over 40’s this and every year? If you were a professional play-for-pay player, wouldn’t you? This past summer his cash "take" for wining several events was $2,300.
Oh, oh, new competition for Chen in the person of 30-year-old immigrant Fan Yiyong, former Chinese National’s semifinalist, and former World #27. Chen will not only lose the $5,000 1st-place Apr., ‘99 Los Angeles Open to Fan, he’ll lose his #1 U.S. rating to him. Which is not to say he won’t beat him or lose to him in the future--he will.
Youth will again triumph over Age when at the ‘99 U.S. Open Chen will again lose to the fast-rising Chinese-Taipei star, Chiang Peng-Lung, Singles and Doubles winner at Fort Lauderdale, and now the Asian Champion. A few years ago, Chen coached Chiang. "I gave him mental tips," he said. "Now he beats everybody!"
At the ‘99 Closed, Chen, as a U.S. citizen, again won the Singles, again over high-toss server Zhuang. For 30 years Chen Yinghua has lived table tennis, has been as serious as one can be about the Sport. But in order to be worthy for the honor of coming into this Hall one does not have to be dead, or always dead serious. We all remember last year at the Closed when former World Cup winner Chen Xinhua mixed it up in an uproarious Exhibition with our Chen.
So I’m closing this little show of homage to Chen by emphasizing that, despite being under such exacting discipline at such an early age, he obviously feels free and comfortable enough now to enjoy himself. And so we can also place him in our show-biz tradition of such diverse and entertaining U.S. Hall of Famers as Laci Bellak, Coleman Clark, Jimmy McClure, Sol Schiff, Dick Miles, Marty Reisman, Dal-Joon Lee, and many others. Chen, then, is a Champion who, after all these dedicated and accomplished years, still believes that Table Tennis is not only competitive, it’s fun.