My son, Eric, begins playing in tournaments when he’s 6-years-old. When he’s 7, I enter him in the Men’s at the Toronto Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Fairgrounds venue the players share with the animals. During his match with nice-guy Benny Hull Eric spends some of the time fuming under the table. “Benny,” I say, after the completion of, quote, the match, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what possessed me.” “Hey,” he replies, “he’s your problem, not mine.” Off Eric and I go then to sit on the Fairgrounds floor by the goats. “Eric,” I say, “that fellow you played was a man, did you really think you should have beaten him?” “Well,” he says, “I should have played a lot better.”
Eight-year-old Eric is playing at an Open in Miami. A man comes out to play him sporting what looks to be a new jump suit, spotless white shoes, a large, expensive-looking sport bag, and a racket case from which he takes out the last word in a racket. His wife sits down to watch the match. The man does not get double figures from Eric in either game. What the wife thought I don’t know.
What former Japanese World Doubles Champion Fujii thought was another matter. He was there watching, and when I asked him who showed the most promise, I expected him to say 10-year-old Scott who, hitting in a barrage of flat-hit forehands, had just won a match from 20-11 match-point down. At that time, Eric, with his independently-arrived-at eccentric windshield-wiper grip that only Bernie Bukiet had told him to keep, mostly blocked the ball positionally around the table. To my surprise, Fujii said Eric showed the most promise.
Even as a rather young boy, Eric didn’t like to lose. One morning at a Long Island tournament when he was about 9 he lost a match to another kid, and was obviously quite upset about it. After a while, Sally, Scott and I couldn’t find him. Just then a State Trooper comes in—he’s got Eric. “This kid yours?” he asks. Yes, we say, puzzled but relieved. Where was he? “Walking down the highway going home.” Home! That was 20 miles away—and he couldn’t possibly have known the way, could he?
Eric, at 10, 11, 12, wins three L.I. Closed Parent-Child Doubles with me.
The 1974 U.S. Open U-11 Singles is the first of over 20 U.S. Open or
Closed National Championships Eric will win in Junior play. The following summer he and Scott enroll in a Danny Seemiller Training Camp. For 20 years he and Scott and Danny and Danny’s brother Ricky will be friendly rivals.
Eric, 11, flies off by himself to the Houston U.S. Open. Is to be met by a stranger, Jack "Buddy" Melamed. Unless the password “Mr. McGillicuddy” is given, Eric’s not to go with anyone regardless of what he or she says. Mr. McGillicudy is Eric’s imaginary persona who, with wrap-around scarf, occasionally visits me in Eric’s absence.
Eric’s 13—he, Scott (15), and Mike Lardon (16) win the 1976 Junior U.S. Open Team Championships (USOTC’s).
At the 1976 Caesars Palace Closed, Eric wins the U-13’s, and in the 15’s is runner-up to Rutledge Barry. An aging Joe Louis presents the trophies.
At the 1977 U.S. Open, Eric wins his 2nd Open U-13’s and from Rutledge the 2nd of four U.S. Open U-15’s he’ll win. However, he loses the U-17 final to Scott in 5. Is filmed for NBC’s Junior Hall of Fame.
The Bowie Martin-sponsored Butterfly Boys, leading 4-2 in matches, almost won the 1977 Men’s USOTC’s from the Seemiller brothers. Fourteen-year-old Eric had beaten Ricky and had upset Danny for the first time. Since both Scott and Rutledge had taken out Randy, that’s all Eric had to do too. But for whatever reason he lost to him, then Rutledge went down to Danny, and Scott to Ricky. During the Eric-Randy match, a Detroit Free Press photographer crept up close to the table, and drew Eric’s wrath. “You’ve got some [adverb missing] nerve,” he said to her. “What do you think you’re doing? We’re playing a Championship match here for hundreds of dollars.” My friend Chuck Burns in the stands thought the would-be little professional’s indignation a hoot. Eric’s 31-2 record earned him the MVP award.
At the ’78 U.S. Open, in the Junior Doubles final, Eric and Scott beat Sweden’s Jens Felke/Lars Stener from 20-14 match point down in the 5th. It was a great joy to me whenever I’d see the brothers, so competitive with one another, team cooperatively.
At the Toronto CNE that fall Eric wins the U-15’s, U-17’s, and the U-21’s as well. No surprise he’s also a member of the winning U.S. Men’s team, for he’s now in over the table with his forcing backhand.
Eric will be on three winning USOTC teams. The first is in 1978—with Eric, Roger Sverdlik, Dave Phillip, Scott, and me—over the Seemillers.
Eric wins the 1978 U.S. Closed. At 15, he’s the youngest Men’s Champion ever. Topics reporter Sverdlik praises Eric for his superb table control. By now he also has a strong forehand. Danny, before playing Eric in the final, had not, in the 3 years of this Championship, lost so much as a game. He later said of his loss, “[It was] like a sword…[had gone] into me. I was unbelievably hurt. When [up 16-10] I lost that first game to Eric, I thought, ‘I wish he’d let me win.’ I thought, ‘If I just keep looping the ball, he’ll miss. I know now of course that was just “nonsense” thinking.’”
Fifteen-year-old Eric makes the U.S. Team to the Pyongyang, North Korea World’s. A photo of a hotel there I have became memorable because, as U.S. Team member Sverdlik hastened late one night to wake me, Eric, in his innocence, had gotten drunk and sick there, but was o.k. and sleeping it off.
In June, ’79 in Kingston, Jamaica, Eric beat Jamaican National Ernie Virgo 21-0. “Don’t do it!” our savvy Jamaican friend Fuarnado Roberts kept yelling to Eric. “Don’t do it!” But the crowd loved it. In the hotel elevator Eric runs into ITTF President Roy Evans who says something mildly critical of this shutout. Eric, not in the least intimidated, says, “I thought I played pretty well.”
In addition to winning the U-17’s and U-21’s at the ’79 Closed, Eric also wins his first and only Mixed Doubles Championship—with Kasia Dawidowicz Gaca.
Eric and Danny, with the help of Ray Guillen and their much revered U.S. Team Captain/Coach Houshang Bozorgzadeh, win the 1980 U.S. Open Team event.
Two weeks after Eric’s 17th birthday, he finishes 8th in the Hong Kong World Cup—and is given 17 U.S. $100 bills.
Eric loses to Danny in the final of the 1980 Closed. This was the one where the infamous so-called Boggan Penalty Point Rule came in. On the one-table final, Eric yells out, “My concentration is terrible!” The umpire penalizes him a point. The Sports Sanitation Rule—very unpopular.
Encouraged by my friend Nisse Sandberg, founder/president of the Stockholm Angby Club, Eric wins the 12-country 1981 Scandinavian Junior Championships—is undefeated in Team’s and Singles. Jorgen Persson, Erik Lindh, and Jonny Akesson are some of the stars in the field.
At the ‘81 U.S. Open, Eric and Danny are again in the final of the Open Team event. Earlier, they were down 2-0, then won the Doubles 30-28 in the deciding 3rd.—after which Danny downed Kim Wan, and Eric, Kim Ki Taek. Of course they lost to China’s Cai Zhenhua, Li Zhenshi, and Xie Saike. Eric, however, did win the U-21’s from next year’s European Champion Mikael Appelgren.
That fall Eric leaves for Sweden to play #1 for Nisse’s Angby Club. This is a wonderful opportunity for him, for in addition to playing League matches, and getting countless bars of chocolate from the Momm Marabon Chocolate Factory for every match he wins, he can repeatedly go to tournaments. He goes for 3 days to the Swedish National Team Training Camp. At one point, after 48 sprints in succession, he said his feet looked “all white and eaten away.” Back at Angby, he said, “My left leg felt like it had been blown away by shrapnel and I had a wooden one there instead.”
I’m very proud of Eric that he made the most of his Swedish experience. He wins the Norwegian Grand Prix, and also the Kimura Grand Prix—over future European Champ Ulf Bengtsson. In the semi’s of the Stockholm Grand Prix, against Jonas Berner, Eric was down 20-14 match point in the 2nd and won it, down 13-3 in the third and won it. He lost the final to World #24 Lindh, 19 in the deciding 3rd.
For winning the Pripps Sports Cup tournament, Eric receives the prize of a wolfskin. When he sheaths himself in it he becomes a scary predator…an American Werewolf in Stockholm. Actually he himself was, if not scared made uneasy by the apartment Angby provided him. Turns out the last tenant had committed suicide there, and occasionally Eric said he’d look at the dangling wire to the light and think, Is that where he did it? Where he hung himself? He spent three months there before he said he had to get out. Went to stay with Lars Stener’s family who were a big help to him. That first year he was 24-4 in Swedish League play.
Eric returns to the U.S. for Will and Liz Hornyak’s 1981 Duneland Open, and wins the $1,000 1st prize—beats Danny.
In every issue of Topics, from Nov., 1981 through Dec., 1988—for 7 straight years—Eric would be the #1 rated player in the U.S. But again he loses the final of the U.S. Closed—this time in 5 to brother Scott. I kept peeking at this match from a distance, keeping my nose out of it. I was vacillating back and forth as to who I wanted to see win, especially when Eric refused to buckle and won the 4th at deuce to tie the match. But eventually I was pleased to see Scott win, for I felt this might be his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the U.S. Champion. Anyway, I was very tense and cried afterwards when the historical importance of the match fully hit me.
Returning abroad, Eric, in getting to the quarter’s of both the 1982 English and German Opens, beat a bevy of world-class players, including the Japanese National Champion Abe, and former World Champion Jonyer.
Cheered on by Fuarnado Roberts, Eric then wins the Kingston Jamaica Love Bird Invitational, knocking off among others, Kosanovic and Grubba.
After that, he finishes 4th in the had-to-qualify-for-it Norwich Union Grand Prix Masters—downs, among others, Orlowski and Pansky. In the semi’s, in a torrid footstamp match, every stroke of every point resounding throughout the building, he loses to World #13 Park Lee Hee. In the play-off for 3rd, Eric went down in 5 to Appelgren, but wins $1800.
At the ’82 Seoul Open, attended by 40 countries, Eric distinguishes himself, beats Japan’s Saito, Erik Lindh, 5-time German Champion George Boehm, and gets to the final where he loses to European Open finalist Jan-Ove Waldner, 19, 21, 19. Some aficionado in Seoul calls Eric “the best anti-player in the world outside China.”
Back at Angby in a Swedish League match he beats European Junior Mixed Champion Jorgen Persson 19 in the 3rd. At the 8-man Danish Invitational he beats Waldner.
In Dec. Eric loses the Closed to another world-class best-anti candidate, Danny, 19 in the 5th. Eric had won the opener 21-9, then, up 20-15 in the 2nd, lost 7 in a row. Up 19-16 in the 5th he was dancing all around. He said later, “I guess maybe with victory so near I was trying to psych myself up. And probably I was just trying to give Danny back what he’d been giving me. You know we’re each trying to screw each other up out there. Anyway, let him do what he wants—but his 10-step runs, his leaps, his fist-thrusts, his yells can distract you if you let them. The crowd loves it—but unless you can give it back it can be intimidating.” This was perhaps Eric’s toughest loss ever, and, right or wrong, I didn’t try to comfort him, just let him handle it alone. I don’t know to this day if it was the right, fatherly thing to do. I don’t seem to be like most fathers.
Win the U.S. National’s or not, these are Eric’s best years. He collects $1500 at the Middlesborough England Invitational.
At the ’83 Tokyo World’s, Eric wins 17 straight Team and Individual matches—beat that year’s World Men’s Doubles Champion Zoran Kalinic, former World Mixed Doubles Champion Jacques Secretin, and Hungary’s Zolt Kriston, among others, before being eliminated in the 8th’s by China’s Guo Yuehua, the eventual winner. Eric is ranked World #18—the highest ranking for a U.S. player since Dick Miles made the semi’s 45 years ago.
And now perhaps Eric’s finest achievement, He wins the 1983 U.S. Open—over ’82 U.S. Open Champ Kosanovic in the semi’s, and Engelbert Huging, the 1978 German National Champion, in the final, deuce in the 5th (after losing the 3rd and 4th games at 19 and in the 5th going precariously from 17-14 up to 19-17 down). He thus becomes the only native-born player to win the U.S. Open in almost 40 years.
Eric had beaten Danny and Kosanovic to qualify for the World Cup, and in Barbados he again finishes 7th, beating world #15 Dragutin Surbek. Earns $2300.
Now he begins his three-year stint in the German Bundesliga, playing #1 for Bad Hamm. For the first half season, he’s 12-6—beats 4-time German National Champion Peter Stellwag, 4-time German National runner-up, Ralf Wosik, 4-time German National Champion Wilfried Lieck, and the Swedes Applegren, Lindh, and Stellan Bengtsson. At the Hungarian Open he beats Karakasevic and Gergeley before losing to China’s Cheng Yinghua.
But again at the U.S. Closed Eric loses to Danny, 17 and 21. After this loss, Eric said in an interview, “I really don’t play in that many tournaments—and the best training for me is actually tournament play.” Most players in the States would say Eric really does play quite a bit when he’s abroad. From Feb. through May, 1984, besides continuing his full schedule of league matches, he played in 10 tournaments in such disparate places as Czechoslovakia, Israel, India, and Brazil.
At the ’84 Closed, Eric beat Danny for the Singles title.
Given an excellent sponsorship contract from Schildkraut, Eric, in the fall of 1984, switches to a new Bundesliga Club, Steinhagen, and immediately feels pressure as the #1 player in his season’s opener against the strong English player Desmond Douglas. But though Eric almost lost in his debut, he didn’t, and the Steinhagen crowd was very appreciative of their new “U.S.-Boy.” After his two-year stay there was over, years later they’d invite him back for a reunion, and he’d return and wow them with “Ich bin ein Steinhagener.”
Of course I hasten to say that almost all of these players Eric beat he would also lose to during his seasons of league or circuit play. But it certainly made play interesting to have such a variety of world-class opponents—beat Klampar one day, lose to Ulf Carlsson the next. The Mar., 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated had a 5-page feature article on Eric, covering him both in Germany and at home, by Sports writer Jaime Diaz.
That spring Eric won small tournaments in France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, then came to the 1985 U.S. Open where he again lost to Cheng Yinghua.
However, at the World Cup that followed, he beat Waldner and the 1985 World Champion Jialiang Jialiang.
At the ’85 Closed, Eric, up match point, was upset in the semi’s by Jimmy
Butler, and though Eric went on to win the Israeli Open in Tel Aviv (where he underwent quite an interrogation from Israeli security), perhaps the desire to accelerate his game was waning. How long could he come through like this? After Eric had lost to Danny in the ’83 Closed, he’d told an interviewer, “It’s tough to be just a t.t. player. So much traveling. So much training. So many matches. When I play well in international tournaments it all seems so exciting to me—but then after maybe a 10-hour drive back and my body seems vulnerable and sometimes I even get sick, then I begin thinking T.T. is not enough, that I need to do something else.”
In Aug. of ’86 he gave himself a 23rd birthday present—the $4,000 1st prize at the Indiana Masters Championship. He beat Danny, and the Canadian Internationals Horatio Pintea and Joe Ng.
It was also a going away present, for that fall he enrolled at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and would graduate four years later. Eric didn’t play in the ’86 Closed, or try out for the ’87 U.S. World or Olympic Teams, or play in the 1987 U.S. Open. But he did play sporadically, and after a while he came out of retirement as if with purpose. He won the ’88 CNE, then came runner-up in the U.S. Closed to Sean O’Neill with whom he shared his one and only Men’s Doubles title.
In 1989 he wins the Atlantic City Open—beats O’Neill and Pintea. Then plays at the World’s, the Open, and at the Closed where his record is 9-2—good for 3rd.
In 1990 at the North American Championships he beats Jimmy Butler in the semi’s before losing to Sean in the final.
In 1991 he made the U.S. World Team for the 6th and last time. In Chiba, Japan, Eric could still play—lost to former World Champion Gatien 23-21 in the 3rd, and beat China’s Ding Yi 19 in the 3rd. At the ’91 U.S. Open, he surprised the #2 seed, China’s Chen Longcan. Eric thought Chen played without much spirit, though—“he kept playing to my backhand strength.”
By fall of 1991, Eric’s working steadily as a letter carrier for the Post Office and thereafter would play only rarely…for fun—which usually wasn’t because he still expected much more from himself than mere social play.