USA Table Tennis

Shui-Ling “Lily” Yip (her maiden name) was born Aug. 22, 1963 in Canton (Guangzhou), China, the daughter of a policeman. Being a natural athlete, she was picked from hundreds of kids to possibly pursue,really pursue, her interest in table tennis, which she began to play at age 7. Turns out, however, she also liked to dance. By the time she was 8—it was the year of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy”—her table tennis coach said bluntly, “Choose! Table Tennis or Dance!”

By age 12 she was in a special table tennis school, where she “stayed in a dorm, spent half a day in classes, and half a day in training [as a pips-out penhold attacker].” At this age, she was allowed to come home over the weekends. After 3½ years representing the City of Canton, she graduated and became “a professional player representing Guangdong Province.” This advance wasn’t easy,” she says, “for I turned out to be the first and only one from my elementary school who ever became a professional [paid to play by the Government].”

Being a professional meant that she could choose her own racket. “I picked an 8-ply one,” she said, “and in my eight years as a professional player I always played with it and it never broke.” Although she liked to wear her hair long, it was as if she were in the military, for short hair was mandatory. (There’s a photo of her at the Great Wall—a 16-year-old with a bowl haircut.)

In 1980, in an early round at the Chinese National Championships, Lily, with her thrusting jab blocks, deft pushes, and pips-out smack-attack, upset the 1979 Chinese National Champion Liu Yang, and also placed 3rd in Women’s Doubles.

By 1982, she had a win over Geng Lijuan who’d go on to become World Women’s and Mixed Doubles Champion and World Singles runner-up. Lily’s other major successes included winning the Hong Kong-held Triangle Championship of Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macao, and, like her male counterpart David Zhuang, becoming the Guangdong Province Champion. A member of China’s National Youth (but not World) Team, she three times finished in the Top 16 at the Chinese National Championships.

“Of the 12 members of our National Youth Team, the top 10 would be World Champions”—“I,” said Lily, “was #11.” So by the time she was 20, Lily saw the handwriting on the Great Wall and decided that, though she’d continue to play table tennis, she’d take advantage of the Government’s willingness to enable her to earn a Phys. Ed Degree. After studying English, she said she thought of coming to the U.S. or perhaps “of even going to Singapore, where my father, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, was from.” Of course the Chinese in charge wanted her to stay and coach for them, but, despite the fact that she enjoyed coaching, she had “dreams of freedom and opportunity.” So, though they weren’t very nice about her leaving—they didn’t sign all the documents she’d asked them to when she was applying for her visa—she managed in 1987 to come to the U.S., to retire from table tennis, and, having married, to give birth to two children, in 1988 and ’89, and live a happy, nondescript life ever after….

Uh, not quite.

Having arrived at Cocoa Beach, near the Kennedy Space Center, she became in 1990 the Florida State Champion, and, with her first published rating (2345) in the July-Aug., 1990 issue of the Association’s magazine, Table Tennis Topics, she was immediately among the Top 5 women players in the country.

That fall, Lily won the Women’s at the Westfield, N.J. season opener (she had a friend there in David Zhuang), then continued on to the Toronto CNE tournament, where she helped the U.S. Women win their International Match against Canada by beating both Julie Barton and Lily’s former Canton teammate, May Hui Tong.

In her first try, Lily made the U.S. World Team—along with Insook Bhushan, Diana Gee, and the new 1991 U.S. Champion Wei Wang. Lily also made, as she would several times, the U.S. Pan-Am Team, and, just before going to Cuba in July, 1991, she became a U.S. citizen. At Havana, Lily and her teammates overwhelmed the Cubans to take the Women’s Team Championship. She also scored a win in Women’s Doubles with Li Ai, whose mother, Li Henan, had coached Lily in China and at the 1991 World’s in Chiba City, Japan. I was struck by the sweet camaraderie between teammates Lily and Li. In the 2-out-of-3 final, after losing the 1st game, they’re up 22-21 in the 2nd—whereupon Li pushes off, then turns to Lily…and smiles! Whoever watching a player drop such a key point saw a reaction like that! But they won that game 24-22, and the 3rd for the Championship.

In the Women’s Singles final, played on the 8th day of the tournament in that 95-degree, non-air-conditioned Havana Sports Centre cauldron, Lily, though she lost to Insook 3 straight, came very close to winning the gold, for had she been able to hold an 11-3 lead in the 3rd, Insook would never have been able to finish the match. At the end, severely dehydrated, she was unquestionably near collapse and had to be administered to by Team Physician Dr. Michael Scott. Another game, perhaps another few points, and Insook would have fallen out there on court and been taken away in an ambulance.

At the ’91 National’s, Lily and Jimmy Butler were beaten in the final of the Mixed by Pan-Am Champs Sean O’Neill and Diana Gee. And in the Singles, after being up 2-0 in the semi’s against Defending Champ Wei, Lily lost 18 in the 5th. But though she couldn’t have been too happy about that, she was anything but sulky or anti-social. I saw her shortly after the match playing with and coaching two young boys, bare wooden blades in hand, who were having fun on one of those Butterfly “Family” mini-tables. She was smiling and as playful, as enthusiastic, as she might have been with her own kids.

All in all, 1991 was a very good start-up year for Lily—the more so because she was awarded a grant from the Women’s Sports Foundation to cover her travel and training costs. Also she could pick up a few bucks at certain choice tournaments—got $300 for winning the Southern Open Singles, for example. And, though she didn’t win the National’s, she did just fine in the Women’s Olympic Trials, rallying from 20-15 match-point down to Diana Gee to come 2nd behind Insook. That brought her a USOC grant of $2,500.

More triumphs would follow—and this despite the arrival of Amy Feng, a former member of the Chinese National team, whom Lily would lose to in the final of the ’92, ’93, ‘94’, and ’95 National’s. However, in these years, Lily would also take all four U.S. Closed Women’s Doubles Championships—two with Wei, two with Amy.

At the March North American Olympic Qualifier, after a very damaging loss to Peggy Rosen, she recovered from being match-point down, Olympic-point down, to upset Insook, and so led the qualifiers in the Singles. She also qualified in Doubles with Diana Gee. And all this while someone was heard to say, “How does Lily keep her hair so perfect throughout the matches?” 

At the ’92 North American Championships, Yip/Wang defeated Bhushan/Gee to qualify for their 2nd World Cup Doubles—which made them each $1,000 richer. That year, too, Lily was named USOC Female Athlete of the Year—an honor she’d also receive in 1995, ’96, and ’97.

Because she was on the U.S. Olympic Team, Lily, along with the other U.S. Team members, Diana Gee and Sean O’Neill, was invited to the White House to meet President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Driven inside by a rainstorm, they all ate hamburgers and hot dogs sort of literally off the floor. Several staff members said that “in 20 years they had never seen anyone sitting on the floor in the White House.”

In 1993, while at the Gothenburg World’s, Lily, her U.S. Women’s teammates, Wei and Virginia Sung, and Coach Zhang Li got to chat with 3-time World Champion Chuang Tse-tung and his Japanese wife Atsuko. 

Lily would be in six National All-Star Women’s finals, but would win only the 1993 one—from Feng. One observer said that Amy didn’t vary her serves enough and that gradually Lily got used to them all, so that no variation of any kind by Amy was able to throw Lily off.

That fall, we learn from Rhoda Samkoff’s interview that Lily is taking English and computer science courses at N.J.’s Middlesex College. “She prefers to wear dresses to her classes and ‘real shoes’ because she spends so much of her time dressed in sports clothes.” Last year, Lily says, she decided to grow her hair. “I feel more like a woman when I wear it down, but when I play I wear it in a ponytail.”

Ah, nice—that smootch photo I’m looking at was taken 10 years ago at the U.S. National’s: you might have thought that Lily and husband Barry Dattel had won the Mixed, but, alas, they were beaten in a close, 18-in-the-3rd match by the winners, David Zhuang and Amy Feng. In 1994 Lily again made the U.S. Team to the World’s—winning the last game of her match with Anita Zakarian 27-25, after being 20-15 match-point down. There at the ’95 Championships in Tianjin, she had wins over Hungary’s World #54, England’s ’92 European finalist Lisa Lomas, and Slovakia’s World #103. 

The Feb., 1996 Olympic Trials found Lily (now World #85) in great attacking form. In compiling a perfect 11-0 record, she had non-stop wins over her toughest competitors, Wei (World #101) and especially arch-rival Amy (World #47). 

At the 1997 National’s, Lily loses to Defending and 6-time National Champ Gao Jun—says “Gao can push, I can’t.” Huh? After all these years, Lily’s forgotten how to push? Having come first again in the U.S. Team Trials, Lily Captained the Women’s Team to the ’97 Manchester World’s, where she beat both the English #1 and #2. In the following years, she would again qualify for U.S. World Teams. Indeed, a few months before she’s to turn 40, she’s not only at the 2003 World’s with the rest of the U.S. Team, but she has a win over Belarus’s World #68.

Beginning in 1998, Lily decides to have fun playing in the hardbat (as well as the sponge-rubber) events, and with her fast-block-and-hit game easily makes the transition. Of course crowds love to watch Lily’s matches, and for three straight years, with but one exception, she’s won every U.S. Open/U.S. Closed Hardbat Championship.

As the years go by, Lily becomes more and more ambitious. She becomes involved in various representative positions with the USATT, runs successfully for its Board of Directors, volunteers with husband Barry to support Mayor Bloomberg’s New York City bid for the 2012 Olympics, and continues giving exhibitions and soliciting sponsors to promote her tournaments. Consider, for example, her involvement in the 2001 Hawaiian Senior Open, along with, among others, Shonie Aki, Azmy Ibrahim, and Y.C. Lee and his wife Nora. There Lily Yip Sports had, as Lily put it, “the biggest booth in History.” But, ohh, all those tables she and Barry had to schlep all the way from New Jersey and back. 

A bio of Lily’s says she enjoys singing. But of course she enjoys more spending time with her two children, Adam and Judy, and coaching at her N. J. Club, at Youth School Programs, and at Boys and Girls Clubs. Years earlier she’d stated her career goal was to teach students to become U.S. Champions—and this in the years ahead was what she and her husband Barry so successfully committed themselves to do. And with her own children. Early on, Adam, not satisfied with being a player, wanted to be an umpire, and at 10 was the youngest qualified one the Association ever had. But he shaped up—as a player soon delighted in showboating to galleries. Of course, Lily had said she wanted her kids to have fun—and over the years, as Adam and Judy have partnered their mother in Doubles events, it does look like, win or lose, they have had fun.

As we know, both kids have enjoyed a string of wonderful successes. At last year’s Closed, Adam, then 15, came first in the Under 18 Boys’ Team Trials and won the Under 22’s; Judy, not to be outdone, came first in the Under 15 Girls’ Team Trials, and at the 2004 U.S. Open took not only the Under 15’s but the Under 18 Girls title as well.

When interviewer Vivian Lee asked the young Champions, “Whom do you admire most?”, the answer was: their Mom. “She motivates me, and she encourages me to win,” said Adam. “I admire her confidence,” said Judy. “I want to be like her.”

Hey, after a career like Lily’s, and on a night like this, who wouldn’t want to be like her? Ladies and Gentlemen—the Hall’s newest inductee, the very versatile and talented Lily Yip.