USA Table Tennis
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
1983: Tim, Eric, and Engelbert Have a U.S. Open Talk. 1983: Engelbert on “The (Open) American.” 1983: $10,000 Butterfly Canadian International Championships 1983: Huging Gives a Lesson. 1983: Chinese-Canadian Ottawa Tour Stop.
More Roses Than Thorns: A Three-Way Garden Talk. (Held at the Boggan home where Germany’s Englebert Huging had been a house guest both before and after the U.S. Open.)
ENGELBERT: Well, Eric, you must be feeling pretty good, huh?
ERIC: Yes, I am—but of course the field for this year’s tournament was relatively weak and I had only two matches to be concerned about.
TIM: How concerned in the Saturday night semi’s were you with Kosanovic? You do remember that he’d beaten you in last year’s U.S. Open?
ERIC: I didn’t look at Zoran as the “Defending Champion”—didn’t think of him as the man to beat. My play in Tokyo had given me so much confidence that it was easy for me to say, “Hey, remember what kind of World’s you had and who you beat. So who’s Kosanovic?”
ENGELBERT: So in general you try to think positive things about yourself and negative things about your opponent?
ERIC: Positive things about myself, yes, but very seldom negative things about my opponent—I don’t like to think negative. I wasn’t worried about Kosanovic because I knew I could block him down. I pride myself on my blocking—and I feel, as I get more and more experience, that my touch is improving. Zoran’s follow-up of his serve is very good—he’s leaning over the table and can come at you forehand or backhand. But after that he’s kind of soft, and I can take him wide to the corners, then hammer away at his backhand.
TIM: And Engelbert, Eric—did you think you’d have trouble with him?
ERIC: Actually, I didn’t think Engelbert would beat Danny—especially after that first game.
ERIC: Don’t laugh. You were lucky to win the second game. Danny’s loop can be strong. But sometimes he doesn’t seem flexible enough on some of his shots—he can only go one way with them. I thought Danny would be patient with Engelbert—then put the ball away as he did in the first game, but he slowed the loops to rolls and just sort of threw the ball over the table and always cross-court at that. That hard floor, those glaring lights, Engelbert’s tenacity—maybe all those things combined took something out of Danny.
TIM: Eric, did you do any special preparation for your Sunday afternoon match with Engelbert?
ERIC: Well, for the final, the first thing I had to do was make an adjustment to my racket. I had to put on additional coat after coat of glue.
TIM: What good did that do? And you did it just for the final, didn’t do it for the semi’s?
ERIC: Against Kosanovic, I didn’t do it because it would have hurt me—I couldn’t have blocked back Zoran’s loops with that much glue on my racket. But against Engelbert’s defense I needed more zip and—I learned this in Sweden—the extra coats of glue act as a cushion and give the rubber more elasticity. Appelgren, for example, has maybe 10 coats of glue on his racket, then throws away the rubber and replaces it with another piece for still more elasticity.
TIM: That’s interesting, but I was thinking more of psychic preparation.
ERIC: After I was sure of my racket and had physically prepared, had finished practicing, I got out of the Hall and went back to my room and relaxed. Then, half an hour or so before the match, I did what I usually do. That is, I do stretching, a warm-up, then I rest. I like to sit down, get my legs strong. If I’m last-minute not sure of something about my opponent’s game I’ll ask a knowledgeable player. If I want to talk to someone about something, I’ll talk; if I don’t want to talk, I won’t.
ENGELBERT: So you’ve no mind-formula, no ritual, that you always follow?
ERIC: No. Every match is different. I trust my feelings—not rules. I don’t think Americans believe in too many rules. We seem to believe rules are made to be broken. Often though before a big match I’ll go into a room where there’s a mirror and in private I’ll look at myself and try to psyche myself up. This increases my confidence.
ENGELBERT” Maybe you shouldn’t look too long in the mirror, huh? There’s a song by John Mayal—
TIM: It’s his Secret Sharer Eric sees there—his idealized conception of self.
ERIC: Look, I don’t want to make any big deal about this. I don’t try to analyze or explain why I look at myself in the mirror. I just do it because it works for me.
TIM: And, Engelbert, do you look in the mirror? How did you prepare for the final?
ENGELBERT: I practiced one hour in the morning, and was in the Hall one hour before the match. In between I was together with Eric in our room for a while. Readers might find it interesting that Eric and I played doubles together and shared the same hotel room. I might have taken a coffee or read 10 pages of a Woody Allen book—I don’t remember. I didn’t make any special preparation for the match.
TIM: Eric, after Engelbert came back to beat Danny in four, did you think you were going to have a problem with him?
ERIC: Well, I knew our match probably wouldn’t go three straight.
ENGELBERT: Probably wouldn’t go three straight? You expected to beat me pretty easily then? Why?
ERIC: I just have confidence in my game. As my Long Island confidant Avi Stein says, “You gotta believe.” I do believe. I believe in myself.
TIM: So you didn’t expect Engelbert’s two-sided racket to fool you?
ERIC: Hey, Engelbert’s good, but I beat three choppers at the World’s.
TIM: The way you played those first two games against Engelbert, particularly the second, it didn’t look like any chopper in the world could have beaten you. You really seemed determined to start strong.
ERIC: I wasn’t exactly trying to play Expedite. Those first two games I’d loop a ball, then really rip the next one.
TIM: So what happened in the third game?
ERIC: A three-out-of-five-game match is mentally a long road. For two years now in Europe I’ve been used to playing two out of three. I think unconsciously I’ve gotten in the habit of preparing myself for such matches.
ENGELBERT: You had this same concentration problem with Kosanovic.
TIM: Yes, Eric, you won the first two games at 9 and 11, then lost the third badly.
ERIC: I know, I know, I agree. I consciously have to work on the problem of finishing off an opponent three straight. Maybe I was just having too good a time out there.
ENGELBERT: What do you mean?
ERIC: Well, I’d come into this U.S. Open just wanting to enjoy it. After my outstanding record at the World’s [because of Eric’s play in Tokyo he would improve his world ranking from #23 to #18], I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Incidentally, Tim, going into my match with Guo Yuehua, I’d won 17 out of 18 and not 17 straight as you put it in the last Topics.
ENGELBERT: And sometimes you don’t go into a tournament just wanting to enjoy it?
ERIC: Yeah, sometimes I don’t. It seemed like for the U.S. Closed last December I was bummed out. For the first time in my life I’d been living alone—and for a long three months—and psychologically I was disturbed by my living conditions in Sweden (was disturbed just for those three months when I was alone—the rest of the time I stayed with very caring, understanding Swedish families who were very, very good to me). The last tenant who’d lived in my apartment had committed suicide there, and occasionally I’d look at the dangling wire to the light and think, ‘Is that where he did it? Where he hung himself?’ I didn’t have such a high self-esteem then. But my friend Brian Eisner helped me over some rough spots. The damn toilet didn’t work, always needed fixing, and because there was a liquor store under my apartment, there were always drunks not knowing what to with their lives just hanging around.
ENGELBERT: Yes, Eric, I know a little what you mean about lonely living conditions. I was once three weeks in Japan. I didn’t like it at the time. But I think now maybe it helped me.
ERIC: Well, I know now I can live alone and can take the kind of loss I suffered in the Closed and can come back. But if I can help it I certainly don’t want to experience either of those kinds of hurt again.
TIM: Sensible, Eric, sensible. You were saying that you enjoyed coming to this U.S. Open. As a professional player, weren’t you upset by the ridiculously small amount of first-place prize money ($600)?
ERIC. No. Considering this was the U.S. Open, a prestigious tournament, the small amount of prize money didn’t bother me that much. But I think the USTTA should have paid my flight—and Danny’s flight—to Vegas. I’m a good team player and cooperate with the USTTA and sometimes I think they should show more goodwill than they do.
TIM: Do you like it that our prestigious tournaments are in Las Vegas?
ERIC: I like to come west. It gives me a chance to see friends and acquaintances I’m comfortable with and don’t see often. Steve Shapiro and Bill Hodge, for example—people who help me to be mellow. At a tournament, especially in the States, I don’t need much tactical help. But I do like Steve and Bill and others saying upbeat things to me. Bill was always in my corner and, once, in an early match, when I was winning three games under 10, Bill kept reminding me to take the hard shots that I’d have to try and make in later matches, kept reminding me when I was on court not to look around at the spectators or up at the tipped lights, but to look at the floor, to practice my concentration. Every player needs somebody in his corner who’s honest, who watches every point, and who with a positive approach encourages you. You aren’t interested in what anyone else thinks of the qualifications of such a person—if you feel he helps you win, you want him near you.
ENGELBERT: Yes, but traditionally players have Association captains and coaches. Maybe your friend does not always know enough, is not always serious enough?
ERIC: Our U.S. Team Captain Houshang has always been very understanding and helpful to me too. He’s flexible and good-humored. One reason I enjoyed the U.S. Open final so much was because you, Engelbert, looked like you were having such a good time out there. If that had been Danny opposite me, he’d have been grunting with heavy seriousness. Though you were losing, you could smile ironically or even laugh at times. Of course you were in the U.S. for a vacation and getting to the final was a bonus for you.
TIM: There’s no doubt the spectators liked Engelbert—they even reacted with amusement when once on missing a shot he yelled out “Shit!” I had the strong feeling that with his fist-up screams of “C’mon, fight now!” and “YEAHHH!” he was not just a charming but a very dangerous competitor and that you’d scarcely want to encourage him to take the match into the 4th and, worse, the 5th game.
ERIC: Perhaps I did get a little thrown off that third game, then maybe got over-anxious at the end of it. Or perhaps I was just starting to get a little tired physically and mentally. Anyway, at 19-all, I missed a hanger, then pushed one into the net, and let Engelbert back into the match.
TIM: Can you recall changing your tactics after winning those first two games? Or did Engelbert just begin to play better in the third?
ERIC: That second game I played as well as I can play, so it was difficult to sustain—
ENGELBERT: When you stopped playing at that very high level, I started to get used to your cross-court loop. You always looped it diagonally. Why did you keep doing that?
ERIC: Well, for one thing, that stupid cement floor bothered me. It’s so hard on your feet. And you slide. I looped down the line much better at the World’s. Also, because the conditions are so fast in Vegas it’s difficult to play down the parallel lines. If I loop cross-court, it’s much safer. Maybe, being two games up, I unconsciously began to take fewer chances.
TIM: So, Engelbert, would you say in the third game you started to get into a rhythm? Began to figure out how to get one-ball picks?
ENGELBERT: I wouldn’t say I really got into a good rhythm. The third game was the least well-played of the match. Eric didn’t play as aggressively as he had the first two games, and I began to concentrate better, began to get into the match more, began to fight harder. That change often happens among two players when one is up 2-0.
TIM: How is it, Eric, that Engelbert began getting those forehands to hit?
ERIC: Well, we played a lot of points. The ball crossed the net a lot of times. I’m not a machine. I tried to keep the ball low. I knew against Engelbert I had time to push. I waited. When I saw spin on the ball I attacked. Some pushes I couldn’t tell the spin too clearly. Balls I couldn’t read I pushed with my anti, knowing that I could mis-read the ball and still return it fairly well, since the anti’s not so sensitive as sponge. Also, I thought when I gave Engelbert the anti, he’d maybe pop the ball up. Of course I tried unpredictably to mix the sponge and anti.
TIM: So after you pulled out the third, Engelbert, did you think you could win?
ENGELBERT: I thought, “Oh, now he has respect for me.” I got the feeling that since I won this game I could win the match.
TIM: In the fourth, Eric, you were up 18-17, then lost three in a row, then rallied to 19 before—
ERIC: Yeah. At 20-19 down, I made a very bad shot. I pushed the ball when I should have looped it, and Engelbert made a perfect backhand placement that I couldn’t begin to get to.
ENGELBERT: Yes, that was a nice shot.
TIM: The crowd loved it. Loved the match. Both of you had already earned the standing ovation they gave you at the start of the fifth.
ENGELBERT: Yes, I was very excited. I was surprised and pleased that the American audience responded so well not only to Eric but to a stranger. I had goose bumps when that fifth game started.
TIM: Eric, you’d been up 2-0 in this match, and with chances to win in both the third and fourth games you lost them both at 19. Now, in the fifth, you were up 17-14—and then, reminiscent of the Closed, you lost five points in a row. Naturally everyone reading this will want to know what honestly was going through your mind when, with Engelbert serving, you were down 19-17 and seemed about to blow this match. Did you feel the Vegas monkey on your back?
ERIC: O.K., I’ll tell you exactly what I felt. I thought, “Hey, it’s unfortunate I lost those five points, but I can’t let it get to me. I didn’t panic. Table tennis is a streaky game and I was well aware that Engelbert still had to win two points to take the match. I knew I had to watch his serve carefully. I was afraid he might try an unusual serve and take a chance at smacking in a follow. So I was determined to return the ball low. When I saw Engelbert couldn’t follow aggressively I immediately moved to loop. Engelbert sort of carried that ball back and I cross-looped it in for a winner. Down 19-18 I knew I had a good chance to win. But if I’d have lost that 19-17 point, I don’t think I could have come back. That winner stopped my slide and gave me adrenalin.
TIM: And you, Engelbert, up 19-17 and having just won five points in a row, what were you thinking?
ENGELBERT: I was sure I would win. I wanted to give Eric a surprise or two. I wanted to serve and loop with my pimples. But I didn’t get the chance. Eric made a good low return of serve. Actually, after he’d lost those five points I didn’t expect him to have so much in reserve, to be able to still fight hard at the end.
ERIC: I was getting tired. But I think I have a lot more strength now than just a year ago. I have more power in my game too—those were good points right up to the 22-20 end.
TIM: But you had more psychic than physical strength? You’re telling us that you never weakened, not even when you lost those five points like in your last final at Vegas?
ERIC: That’s what I’m telling you. Of course I didn’t feel pumped up, wasn’t as psyched to win as I was when I was leading 17-14. But I’ve played so much after that loss to Danny that I honestly don’t care about that loss any more. You can’t change the past. And you can’t be thinking negative, fidgety things when you’re out there competing—not if you want to win. C’mon, I’m not a rookie. Ever since I was a little kid—five years old—I’ve wanted to win. It’s the American mentality to want to win. Tim’s got it too. As usual he went crazy when I scored that last point. I’ll tell you though, I’m very happy I won at the Tropicana—because when I go to Vegas in December for the Closed I’ll feel like a Champ. I won the big one—the one your sponsor gives you a bonus for [3,000 deutsch marks]. I’ll be ready to win again, for I’ll have been playing in the Bundesliga among the best professionals in the world—which is where for the rest of my career I want to be.
Huging on “The (Open) American”
I came to the U.S., to the Open at Las Vegas (Timmy’s, July-Aug., 1983, 9), to see Americans, to learn a little from them, and if possible to take back home with me a different point of view. Most of what I learned, I’m sure, is nothing that you can literally write down. It’s like reading a novel. It would be absurd to take down the facts of a novel—the plot—so naturally you don’t mind forgetting such details. But what has gone into you from your reading—a feeling, an attitude, that is important and will surface later.
Not being a gambler, I knew I wouldn’t be much interested in Las Vegas—but I wanted to see it. I found it, as I expected, a boring place—the people there bought, empty. The outward shine, the show-time glitter was there, but, with the mindless pull of a lever, the take of a useless card, so was the lack of light inside, the lack of self-illumination.
Did one really expect that such a venue would draw spectators interested in watching table tennis? I could hardly imagine them interrupting their addictive play to take the long walk to the Sports Complex. And the table tennis itself! The concept, the organization, the playing conditions of this supposed International Open. Fifty or more different events; 50 tables in simultaneous use with no barriered-off courts; a cement floor; and a time schedule that couldn’t always be trusted. My God—all this is so without focus, so provincial.
There’s just a world of difference between a European Open and the U.S. Open. In a European Open only the five best players of each country are the representatives. This tournament was almost a North American Closed: the U.S. and Canada in the final of the Men’s Team’s; Eric, Danny, and Kosanovic in the Men’s semi’s. The Americans can brag about Eric and Danny all they want, but there were no good players here from Europe or Asia to challenge them. For the most part, the player-spectators in the U.S. have no perspective from which to judge the world-wide reality of the sport.
I did learn something about American player-spectators, though. Perhaps it’s because the U.S. Open is really their tournament—incredibly, they play side by side with, mingle with, the top seeds—but these player-spectators seem so open. Are they really so interested in others, as friendly, as they appear to be?
Certainly I lacked no opportunity to speak with Americans. Total strangers would stop me and say, “Are you still in the tournament?” Or, “I just want to wish you luck.” And those more bold would try to initiate a conversation with “What rubber do you use?” To this last question I would always answer “Feint.” Actually I don’t use Feint, but a similar rubber—some unnamed Chinese pips-out rubber I picked up in Saudi Arabia. But this feint, this pretense of mine, I hoped would be allowed, since I really didn’t want to get into the kind of lengthy conversation the answer “Chinese” might have brought about.
Before my key matches I wanted to be alone to concentrate. But in this Complex, with these hundreds of players, you couldn’t be alone. Such an invasion of privacy would never happen in Germany. If one didn’t know you personally he would never come up to you and start speaking to you. And about anything—it didn’t have to be table tennis.
All this openness, independence, variety, it’s reflected even in the players’ sportswear. Player after player is dressed for bowling, golf, hiking, an open-air barbecue. A vacationer’s paradise—this Tropicana Sports Hall. And the table tennis games! Everybody plays his own style, if so it can be called. As you can’t learn a language without grammar, so you can’t learn to play good table tennis without the basics. There are not many good players in America because the basics aren’t there. Maybe, though, I shouldn’t talk like this? Shouldn’t be so critical—so open? After all, Germany has just fallen into the Second Division in the World’s, and maybe it looks like I think we Germans are better than the Americans who remain in the First Division?
But let me tell you also that I like the openness, the fairness, the friendliness of the player-spectators. They motivated me to try and give a good account of myself in the Open.
I like to play in different countries, even under different, it may be difficult playing conditions (in 1979 I played in Hong Kong in an open hall with the wind blowing the ball about quite ridiculously). It’s boring to me if I always play in the same place under the same conditions.
I hope I gave the spectators who cheered me on a good feedback. I like the drama of an exciting match. I like to be on stage—to act a little bit. Perhaps occasionally I overdo it, perhaps not—though once in Germany an umpire told me, “We are not in a circus, Mr. Huging.” It may be, though, that in that line by that umpire there’s a clue as to why Germany, despite its superior organization to and hundred times more registered players than the U.S., has fallen into the World’s Second Division and the U.S., with its organizational chaos and only one or two good players, remains among the world’s best teams.
The naïve Americans, amateur-minded table tennis enthusiasts in a world of professional glamour sports, like highly individual acts, and both Danny and Eric have grown into center-ring performers capable of winning an audience. Americans enjoy a circus, enjoy fantasizing. Even those who seem so dead at the slot machines or blackjack tables. They think they can beat anyone, win anything. It’s a national characteristic.
Both Eric and Danny have the mentality to fight against the Chinese. (And unless you think you can win, how can you really?) The Germans, on the other hand, are apt to say [quite realistically?...too pessimistically?], “We don’t want to go to Peking. What’s the point? We won’t ever to be able to beat the Chinese.”
With an attitude like that, the danger is that no matter how well organized you are, there’s no soul point to the organization, no dream.
So perhaps, as in America, as in Las Vegas, even a vulgar illusion is better than no illusion at all.*
$10,000 Butterfly Canadian International Championships
The $10,000 Butterfly Canadian International Championships—held just after the U.S. Open, June 15-17 at Massey Hall in downtown Toronto--featured 24 players (16 men, eight women) from The People’s Republic of China, South Korea, West Germany, the U.S., and Canada.
How, you may well ask, did this select field come about?
Back in February, Canadian TTA Technical Director Adham Sharara had gone to China to work out an exchange agreement—Canadian players would come to China in April before the World Championships and Chinese players would come to Canada on a six-city Tour after the World’s in June and July.
Since Norwich Union had withdrawn their sponsorship for the Canadian Open, the CTTA was looking for a high-visibility tournament. And what better drawing card than the invincible Chinese? Who could resist them?
For Cai Zhenhua, World #2; Xie Saike, World #3; Qi Baoxing, World #3; and Lijuan Geng, World #11, would sponsorship of such a tournament be forthcoming?...It would. The International Management Group (IMG), Canada agreed to help promote and market the event. Sponsors involved were: Canadian Pacific Air, the Power line of Bata shoes, and—through a liaison of Dick Yamaoka, the Tamasu Co.’s 20th-century Renaissance man, and Brian Hackeson, the Co’s Canadian rep—Butterfly.
Moreover, surely the Chinese weren’t the only players spectators would pay to see? There was a Korean community in Toronto, was there not? And though (for some financial reason?) the Chinese weren’t going to be playing in the U.S. Open just a few days before, Korean Air Force and Korean Airlines teams were. If at least some of those players could manage to come to Toronto that would bring in ethnic support.
And Adham’s wife Mariann Domonkos, and former Canadian Coach Zlatko Cordas
had strong connections with the German Saarbrucken team that had just had a very good season, and wasn’t Herr Rebmann, the owner, looking to give his boys the reward of a little trip? And top U.S. men players Eric Boggan and Danny Seemiller—they were easy to get. Or so it appeared, until an emotionally spent Boggan begged off after winning the U.S. Open, sending as his last-minute replacement Engelbert Huging and me, Tim, to too sleepily drive from Long Island and cover the tournament.
Now, how else, thought Ontario TTA’s Executive Director Ken Kerr and his Management Committee, Chaired by Tournament Director John Brayford, could we make these Championships a success? Well, past experience had shown that the Etobicoke Olympium was just too far away for the 2,500 spectators or so they hoped to attract. So why not try something different? Put table tennis up on a pedestal—or, rather, a stage. Right in downtown Toronto, next to a subway line that meant only a five-minute ride from Chinatown. Marvelous.
And whether the three-tiered 2,700-seat Massey Hall was or wasn’t filled couldn’t we get CTV to televise the matches (perhaps for their Sports Weekend show)? Of course we could—on their multi-cultural MTV Channel 47. (What, for 40 minutes, would go better on Chinese TV?) The “Thrill of a Lifetime” for a 12-year-old Caucasian who’d written in to that program was to play a world-class Chinese. Here was his chance and ours—a natural hype. Was Cai Zhenhua available? Coach Zeng Chuan-Chang said he was.
So, with all this planning, all this hope, all this effort—how’d the three-day tournament turn out? Might there have been an unexpected problem or two?
A certain emptiness inside for those who’d worked so hard. A very noticeable emptiness in the Massey Hall theater the first two nights. And, oh, it was so unair-conditioned hot! But what else would it be in the middle of summer, and when otherwise would the Chinese come? I mean the Chinese players, not the spectators. Though as May-June entertainment luck and a certain amount of rationalizing would have it, there had already been three major touring attractions taking up the attention of the resident Chinese—a martial arts program, acrobats, and (this was stretching the competition a bit), a symphony orchestra.
And where were not only the hoped-for Chinese spectators but the Koreans? Perhaps word-of-mouth had leaked out that there were 4 and ½ hours worth of matches during the course of the evening and not a refreshment to be had in all that fanning heat—except maybe back stage, and if one walked out he wasn’t going to get it back there.
And the German audience? Where were they? They must have been waiting in a beer hall for Engel to finish.
As for the border-line Americans (the complimentary Chinese-Canadian Tour poster had a drawing of Ricky Seemiller on it—was that too subtle to draw them in?), they were at the Blue-jays’ game each and every night?
And last but not least, what about the local Canadian members of the Association? They were all waiting for Sunday—to go out to Etobicoke to see the Chinese begin their Tour?
And, my God, my God, the Massey stage floor—no matter what you tried to do to it in private, it just wouldn’t wash. Whatever made it slippery remained—so that ITTF rules to the contrary, the players, if they didn’t want to be carried off to a hospital, had to do a lot of foot-stamping—on the wet towels and into the resin-litter at tableside. So much so that it seemed their Bata sneakers squeaked out, screeched out one long continuous protest.
Still, when on Friday finals night, 1,000 people came and Ken Kerr, heartened a little, struggled out of his suit jacket to man the mike, you really had to feel that, though the Association at best did no better than break even, it was all a tiring but worthwhile venture. There was a falling-down/getting up drama here, real-life actors—players and officials—struggling to go on, some caring more than others, but all putting on a performance that could never have been duplicated in any sterile film studio.
The three-day show must go on, did go on, for all those who believe table tennis can be not just a participant but a spectator sport.
Canadian International Team members Gloria Hsu, Thanh Mach, and Becky McKnight did what they could (all were given $100), but against spin serves they couldn’t read, they had no chance. Thanh, who, when asked, said, “I am Chinese,” did not intimidate Korean Baeg Soon Ae, who only a few days before had gotten to the semi’s of the U.S. Open.
Only Mariann Domonkos, up against Korea’s Lee Jin Sook, had a chance, with something more than a bit part, of stealing the show. In their first game, the Canadian Champ was up 20-11 when suddenly from Baeg in Lee’s corner came what sounded to me like “Beep! Beep!”—so I knew, with that encouragement in a game that was hopelessly gone, the Koreans weren’t into giving up a single point. In the second game, Lee proved that she could do something—hit a forehand, but not much else. But in the third, the Korean rallied—got enough confidence to take her into the fourth where she was up 19-15. Mariann tied it up with some slow loops and drops, but then at game’s end she twice served and twice followed into the net.
Undiscouraged, Domonkos opened the fifth with a slow backhand loop that was a winner. By mid-game, though, she was down 10-8. Then—a breakthrough—up 15-11. But Lee was tenacious and when Mariann failed to return serve, her lead was cut to 16-14. “Please,” said one of the international umpires—Von Nottbeck, Wong, Craig, Kennelly, Skinner—to the Korean Coach sitting in a corner of the drapeless wings, “Please, no coaching.” In his Power outfit, from head to toe, he looked most professional, but that didn’t stop the Asian audience from tittering. However, it was Lee ($100) not Domonkos ($300) who lost concentration—she pushed one into the net, blocked another off, and Mariann won going away.
In the semi’s, though, penholder or shakehands, it was all one, all Chinese. And in the final, after the first two games were traded off, Geng ($1,000), leading Qi Baoxing ($500) 21-20 in the third, had a hanger to win, but slipped and fell, then got up and smiled, as if to say, “It’s fun playing here, huh? Different.” As the match came to an end, Qi, the loser, laughed as if she were at a resort hotel playing a friend. How long would it be, do you suppose, before she got back to Baoding to see her boyfriend?
In the Men’s Singles, six of the opening eight matches (losers would be given $100) were won in straight games. Some of these I’ll comment on.
Engelbert Huging, who’d come from behind to beat South Korea World Team member Lee Chang Hoon in five in the U.S. Open, looked a couple of times like he might do it again. Down 8-1 in the first after missing three picks…down 14-12 after missing two more, he finally (“I HIT IT IN!”) threw up his hands in mock triumph at tying it up at 14-all. But up 18-16, in a rhythm now and all carelessly confident, he took one, maybe two, of the worst forehands I’ve ever seen—and eventually lost the game at 19. Which, needless to say, un-paralyzed Lee.
Then, down 9-1 in the second (Lee was playing him smarter this time—push, push, push, then flat-hit hard), Engelbert could not begin to come back. In the third, Huging, again behind, three times moved to within one point, but every time he did so, the Korean made a near miraculous shot. A frustrating loss for Engelbert. Know how I know? Once the umpire, back to the audience, discretely abandoning his microphone, quietly admonished, “Please, Mr. Huging, control your language!”
Saarbrucken’s Peter Becker didn’t win a game from Kosanovic—but for me he was the most interesting player to watch. I’d never seen him play before and was fascinated by his crisp, cutting chops and (though he had a crazy hitch in it) his often perfectly timed chameleon’s flick-of-a-forehand that tongued the little ball out of sight.
In the first of the two first-round matches that went three games, Horatio Pintea, who’s got a good loop, got by Choi Euy Song. In the third game, the Korean coach continued to advise Choi, despite some “Please, no coaching” token resistance by the umpire. That gentleman, however, soon began giving Choi a hard time on his serve—warned that “The ball has to be struck behind the line.” In the fourth, Choi, up 2-1 in games, was faulted on both his first and third serves. Down 7-2, he seemed very unsure of himself, so no surprise he lost that game, and, failing to recover, the fifth as well.
The bearded German, Peter Engel, foot-stamping on the serve and following with a hard-hop backhand, had Caetano down 2-1 in games. Maybe Errol needed a drink? Former Canadian Closed Champion Derek Wall was telling me how when Caetano was a boy he once had to be admitted to a hospital for weeks because he’d been taking too much coke. (Sounds like one of Derek’s stories, huh?) Anyway, Errol certainly looked in need of some cola or juice now. But then, alright, he won the fourth. And in the fifth, with a late-game flurry of third-ball follows, and an inspired not to say wild backhand, he came away a winner.
In the first of the straight-game quarter’s (losers would earn $300), Kosanovic beat Seemiller who I thought looked a little tired, a little slow. On readying himself to play the second, Danny said his strategy was no more, no less than “Basically, I’m just going to try to wear him down.” But that was obviously going to be difficult, for, playing un-aggressively, popping the ball up, Danny was 6-0 down. Still, he quickly got to 11-all. Only then he just didn’t seem to have much of the power, the freshness he’d had when he beat Zoki rather easily in the Team’s at Vegas the week before. In the third, he was passively blocking the ball so high and just not moving that he was down 14-4 and saying sotto voce, “A nice way to end the season, huh?”
Pintea, in a close five-gamer, lost to the Lee Caetano had beaten in the International Team Matches at the U.S. Open. After coming back from two games down and a 5-0 deficit in the fifth, he was up 18-17 with his serve, but couldn’t hold on to win.
After carefully dusting, powdering, and washing his extra-sticky Double Happiness racket that he’d picked up in Hong Kong, Caetano, playing very, very well, proceeded to split the first two games with Cai, who at one point went after a ball by doing a cartwheel. Later, on his way to ending the match, 19 in the 4th, with his customary sneer and follow, Cai went into a half-crouch and gave Errol four of the most incredible serves I’ve ever seen—two of which he, Cai, put into the bottom of the net, and two of which Errol did.
Both Cai and Xie Saike, who’d downed Canada’s Joe Ng, fell on the slippery dangerous floor, and Cai on getting up went hurriedly over to his corner and taking off his pretty new Bata shoes put on his old ones.
In the first of the semi’s (losers get $750), Cai dropped a string of points at the end…until Lee got to 19. Then the Chinese went for his towel, sneered or smiled, came back, served and followed for the point. In the second, Lee tried to fool Cai with a fast unexpected serve, but Cai, gunslinger-like, bullet-looped it back. Cai 20—Lee 6. The third game was practically a repeat of the first. Cai, up 19-15, played cat and mouse with Lee—until, up 23-22, he whipped out his gun, twirled his racket, and whirled into a serve and follow.
In the other semi’s, Xie Saike was mixing it up with Kosanovic. In the first, Zoki, fighting to keep Xie from pinning him tight to the backhand, barely prevailed at 19. In the second, Zoki at the end failed to return serve, but then snapped in, as no one else in North America could, a beautiful rabbit-hopping, down-the-line backhand. Finally, though, Xie got a slow roll in to win it.
Both Coach Su and Caetano’s return-of-serve advice to Kosanovic was: “Don’t slow-push Xie’s short serve up the middle; instead, give a quick push down his backhand side and move to take advantage of his return.” From 20-17 down, Zoki deuced it, then had pips-out Xie back lobbing until—oh, oh—Xie countered with a perfect passing placement…and won the game.
More advice from Su and Caetano. “Zoki,” said Errol, “his pips are dropping the ball. You gotta pick it up at the table. Then you can go back to loop.” Soon, though, Zoki was back curving lobs table-ward as Xie was driving him off the stage and into the audience. Zoki was down…like out of the wrestling ring…11-4. “After a few loops, sweat comes down into my hands and I can’t get a good grip,” he complained. Still, as the losing semifinalist, his prize was $750.
In the first game of the exhibition final between the Chinese (1st-Place: $2,500; 2nd Place: $1,500), Xie, as the score mounted, kept looking at the electronic scoreboard. What kind of fantasy was he having? Cai, down 20-19, foor-stamped a serve (a signal of some sort?) and Xie dumped the ball into the net. Then at deuce Cai tried the most ridiculous sidespin return—and the first game went to Xie. In the second, Cai got quick revenge—was up 13-3. As Xie smacked in an unbelievable backhand, I looked over at the TV people working the camera nearest me. They looked very bored. Perhaps Cai was too far ahead this game?
At 1-0 in the third, Cai called “Time” and went to his corner for a drink (Or was it to change his racket? Someone told me, you can’t play a good exhibition with a “junk” racket.) The international umpires looked at one another, but quite sensibly, rule or no rule, no one wanted to call it. Down 19-16, Cai took to lobbing, Xie to chopping…lumberjack hard, down on the ball.
In the fourth and final game, Cai began lobbing early: daringly, he tight-roped the curve-edge of the stage as Xie sliced boomerang balls at him. Although the exhibition was severely curtailed because of the dangerous floor, it was still good enough to send some of the crowd bananas—slipping some of them into near hysterics, for Cai was twice down off the stage trying to get an answering curve back so that play would go on. So, o.k., Xie first, Cai second—$4,000 for the two of them, professionals to the end.
Huging Gives a Lesson
At the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, world-ranked Engelbert Huging defeated Canadian National Team member Horatio Pintea three straight. A week later, at the Carleton College Training Center in Ottawa, on the very day Pintea was to participate in a Canadian-Chinese Tour match against Cai Zhenhua, Engelbert played a practice session with 2456-rated Horatio and in effect gave him (Timmy’s, July-Aug., 1983, 19) an hour-long lesson, a part of which I’ll describe here.
After an easy exchange of balls allowing the players to warm up and work into their natural rhythms, the lesson started in earnest. However energetic and willing Horatio was, he continued to have more than a little trouble with Engelbert’s chop defense. “Higher!” Engelbert would roar intimidatingly, as Pintea, without much confidence, kept top-spinning into the net. “Why are you jumping at the ball?” Huging would ask rhetorically. “Because you think you can lift it better that way? Can you really?”
Now Horatio began top-spinning into Engelbert’s backhand, and Engelbert, continually switching his racket forced Horatio (“Think what I’m doing against you!” he’d say) to deal with variations of spin—the heavy chop and floater from the twirled-to inverted side, and the reaction of the twirled-to pips-out side. Horatio’s two-fold problem was (1) to read the spin and (2) to pick out the right ball to hit in for a winner.
As practice went on, Huging would deliberately limit his returns to three-fourths of the table, and alternately would allow Horatio to concentrate only on a series of forehands, then on a series of backhands while of course Engelbert would continue to vary the spin. Then there was drop shot practice (“stop shot” Huging called it). Once, against a drop, Engelbert came dashing in to smash, only to hit the ball on the edge of his racket. Unconsciously, he began inspecting his blade. Then, looking up, he saw me watching him and caught himself. “We always do this—I hate it. It’s so stupid, huh? We players make a mistake, then look at our bat. It’s so stupid—there’s nothing to see.”
Serve practice was next. And Engelbert’s job was to come at Horatio with a serve and follow third-ball attack. Horatio had to discover which serve Engelbert attacked best with—and how to stop it.
As the varied play continued, Engelbert made the point, “I can’t say what exactly you MUST do on any occasion, but I can say generally, “Steadiness is not enough. Patience is not enough. You have to do something to win the point. You must always adapt, must always use your own judgment. And you must act.”
In their last exercise, Horatio would have to read Engelbert’s changing spin and would have to practice one power shot after another to try and keep his forehand advantage and end the point. Engelbert, back from the table at the start, would have to fight hard, sweat out each point from afar to get back into scoring position. Horatio’s point-scoring difficulties reminded Engelbert of how once, while training in Japan, he’d lost to a girl—and how his trainer, former World Champion Ichiro Ogimura, had made him crawl under the table on all fours like a dog.**
For both Horatio, smacking the ball with all his might, and Engelbert, retrieving it from out of the hands of dozens of imaginary spectators, this last exercise was an inspiration. Both teacher and pupil were world beaters—were, even more, comrades. “You’re not so afraid to play me now, are you?” said Engelbert to Horatio with a handshake, a smile and a wink.
Chinese-Canadian Tour Match
This International Match between The People’s Republic of China and Canada was held in Ottawa June 20th during Prince Charles and Princess Di’s visit (no, they didn’t come to watch). It was the second of six such matches (Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Victoria, and Vancouver) that came into being with the help of government funding and the sponsorship of Canadian Pacific Air, Molson’s, and Seagram’s.
The ballroom of the Skyline Hotel was the venue—and it was just ideal. Thanks primarily to Michele Goyette, CTTA Administration Assistant, the court and its surroundings looked absolutely wonderful.
Bleachers were brought up close to accommodate the 750-1,000 spectators who were expected to show And did, and in between these bleachers and the sides of the court were blue VIP “boxes” draped off to contain four seats in a box. Inside the court proper there were bouquets of flowers; green cloth-covered tables for Marc Richard and other umpiring officials to sit at; and Joola scoreboards.
At precisely two minutes till eight, the ballroom was darkened, so that the focus was perfect—only the dim lights over the table prevailed. The players marched in and, with a special floral presentation to each team, the trilingual (English, French, Chinese) ceremonies began. It was a floor show that induced an intimacy. (In both the earlier Butterfly Invitational and the Tour’s first stop, the Etobicoke International in Toronto, there was too much emptiness, too much distance between the performers and their audience).
“I’m so happy,” said Goyette. It was the kind of line—that of a man proud of his work—that would appeal to both CTTA President George Pardon and CTTA Technical Director Adham Sharara who was again doing the color commentary.
The crowd watching the opening one-sided match between Qi Baoxing, World #3, and Thanh Mach, Canada #2, was in good spirits too. They laughed knowledgeably, sympathetically, along with Thanh as she futilely tried to return Qi’s tricky sidespin serves. They weren’t the least self-conscious about not taking the match too seriously. If Thanh could be good-humored, they could be too.
Romanian defector Horatio Pintea was not over-awed by Cai Zhenhua. In 1980 he’d played 1983 World quarterfinalist Cheng Xinhua before 2,000 people in his home town of Oradea. Moreover, although Horatio didn’t start playing the sport until he was 14, he’d been making up for lost time, had developed a good touch. Once, after he’d been at it almost every day for months, he was advised to take three weeks off. But by the third day he was calling Sharara, pleading with him to find an opponent—someone, anyone, Sharara himself—he was that desperate.
Two-time World finalist Cai Zhenhua had been in a playful mood. At the Etobicoke Olympium, discovering that he’d lost his bag with his anti racket in it, he borrowed Xie Saike’s penholder pips-out racket and, playing shake-hands with it, had beaten Kosanovoc 14, 12. Which makes one agree with the uninitiated Chinese sitting next to me, who, watching Cai go 12-6 up in the first, said, “He’s pretty good.”
Cai’s serve and follow movement in which his body looks like it’s going away from the ball, then at the last possible moment snap-catapults into it, is really awesome. No wonder when he doesn’t win the point, he has this habit of looking at Coach Zeng with an apologetic, cockily-ironic smile.
At 10-all in the second, Horatio squats, gives Cai his spinniest sidespin serve. Cai all-out aces him. Discouraging? Nope. Up 18-17, Horatio puts Cai’s first serve into the bottom of the net, the second one off. Up 20-19, Cai sneers or smiles, difficult to say which, serves, and 20-19 follows for the win. Discouraging? Well, maybe a little.
The match between Domonkos, many-time Canadian Women’s Champ, and Lijuan Geng, destined to be 1985 World Women’s Doubles and 1987 World Mixed Doubles Champion, has a more serious tone to it. Perhaps too serious. But with such a rare chance to play a Chinese, 25-year-old Mariann wants to make the most of it. She isn’t out there to roll her eyes in teenage wonderment and smile appealingly. She wants to win, whatever the odds. But Geng, forefinger up unorthodox on the racket as she takes that nice, easy little stroke that explodes the ball, is just too strong.
The evening’s program is fast, zippy, entertaining. And should anyone like me want a drink, he or she has only to walk to the bar inside or outside the ballroom.
Xie Saike, World #3, can take the offense away from Canadian Champ Kosanovic if he wants to. And the first game, as he hooks one away from Zoki, he 7-0 wants to. Wants 15-3 to do it in the second game too. That match finished, Xie, playing like maybe the best player in the world, joins Geng in a Mixed Doubles win over Canadian Champions Pintea/Domonkos.
Finally comes what the spectators have been waiting for—The Exhibition. And what an exhibition it is, whether Cai is playing with his normal anti or immaterially not. Here they do what at slippery Massey Hall they dared not do. Interchangeably, they attacked or defended. dropped and scooped up returns, and reversed table ends. Swerving sidespins from out of the laps of spectators were won and lost at the net-posts opposite. Under the table the acrobatic Cai slid, tunneled; over the table he seemed to float. They could keep the ball in play any way they wanted. “The Harlem Globetrotters of Ping” one reporter called them.
Most in the audience had never seen anything like it. They gave the Chinese such a standing ovation that they had to come out for a third-game encore. In this ballroom, this evening, everyone had a ball.
*Dick Evans, in his “The Pang of Ping-Pong (Apologies to Puccini)” article (Timmy’s, Nov.-Dec., 1983, 4), has this to say about Engelbert Huging’s “The (Open) American”:
“…A century and a half ago Alexis de Tocqueville developed a similar love/hate relationship with the young republic: attracted by democratic optimism; repelled by gregarious familiarity. (We did at this U.S. Open have four barriered-off courts for the aristocracy on which no rabble matches against the King—or Pat Collins—were allowed.) We could, of course, entirely eliminate the unpleasantness of the nobility having to soil themselves with mob togetherness by holding just two events—Singles and Doubles. No gender or age discrimination. And we might have 64 persons in the hall instead of 600. It’s doubtful to this writer if you can have it both ways. Characteristic of the host city, you make your choice and put your money down.
There are many advantages, and some disadvantages, to a broad-based participatory democracy. I can remember that the first Nationals I played in had 12 events. I played one match and watched the rest of the weekend. Today there are nearly 60 events and everyone plays a lot.
Anthropologists know that when you change one aspect of culture you often precipitate changes in other, sometimes unpredictable areas. It is unimportant whether I personally agree with the ideas expressed by Engelbert Huging for the crème de la crème who may favor other forms of governance. What is important is that the USTTA leadership/membership give serious consideration to the choices they make and the consequences which may follow. I can set up a line of 50 tables or a barriered court for one. But, make no mistake, there is a difference. And we deserve what we get.”
**I’m reminded of the following passage in Mitsuru Jojima’s Ogi—The Life of Ichiro Ogimura (translated into English by John Senior in 2009):
“[For a while, World Singles Champion Ichiro Ogimura dreamt of competing at the World Championships in Mixed Doubles with his wife Tokimi. He was as relentless with her as he was with himself.]…Ogimura, a look of intense concentration on his face, was coaching his wife. Each time Tokimi hit the ball out, he gave her a severe dressing-down and, as punishment, made her pass under the table from one end to the other…. [This while] her right hand [was] bloodied by burst blisters, her pretty face twisted with pain.”