1983: Scott Boggan Interviews Former World and European Champion Stellan Bengtsson. 1983: The Three Best Players Ever?1983: Cai Zhenhua Wins $35,000 Asian Cup. 1983: Canadians at Swiss Open/Another U.S. Player Tries His Hand at Playing Professionally in Europe/Swiss T.T./German Association Shake-up.
Here’s Scott Boggan’s “Europe, Bengtsson, A Different Game” article (Timmy’s, Nov.-Dec. 1983, 8):
“As Timmy’s readers will remember, I wassss Ssssweden-bound, in flight after that five-day Julich Training Camp and Polish Auto-Genetic psychiatrist I’d felt in danger of being constrained by: I wanted to be on the wing—practice twice a day, fight, sting a player or two up north. So from Koln I trained all the way via Hamburg to Falkenberg.
In my compartment were typical working-class German boys. They were not the educated students worrying about American nuclear plants and writing ‘Yankee Raus.’ They were just like average American boys. They were eating raw frankfurters, yogurt, bread with liverworst—and talking about ‘What is das bester Bier in the world?’, cars, ‘Tootsie,’ ‘Catch 22,’ ‘An Officer and a Gentleman,’ and ‘Das she do anything?’ (‘Ja? How do you know?’...‘Cause I’—but here, for all guardians of the language, the translation becomes hopeless.) They’re drinking beer and—right after I open my coke—they offer me one. A clever trick of politeness, I thought.
Nothing happened much during the first stage of my train ride, except once I stuck my head out the window—and with the wind blowing violently in my face, a girl ahead of me with her window open spit.
Met a Munich boy in Hamburg who was on his way back-packing to Sweden—he also drank a beer at the train station. It was filled with drunk and loud foreigners and a few low-class Germans. Truly a disgusting place. How could anyone work here?
In our compartment, along with the Munich boy and me, were a German businessman, an Italian girl, and two Americans from the military. Mostly we passed the time by talking about Baseball and the Army. The German I’d met in Hamburg, short furlough aside, was having to serve 15 months. He was counting the days—106—no, wait, 105 more to go. There is nothing to do each day, he says—“We get four hours to clean our room. Have 17 minutes to run two miles.”
The military Americans talk about the advantages of buying things in the American Army stores and how if you get caught selling something you bought you’re in serious trouble—are court-martialed and all your benefits are gone. ‘I want to get out before there’s a war,’ said one. They also talked about how the fatality rate in the Russian Army is 20%. “They drill with real gas,’ said the one who wanted to get out. The Americans, they confided, have alcohol problems in their Army in Germany. Everybody’s a drunk. Also, at two in the morning, they test urine for drugs.
We tell sick jokes. The Americans who can’t speak more than ten words of understandable German can’t wait to tell of their amazing 20-hour train ride. I tell them I’ve been through much more insanity than this.
So many Americans get nothing out of living in another country. Usually a military or businessman’s family is totally lost in Germany—with their refusal to learn German, and their ‘Everything American is best’ attitude, they don’t fit in. You got to adapt, man. Elvis Presley, who spent 18 months on an Army base in Germany, was once asked if he liked German food. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I never ate it. I only ate at the base or at my apartment.’ I couldn’t believe it.
As the customs officials were coming towards us, a drunk Swede was trying to pick up the Italian girl, who spoke no French, German, or English. He looked at me and said, ‘When they see your American passport, they’re gonna check everything you have. So you’d better throw the shit out the window.’
I told him to flip off, get lost. I don’t need people like him around me. The customs officials glanced at my passport and went on to bug the Turks or any of the other unfortunate darker-skinned people around.
In Sweden, it was only T.T. I tried to train hard, but didn’t always succeed. Everywhere there are beautiful halls to train in the whole day. But if you’re not in a Big City, there is absolutely nothing happening. I often found myself craving a German beer after practice.
One thing I enjoyed doing though—and which even some of Timmy’s non-readers might approve of me doing—was visiting and talking at length with Stellan Bengtsson.
Bengtsson’s house? Well, what would you think a World Champion’s house ought to look like? Of course it’s beautiful—with marble floors, French doors, Chinese rugs, a trophy room that you can’t imagine, and a view of the ocean from the living room. But of all that was striking, that which most excited my imagination was a picture of Stellan playing doubles with Kjell Johansson who has just crashed into the barriers head first while Bengtsson is smacking in a winner!
On just entering Bengtsson’s house, those in the know are reminded that he’s given some exhibitions in prisons and talked with some convicts. There are plaques placed conspicuously there—for the ‘honest’ thieves to see and if need be take rather than steal all those foreign goodies Stellan so values. ‘What have I got to lose?’ he says.
Besides being super-generous, Bengtsson is pretty much like any other guy—except with an incredible dedication to table tennis. Setting aside for the moment his T.T. and his traveling knowledge of the world’s finest cultures, he thinks and acts much like any other schmo—hopping around pantomiming a blues artist. When Muddy Waters sings the popular ‘I’m a Man,’ it’s like Stellan has a baseball bat in his hands instead of a guitar.
But when I’m close to him as we train and he’s often yelling at me from an adjacent table to ‘Keep quiet!’ I see what a perfectionist he is. It seems he has more reason than most for not wanting to miss his shots—he doesn’t like to play badly.
Now, however, he has no racket in hand and certainly seems to be in a relaxed, perhaps even reflective mood. I casually seize the day.
SCOTT: How are you playing?
STELLAN: Okay. I’ve changed my grip drastically in favor of a stronger backhand. I used to hold the finger curved around the side, but now I’m more orthodox. (I didn’t explain to the Champ how I changed my grip every shot—didn’t point out to him that if he had a few minutes tomorrow I’d gladly demonstrate the Scott Boggan technique to him. Besides, we players have to keep a few secrets to ourselves. Tell the Seemillers that, right Eric?
SCOTT: You have a nice record collection here. You must have thousands of records
STELLAN: Oh yeah! What have you played? (Man, sometimes in these interviews I feel like that glass-enclosed wasp the Belgian guy in my last article kept calling an American. You know, trapped, struggling to get free. But then comes a rush of air, strength, and I’m alright.)
SCOTT: Uh…nothing yet. I was afraid I’d break the $1,000 turntable or scratch a $70 record or something.
STELLAN: Records are made to be played, right?
SCOTT: Hey, I’m the one who’s supposed to ask you the questions. Remember, it’s my interview.
STELLAN: O.K. Interview.
SCOTT: How can you have so much drive?
STELLAN: In the beginning, while I was in school, T.T. was just a hobby. But then I got into the game and made the National Team. I enjoy playing and training, even though I’m very disappointed when I lose. I always try very, very hard—even after this last World’s. It’s very important to make training fun.
SCOTT: But it’s often painful, isn’t it?
STELLAN: There’s some good/ugly kind of side to it that’s hard to explain. If I take a one-day break I’m sure I’ll practice the next. I’m sure I’m like the long-distance runners who say they HAVE to run, that it’s in their blood—and so training gets to be a necessary routine.
SCOTT: Some players think very positively and only think of winning. Is that how you think?
STELLAN: I think very positively, but if you only think of winning and you lose, you get so low it’s maybe too hard to recover. But of course you should be disappointed when you lose.
SCOTT: What can you do when you try and try to practice, but everything goes wrong?
STELLAN: Just keep fighting. Everyone is going to have those days. There’s nothing you can do about it.
SCOTT: How can you keep having goals in T.T.?
STELLAN: Well, speaking personally, Sweden’s getting ready for the Goteborg World Championships and so am I. Also, I’d like to win the Swedish Championships again. After that, I want to play a few more years in Germany—for some insurance money.
SCOTT: Have you made any major mistakes in your career?
STELLAN: After I won the World’s I was still a little naïve and didn’t take advantage financially as I should have. I didn’t write off taxes on my house until 1976—78-80% of what I make goes toward taxes.
SCOTT: What do you think of Sweden’s political system?
STELLAN: I don’t know enough about politics to make a statement. In Sweden we have a saying that ‘We lost our most important vegetable, the carrot.’ This means that people didn’t use their horses that then didn’t eat carrots—which means that Swedes never did get up and go out and improve their system, with the result that we have to pay so much in taxes. Our system would work if everyone tried, but I think some people don’t try. O.K., maybe some have bad luck, but I don’t believe so many do. When I’m running on the beach, the drunks yell at me, ‘Faster! Faster!’ I want to hit them because they’re living off my money.
SCOTT: Is it a proper attitude to think that you’re going to win the match beforehand?
STELLAN: At a certain level, self-criticism and humbleness helps a lot. Self-criticism and confidence can improve your game. For me, confidence has its throne in the heart and not in the mouth. If you have real confidence, you don’t have to say anything.
SCOTT. Is it easy for athletes to accomplish things outside their sport?
STELLAN: If you’ve been into a sport, really into it, you have an advantage. In your work you know how to fight. Table tennis is 70% mental. Everyone has weapons—strengths. But also weaknesses. In the important matches the strongest win because they’re mentally tougher.
SCOTT: I think the Japanese should be better than they are. Do you agree?
STELLAN: The Japanese have a weak backhand—and you can’t have a weak spot in today’s game. They’re good players. Especially Saito. But they get stuck and haven’t progressed along with the development of the game.
SCOTT: In traveling, have you ever done something you really regret? Or have you thought something wrong about somebody and learned that it really wasn’t that way?
STELLAN: I’m always bitching about taxes. But what if you’re born in Poland where there are 90 million and nothing to eat. And I live in this huge house and complain about my backhand. If you really think table tennis is the most important thing in your life and you’re nervous in an important match, and you suddenly say, ‘Hey, what shit is this? C’mon, it’s only a game,’ that’s a defense, an escapist attitude. Sometimes it works, but I like more the one who’s fighting his nervousness rather than trying to escape from it. As to how I’ve been mistaken about other people, in ’71 we thought that the Chinese were totally mysterious, but at the World’s we learned that they were just like anybody else. Even though Swedes and Chinese are of different races, all people are pretty much the same.
SCOTT: What are your plans after you stop playing?
STELLAN: Time and I change a lot. What I now think I’d like to do maybe later, when a different time comes, I won’t want to do. The first part of my life was dedicated to T.T., so probably the second half of it will be also. I don’t think I’d like to be a full-time coach traveling all around, but maybe one in a fixed place for a club or something.
SCOTT: Do you ever think of wanting to be a regular working guy?
STELLAN: It would be hard for me if I HAD to do this and that. I’m spoiled now—I can do what I want.
SCOTT: Are you better now than when you won the World Championship in 1971?
STELLAN: This question is often asked. I would now win under 10 against the ’71 Bengtsson.
SCOTT: Why? Has the game changed so much since then?
STELLAN: The game has developed so much with loop against loop, especially at the table.
SCOTT: Has it to do with the better and faster sponge now available?
STELLAN: A very little bit. It’s mostly technique.
SCOTT: Do you like the way the game is now, or was it better before?
STELLAN: It was more spectacular and better to watch 10 years ago. The ’73 World’s, I thought, had the best points.
SCOTT: Who was the best player ever?
STELLAN: This is an impossible question to answer because of the changing times and evolution of the game. You could say Chuang Tse-tung in his day or Guo Yuehua today. Once I played Wang Huiyuan and lost 3-1 easily and yet I thought I couldn’t have played better. And Kjell Johansson, whom I’ve played so many finals against—he was a great player. There are so many choices.
SCOTT: What do you think of the new ITTF rules?
STELLAN: I approve of them, but the service rule is just not clear enough. I think the way it reads now it could mess up a lot of matches. The color change is better for the spectators, but the defensive players now have little or no chance. Personally, the rule changes help me—except that it’s hard for me to make my backhand serve now because I’m so small.
SCOTT: Should there be any more rule changes?
STELLAN: To make the game more attractive, the ITTF must maybe make the sponge slower, the net higher, or the ball slower. But I’m not the one who should be talking about all this because I try to win points very quickly.
(About this time, Stellan made me a campari and soda water or something. ‘I don’t know if you’ll like it,’ he said. I said it was fine, but, boy, was it horrible!’)
SCOTT: Did you always think you could do it—win the World’s in ’71?
STELLAN: Before then I never won a Senior title—only Junior events. I signed a contract right before the World’s with Stiga and got totally embarrassed when they put a clause in saying that if I won the World’s my percentage from rackets sold would sky up. ‘Why did they put that in?’ I thought. ‘I wasn’t the best player in the world.’ During the Championships, though, I didn’t think about it, just took one match at a time. Everyone said my win was a big surprise—I’d been ranked #10 in the world. I only had to play one European, so when I beat seven Orientals the Swedish writers said I couldn’t have won if I had to play more Europeans. When the next year in ’72 I won the European’s I said it was easy ‘cause there weren’t any Asians in the tournament. It was a good feeling.
SCOTT: Do you play other sports?
STELLAN: I’m constantly living in a glass house, afraid of getting injured. I follow other sports though. A T.T. player can learn mental and physical training through other sports. Not many people know how physical T.T. is. I ran a marathon, besting a famous wrestler by 30 minutes. I think it was good for the sport.
SCOTT: Did you ever make a major mistake in your training schedule?
STELLAN: In ’72 or ’73 I was at my best. In ’74-’75 I went down and didn’t play well again till ’77. I should have done something radical in ’75—like training in China or Japan.
SCOTT: Man, I must be asking some real hacker questions, huh?
STELLAN: No, not really, I’ve heard worse. A reporter on the phone once asked Waldner, ‘If you were a car, which make would you be?’
SCOTT: What did Waldner say?
(Privately, I thought to myself, ‘Boggan, you’re just as much a jerk as that reporter.’)
STELLAN: He hung up.
SCOTT: What do you think of the ’83 Swedish Team and your role on it?
STELLAN: We’re a very good mix—with some acting as father figures giving security. Last season was the hardest for me—I played only in the Yugoslav Championships. I should have played more but got sick and injured, especially before the World’s. The #6 man on the Team is odd man out for the World Team, and I knew it was between Carlsson and me for that #5 position. I prepared mentally for both possibilities—and got the fifth spot. Some said I shouldn’t have been picked, but the Coach thought I could catch up in the training. So once I made that last man on the team, the thought came creeping in that maybe if Appelgren and Waldner and Lindh didn’t succeed maybe he was gonna let me play. But I couldn’t hope they’d fail just so I could play. It was the first time since ’70 that I didn’t have a major role on the team. That was very hard for me to take. Now I’m like starting from scratch--#6 in Sweden, #14 in Europe. Anyway, I’m training hard.
SCOTT: Do you enjoy Team competition more than Singles?
STELLAN: Yes, very much. When you play on a team, every match is your own individual match. One of the best feelings in sport is to share happiness and share defeat. That’s the best happiness. Screaming out support from the bench is a fantastic feeling. From ’64 on, Sweden won the European Championships six times in a row—often when they were in trouble. That’s fighting spirit. Even if you win an individual title, you can share it only with yourself—that’s kind of lonely.
(But a good loneliness, I thought. I told Stellan about the time Eric, Rutledge, and I as juniors just barely got into the USOTC’s Men’s Division--they wanted us to play as juniors. And how we lost 5-4 in the final—with me blowing the last match against Ricky. We came from nowhere, whipping Wuvanich and Chan 5-0, and then after we lost how we were still such a team—sitting in the stands at practically triangular points away from each other, each thinking how he’s succeeded and yet each of us blaming himself for our loss. Though we were apart, the points connected, continued to connect. When that happens, it’s one of the few great feelings in sport—and they don’t come often. As I told Stellan this, we both got goose pimples.)
SCOTT: What do you think of the American players?
STELLAN: They have guts and they fight. Some Europeans lack this. If you don’t show guts, you shouldn’t play. I like such an attitude. I saw Germans up 5-6 points against the Chijnese and they looked so down. Though technically most players have a lot to learn, everyone has his own talent and way to play. Technique is important but not everything. The problem with the Americans is that there are so many foreigners among them—I mean, non-native-born players or sons and daughters of non-native-born parents. I don’t want to talk against foreigners—they should definitely play for America, even if, say, they have Yugoslavian parents. But you need to show Americans whose great grandparents were born in the U.S. that long-established generations can produce strong players. Maybe the foreigners could be used better in coaching, or as practice partners, or as well-educated trainers. It could be that if new emigrants get on the U.S. Team they might not share all their knowledge—at least not right away. But what do I know. I don’t know anything about this situation—it was just a thought.
SCOTT: What do you think the problem is with American table tennis?
STELLAN: Because your country is as big as all Table Tennis Europe, you must make the State Associations stronger.
SCOTT: How come the Swedes are so good?
STELLAN: We have many dedicated youngsters and T.T. has been in our culture a long time. The way our system works we have always produced sportsmen. Swedes are well organized.
SCOTT: Has anything incredibly funny happened to you during an important match?
STELLAN: In the European League we were playing Czechslovakia and it was 3-3 with me playing the last match against Dvoracek. It was 1-1 in games and 15-all in the third when my penis somehow got placed in a position where I didn’t want it and I was trying again and again in the most casual manner, without touching it out there in front of everyone, to shift it over to the other side. An act I meant to be unnoticed, hoped would go unnoticed, began after a time to be ridiculous, and finally someone on our bench laughed, and then we all laughed—and I ran out the game. [And shifted your penis, I hope.]
SCOTT: Do you ever get sick of playing and fighting?
STELLAN: No, not really. I like to fight. Lately it’s been hard for me to motivate myself in practice matches. On the one hand I try to fight, but on the other who cares if you lose. The longer you play, the more you need something extra in the way of motivation.
SCOTT: How come you’ve changed Bundesliga clubs so often?
STELLAN: With one club I was injured often and once I refused to play with a temperature. There were also other problems with them. Another club I was with had no chance to win, and although I had my best season ever in Germany, I didn’t think my matches really counted. I’m used to playing on a winning team.
SCOTT: Last question: What do you think of the German Bundesliga changing its rule from allowing two foreign players on a team to now just allowing one?
STELLAN: it was interesting with two foreigners. I think it’s bad for the players but better for the spectators—they can relate more than they could if they were seeing four foreigners in the top slots. Maybe a rule should be made where an additional foreigner could be added but must play in the middle #3/4 position.
The reason Stellan Bengtsson was World Champion in ’71 and is still one of the top players in the world is because of his intensity. His professional attitude can be seen in the most casual of events. Once in the back seat of his car, his five-year-old niece was trying to hit a ping-pong ball with just the wooden face of a broken racket. Bengtsson couldn’t just let it go—he had to complain. ‘We have a thousand rackets,’ he moaned, “and she’s playing with a broken one!”
During my return trip, I got caught in Helsingborg from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. and had to wait outside in the open air. As I watched the ferries coming every 15 minutes from Denmark, I saw the drunken Swedes--they go to Denmark because of the cheaper prices and freer alcohol laws—wobble into cars, cabs, and busses. I thought, ‘Man, it’s no fun to drink like them.’ I, who surprisingly hadn’t had a drink in 12 Swedish days, was carefully watching my back-pack slouched against the wall. Everyone of course had to pee and, since one guy was letting go about a yard away from my stuff, I was just hoping that no one would suddenly yell his name and make him turn and so pull the old John-Belushi-outside-Delta House-routine all over my back-pack.
Before I make it home, I meet a beautiful girl who wants no part of the (Pakistani?) guys ogling her. I try to help her out, but I soon see she’s totally flavored up. Is out of it. Her shoe is kaput and she keeps wanting me to stick the broken sandal-strap in its rightful place and then put the shoe on for her. Four times I do this for Cinderella…until I think, ‘This is ridiculous. The flippin’ thing’s broken. She speaks to me but I understand practically nothing. Blah, Blah, Blah, Heroin. More Swedish, Thailand, More Mumbo-Jumbo, Marijuana, Maybe-she’s-speaking-Finnish, Good, Good, Millionaire, Heroin.. I don’t know what she’s on, but she can’t just be drunk. I try my best now to avoid her, thinking, ‘Boggan, you’re not that low, and, besides, you’d probably get some kind of disease.’
I finally get back to Huging’s place, which was shaping up into an apartment. He’s surprised to see me and tells me there’s a party in two hours. Turns out we’re going to a going-away party for a friend of his. Good timing, Boggan.
Bert—that’s my roommate, Engelbert—just got back from giving an Exhibition. A CHAUFFEUR drove him all the way from Dusseldorf Airport to his home. He overheard the driver being advised at the Exhibition, ‘This ping-pong fella’s not in a rush, so don’t bring the Porsche—the Mercedes will do.’ Professional chauffeurs like this usually deliver tapes to newspapers and important people to important places. They’re like race-car drivers averaging 130 m.p.h. on the Autobahn. Only 1% of the people have the ability to drive like them. They practice skidding on icy parking lots, run six miles a day to keep in shape, and do some kind of mental training. Huging told me the driver said the worst thing to do in a jam is the most instinctive—to hit the brakes hard. ‘I’m not afraid of death,’ said the driver to Bert, and then—could he have been trying to start a macabre conversation?—added, ‘It’s funny, but now that I think about it, with one mistake we’re dead.’
Huging is now more or less the Julich Club Coach and has many problems filling the last position on their first team. There are three or four players at the same level and he has trouble deciding which one to pick. He told one of the young guys two months before the season started to ‘Practice hard. You know you have a chance to make the first team.’ Two days later the kid took off for Paris and Africa for a month, drinking every day. Huging picked him for the second and third matches. [Why not for the first? And what about the fourth?]
At the party, there are only intellectuals and I don’t fit in. Huging doesn’t like it much either, but his friend’s a good friend and he must stay. So he drinks Bacardi like a thirsty dog water. I’m gonna drive him home (German drinking and driving laws are very strict) so, unfortunately, I have to drink Coke. I laugh. Maybe I’m getting older—I sense the responsibility.
Later, I’m back in my room…which by now is looking very similar to my room at home on the Island. I’ve got a fish net with all sorts of crazy things hanging down…pictures of baseball players and pretty girls—Nastasia Kinski—ohh, ohh.
As I lie in bed I look at my $20 James Dean poster. He slushes through the New York City rain with cigarette in mouth and seems totally lost. James Dean…Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Which reminds me:
Feb. 8, 1931…Hemingway: ‘People are not allowed to give up. Man can destroy himself, but man is not allowed to give up.’
I don’t think Hemingway was like the American wasp. He committed suicide.
(Ed.’s Note. Dear Scott. He did at 62—in very bad mental and physical health, after a lifetime of very hard and very successful work. I keep in my wallet, as did Hemingway, these lines: ‘D’abord il faut en durer‘: Above all, hang in there.’)
Rufford Harrison (Timmy’s, Nov.-Dec., 1983, 7) points out that “at the ITTF Council Meeting in Hangzhou, PRC he attended, the Council was addressed by the Chinese Men’s Coach, Li Furong, aka Li Fu-jung, three-time World Men’s Singles runner-up (1961-63-65) to Zhuang Zedong aka Chuang Tse-tung. During the ensuing question period, ITTF Secretary-General Tony Brooks asked him to name the three best players he’d seen, excluding Ogimura (who was in the room) and Chinese players. Question: Whom did Li name?
Matsuzaki, Japan. Bengtsson, Sweden. Hsi En-ting, PRC. [That’s a Chinese player, right? Never mind, Li’ll tell it like he wants.] If this trio surprises you, join the club. It may help to give Li’s reasoning.
Kimiyo Matsuzaki (World Champion, 1959 and 1963) he liked because of her technique and sportsmanship [a criterion for being “best?]. I can’t find any fault with that at all: she was a great player [very much befriended by Chou En-lai] and a fine personality. And I trust she is operating at an equally high standard in her current enterprise, a small shop in Tokyo devoted exclusively to table tennis equipment.
Bengtsson’s claim to fame is the way he disposed of the Orientals on his way to the world title. In 1971, the rising star was Li Ching-kuang, expected almost universally to be the next world champion. So not many expected Bengtsson to win the crown.
Stellan began by disposing of Motokima Aramaki and Kim Yung Sam in straight games. Then he found himself 2-1 down to Li, but, after being significantly behind, won 19 in the 5th. Same thing against former World Champion Hasegawa—down 2-1, won 19 in the 5th. Now Jaroslav Kunz came—and went. Then three 19 games against Hsi En-ting—all won by Bengtsson. And finally the final against Shigeo Itoh, whom he beat in four.
Bengtsson had lost five matches in Swaythling Cup play and could not have been favored to take the Singles. Similarly, in 1973, when Hsi En-ting, aka Xi Enting, hardly played in the Swaythling Cup and had a very mediocre 3-2 record, he wasn’t a favorite either. He started the Singles by beating Obisanya, Wuisan, Beleznai, Gomozkov, and Orlowski. Then in the semi’s, he led Stipancic 2-1, but just eked out a 19-in-the-5th win. That brought him to his dramatic final against Kjell Johansson, the favorite who led 2-1 at the break. However, it was Hsi whom Chance favored with two edge balls at the end for a 21-18 finish.
If we take Mr. Brooks’s question literally (the best three?) I doubt that many would agree with Li Furong [including Li Furong?]. But if we accept his interpretation of the question (the most spectacular winners perhaps?) I think I could go along with him. [With that last sentence, Rufford (“if”…”perhaps”…”I think”) is all-out hedging.]”
China Stars in Asian Cup
The $34,000 inaugural Asian Cup tournament was held Oct. 8-11 at Wuxi City, China (near Shanghai). All players and officials stayed in Asian Union harmony at the 10-story Hubin Hotel overlooking not the salt, estranging sea but beautiful Lake Taihu with its 48 (wanna visit some?) islands.
Forty-eight players (32 men, 16 women) from 13 countries participated in qualifying round robin matches and, from the quarter’s on, single elimination matches.
Of course no one was surprised that the Chinese won. Not surprised that 1983 World Women’s Champ Cao Yanhua, a combination bat user, was 1st, that 1981 World Women’s Champ Tong Ling was 2nd. Not surprised that the Men’s winner was Cai Zhenhua, World #2 (make that now that Guo Yuehu’s retired, World #1), that Jiang Jialiang, World #3 (now #2) was 2nd, that Xie Saike, finalist to Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner in the recent Swedish Open, 3rd.
Poor Cai, poor Jiang—it’d been thought by some that, after their astonishing qualifying losses in the World Cup at Barbados last summer (they’d finished 9th and 10th—“the biggest loss our men have ever suffered in the Singles at any major international competition since 1959,” said Zhuang Jiafu, coach of China’s National Team), their games had suffered a death blow. Yup, the Yugoslav World Doubles Champions and Eric Boggan, not to say the new (Stop China!) serve and footstamp rules, had been just too much for them. Kalinic had beaten Cai, and Surbek Jiang, who’d also lost a tie-breaking match to Boggan.
In a recent international article by He Zhou of China Features, a post-Barbados Cai is quoted as saying, “It was really awful [there in Barbados]. I sometimes felt I was unable to serve.” Poor Cai.
Oh, and what happened to him at China’s Fifth National Games in September? Pitiful. Kaput. “It’s a pity to see my teammate Cai Zhenhua play awkwardly with the new racket,” said Guo.
But here at Wuxi City in October he won not the World Cup but the Asian Cup. How account for that? Simple. He took up “his old uniform-colored racket covered on one side with sandwich rubber and on the other with anti loop” and—presto, magico—he was Guo’s heir apparent again. Or was he? For, continued reporter He Zhou, “the impact of the new rules will come upon him again, when he picks up a racket of clearly different colours.”
Just how resourceful are the Chinese? (As if we didn’t know.) Will Cai, who’s “now experimenting with a new racket covered on the back side with pimpled rubber instead of anti-loop,” make a comeback? Or is he finished?
Canadian TTA Technical Director Adham Sharara, who was at the Swiss Open, and I, Tim, who was not, collaborated to bring you this article on the tournament (Timmy’s, Nov.-Dec., 1983, 17). It was held Oct. 28-29 in the brand new Olten Sports Hall on the most beautiful, intensely green tables, and drew players from 19 countries, including four internationals from Canada (Joe Ng, Horatio Pintea, Mariann Domonkos, and Thanh Mach). However, aside from the distributors, officials, players, and umpires, 15 of whom were International Umpires (two from Canada—Detlev Von Nottbeck and Denis Vigeant), there was maybe a grand total of 25 spectators for the Opening Ceremonies and the Team Finals.
Perhaps only a few people knew such International action was imminent? How else explain why during the Team semi’s all 12 tables were still up and players were practicing on them? Nope, not too classy—for, had spectators come (but then everybody knew they wouldn’t?), they would have been subject to a poor presentation.
Still, all in all it was a well-organized tournament—with quite good playing conditions and no complaints about the hospitality or the mini-bus transportation service provided. It was just that, oh, after the Opening Ceremonies and the removal of 11 of those 12 tables from the floor, there was a great emptiness. One long-time aficionado couldn’t understand it: 700 seats and none of them sold ahead of time?
Perhaps, though, the sponsoring Camels people got their money’s worth. There was really a lot of publicity about the tournament, and a respectable 500 spectators were smoked out from somewhere for the Singles finals.
Doubtless the point ought to be made, was made here, that today’s spectators don’t want all 12 tables to play at once, don’t want to sit half a mile up and away from the playing court, don’t want to watch a four-hour long Team event. Organizers should realize by now that viewer support for the sport certainly isn’t automatic any more, and that more effort is needed to bring audiences and players closer together.
The President of the European Table Tennis Union, Dr. Gyorgy Lakatos, in his opening ceremonial remarks may with the greatest civility say that this Open was one of the biggest and most prestigious—but can a sport with so little public show of support really be successful? And although this tournament was supposedly a Norwich Union Grand Prix event, there was nothing to indicate that and no representative from Norwich Union present for Laszlo Foldi or anyone else to take a picture of.
Anyway, the Show did go on, and we’ll report first on the Men’s and Women’s Team finals.
In the Men’s, China defeated Sweden three-zip. In the first match, Fan Changmao downed Ulf “Ticken” Carlsson 9, -13, 14. The second (attacking-lobbing) game, won by the Swede, was perhaps the most exciting of the tournament. In the third, Carlsson, showing fantastic speed, continued his aggressive play—but now, instead of blocking Ticken’s serves, Fan would start lifting them; and then, mixing short and long serves of his own, he himself began viciously smacking the ball. In that third game, it seemed clear that Fan had enough control of the ball 70% of the time to set up, relentlessly again and again, his third or fifth ball attack.
Fan’s service is worth commenting on. He positions himself at his backhand corner, then takes two slow steps, walks literally, to his forehand corner, then throws the ball up and backwards and takes a step back before making contact. Apparently he believes this service movement will enable him to bounce the ball close to the net on his opponent’s side or, because of the new ITTF ball-can’t-be-behind-your-body rule, he wants to be sure to make contact in the most legal and effective way.
In the second match, He Zhiwen had no trouble with Stellan Bengtsson, beating him 11 and 15. He that is, He—was up 12-3 in the first, getting fully half his points when Bengtsson outright missed the Chinese’s serves or couldn’t prevent him from following for a winner.
The Canadian Men’s Team beat Luxemburg 3-0, but lost to China 3-0. Pintea, who was confident against Luxemburg, was not the same player against the Chinese. He just did not have a good attitude to play them. He complained that he couldn’t return serves, couldn’t possibly win.
If you ask Horatio what he thinks he should do to become a better player, he replies as if the problem were largely extrinsic—says he needs to play against better players, find a better practice situation. Whereas if you ask Joe Ng that question he replies as if the problem were intrinsic—says he must develop better serves, improve his backhand block, loop with a shorter stroke close to the table.
At this point, Joe looks to his game and Horatio does not.
In the Men’s Doubles, where they again teamed together—against Martin and Mazunov, two good choppers—Horatio and Joe looked like they’d have a nice win. But four or five bad judgment mistakes cost them, and when it got very close at the end, they misread the spin and lost 19 in the third.
Three of the four Chinese men at this Open were lefty pips-out penholders. Someone was saying that about seven years ago, when these players were in their formative years, a table tennis edict was sent out that every provincial team in China had to be represented by at least one such player with this style—the loop, it was made clear even then, was not the be-all and end-all of technical accomplishment.
The Swedes, whom most observers feel are second in ability to the Chinese, have an extraordinary National Team depth—have nine very strong players. This presents a Selection problem, which so far is being solved by sending two to five-player groups on a rotation basis to various international tournaments. Here, it was Carlsson and Stellan Bengtsson together and no third player to choose from. Fortunately for them they beat Czechoslovakia 3-2 in the quarter’s and so got to play more matches, had at least the opportunity to show good form against Hungary and China in the semi’s and final.
In the Women’s Team final, China finished off Russia in an hour and a half, three straight. Tong Ling downed Flora Hasanova; but Dai Lili, winning in three, dropped the first game to Valentina Popova.
Former defensive star Tong Ling has developed a throw-up serve and is attacking more. From 15-all in the first against Hasanova, she ran out the game. Up 20-13 in the second, she just looked bored.
The first game between Dai and Popova featured repeated super-fast counter-attacking exchanges. Up 18-16, Popova missed an easy topspin. But when it was Dai’s turn to serve, Popova looped back all the Chinese girl’s long serves, then killed the block return. In the second and third games, however, Dai served short, slowed the pace, and the Russian was no longer a theat. Li Huifeng, the new Chinese Champion, didn’t play singles in the Team’s. Rumor has it that she can beat any Chinese girl under 10—but is not so good against Europeans. Can you believe it? [No.] She lost in the Singles to Marie Hrachova, 19 in the fifth.
In the Women’s Doubles, Domonkos and Mach had two fine wins. They came from behind to beat England’s Bellinger sisters, 2-1 (with their good order, Mariann and Thanh went 10-4 down in the third, then seemed to relax with the bad order and immediately brought the score to 10-10!) Then they downed Szabo and Urban, the experienced Hungarians, 2-0, before losing to a French pair in the quarter’s.
He Zhiwen, playing in his first tournament outside China, won the Men’s Singles, deuce in the fourth, over Hungary’s no longer suspended Tibor Klampar.
In the semi’s, He downed a fellow Chinese, while Klampar had a surprisingly difficult time with Patrick Birocheau, who’d beaten Fan in the quarter’s. The Frenchman, looping, and finishing well, was up 2-0 on Klampar, but then, trying to get safely home, fell to blocking too much. Later, when Birocheau began going back and looping, Klampar was quickly counter-looping off the bounce.
He looked shaky in his first 18, 19 far-away-from-home match against Canadian Joe Ng in the Team’s (that’s where one Chinese estimated He played—are you ready for this, Joe?—5% of his normal game), He also looked, at one game each, vulnerable to Klampar in the final.
Actually, the Hungarian shares some stylistic traits with the Chinese. He has a very economical, close-to-the-table style, perfectly placed returns of serves, fast pushes to any pin-pointed spot on the table, and a short-stroke loop off the bounce from either side.
What Klampar lacks perhaps are good serves. China’s He, however, has them. His high-toss curves outside and away, and for a time when he used this serve he was winning maybe 80% of the points. But Klampar found a brilliantly improvised return which allowed him to neutralize Fan’s advantage. He began to forehand curve the ball around the net as if he were in an imaginary bowling alley and throwing a hook that would skid right along the table top. Now we ask you, would the U.S. and Canadian players be so at-the-table adaptable?
Profile of Maurice Taylor/Swiss T.T./German Association Shake-up
In an adjacent article, Adham and I continue with more Swiss news—involving no Canadians, but Maurice Taylor, who spent six years in the United States (from ’76 to ’82). He was born in Norway of American parents. His father was a professor who taught in Norway, Iceland, and later in Geneva, Switzerland (Maurice’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Swiss). When his parents split up, he began coming to the U.S., especially in the summers, to spend time with his mother who’d returned here. He thus kept good contact with both countries and continued to do so throughout his later school years.
For two and a half years he attended Andover in Massachusetts—and if you think that’s private, consider for two and a half years Maurice couldn’t find a place to play table tennis and didn’t even know the USTTA existed. When later he went to Brown, he began to play at the Rhode Island Club and in occasional tournaments with his friend Matt Stamp and others. In Toronto in 1981 (in the beginning his rating had been close to 1600, now it was about 2150), he played in the Canadian Open and lost to a visiting Korean.
Whether it was being a part of this international tournament that motivated him or not, about this time he decided, like other young U.S. players—the Boggan brothers, Mike Bush, and Charles Butler—that if he wanted to play serious table tennis, he’d have to do it abroad, have to go where the sport was recognized and money provided for it. In the U.S. the practice situation was bad and the distance between where he was living and the tournament sites too great. Were there not far more opportunities for him in little Switzerland?
Of course in Europe, the club system is at the very foundation of the sport. Every 10 kilometers you drive in Switzerland you were sure to come across three or four clubs. In Geneva alone there were 35 of them. To one accustomed to the wide open spaces of U.S. table tennis this Swiss density was astonishing.
Each club had its own personal tables and received financial assistance from the local municipality. In all, there were 8,000 serious competitors playing a wide variety of styles. Maurice’s own club had about 150 players—which was about average.
With constant practice, Maurice’s game improved considerably and he began playing 1st Division National League matches. What a joy to have to drive only 20 minutes to an hour for a fun Match. This was simply not possible in the U.S. were one was kept away from the action because of time and money problems.
Because the Swiss players in general have gotten better (as everyone knows, the caliber of play even among 3rd Division teams at the World’s has increased drastically), Maurice himself over the last couple of years has been able to raise the level of his game in a way that he never could have by staying where he was in the States. He became one of the National Squad members who played for Switzerland in the Swiss Open.
Though Table Tennis has far more stature in Switzerland than in the U.S., there are, as in all countries, some problems between the administrators and the players. The Swiss Association wants to emphasize mass participation, while the players of course want the Association to help them form an elite National Team. Specifically, they want coaches—good coaches with established reputations who’ll be well paid. Otherwise, they feel, they won’t develop enough to compete equally or even near equally against other European nations.
Four years ago, the Swiss hired Charles Roesch, for eight years the National Technical Director of the French Association, as a part-time coach—with the result that the players improved far more than did the Association.
Roesch has just gone on to become Head Coach of the German Association. He replaces Istvan Korpa, who has the Women’s Team formerly coached by Klaus Schmittinger. Klaus in the shake-up has become a Regional Coach. Eva Jeller now heads the German Junior Program replacing Jochen Leiss who has assumed the position of German Technical Advisor and Coordinator.
To replace Roesch, the Swiss Association hired German Dirk Huber, who coached Scott Boggan at Julich (Huber was the only name, his phone number the only number, Scott had on first arriving in Germany from the U.S., and Scott has always spoken highly of him and been appreciative of the help he gave him, particularly in his first shaky months in Germany).
Whether these new appointments work out for Switzerland and Germany, whether Maurice continues to train hard and play well enough to represent Switzerland in international play, of course remains to be seen.
In the meantime, maybe there’ll be some changes in the U.S. scene that might entice Maurice to return here? In any case, we admire his perseverance and hope his determination to improve prevails over all obstacles.