1983: U.S. Closed—Men’s Singles. 1983: Interview with U.S. Champion Danny Seemiller; Interview with U.S. Runner-up Eric Boggan.
Of the 81 non-seeded Men’s Singles entries, only two would have the durability to come through three round robins into the Final 12 Round Robin proper—Brandon Olson and Khoa Nguyen, the Under 2300 winner over Hawaiian Champ Allen Kaichi. Eventually they would replace seeded players Sean O’Neill and George Brathwaite.
Some notable casualties along the way were: Dean Doyle, whose straight-game loss to Jimmy Butler put him on the tail-end of a tie-breaker; two-time U.S. World Team member Paul Raphel, who, earlier in the opening-day Group-A Team’s, had beaten Insook; and Kaichi, conqueror of ’79 National Champion Attila Malek, deuce in the third, but loser to Junior Olympics star Scott Butler.
O’Neill had beaten qualifiers Jimmy Lane and Malek in the Wednesday Group-A Team event and would go on to down Malek again and then former National Sports Festival Champion Perry Schwartzberg in the semi’s and final of the Men’s Amateur. “I have to loop Attila’s high-toss serve,” said Sean. “Because it disguises the spin so well it’s more effective than Perry’s. Somebody told me to watch Malek’s elbow to see if it goes up for topspin—but I couldn’t even see Attila’s elbow when he served.”
Malek won the first game comfortably, but at 18-all in the second Sean surprised Attila by scooping up a ball that had dribbled down off the net, and went on to win the game at 19. In the third, Malek was up 14-11 when O’Neill got five in a row on his serve to take the lead. Down 17-16, Attila served and Sean pushed into the net. At 17-all, Attila served into Sean’s backhand and Sean stepped around and again awkwardly pushed into the net. “How many times is he going to get me on that serve!” yelled O’Neill. “Well, you just got five points on your serve!” Malek yelled back. “Yeah—they must have been good serves,” said Sean. Now again Sean served and again Attila’s returns were fatally weak. Later, Attila was to say, “Up 14-11 in the third, I started to shake. For some reason I was scared—I guess because of a lack of tournament toughness. I hadn’t played since the U.S. Open this summer.”
“Against Perry in the final,” said Sean, “I tried to counter to the middle, block to his wide forehand or, just the opposite, go down his backhand.” Said Perry,“I didn’t hustle enough against Sean. He has a good style to play me. Why? Because he plays like I do. He maneuvers the ball around, moves his feet well, and has good technique. Up 1-0 and 20-19 I blew a kill—and then lost the game. If you don’t keep the pressure on Sean he can get loose and that makes it tough.”
So, o.k., here was Sean entered in event after event. And despite having recently stepped up his running to increase his stamina for this tournament (next thing you know he’ll be buying a set of weights from Craig Manoogian), he consciously or unconsciously had to be feeling physically and mentally the effect of all that play. Tom Wintrich said that until Friday evening when Sean played his final match in the U-21’s against Eric Boggan, he’d recorded “27 straight victories”—so of course as play began in the Men’s round of 24 he had to be suffering “competitive burnout.” And yet what could he do? He felt he had to play for those U.S. titles (though not the big one and perhaps he’d have second thoughts about that later).
To make matters worse, he drew a tough bracket in that round of 24, for he certainly could lose to both Ricky Seemiller and Olson (who’d just beaten him in a crucial match at the USOTC’s). Worse, though, was when in fact he did lose two close games to Brandon (“I was tired, made stupid mistakes”), he was suddenly faced with 1977 U.S. World Team member Ray Guillen. Ray was psyched to be back playing again, and, as his earlier win in the A Team’s against Pan Am Champ Brian Masters would attest to, he was as tooth-and-claw strong as before. Guillen, a new player to the new O’Neill, would be a very tough opponent even if Sean were rested. Ray took much longer than most players to get set, had playing rhythms all his own, and a further disorienting serve-and-follow style that made him, unless you were used to all this, the more formidable. Unfortunately for Sean, he found himself in the third with a Guillen who played as if he were at the Birmingham World’s.
Whether this format’s fair or not is, as I said in the last chapter, questionable. Because Sean was knocked out already, he didn’t even play Ricky—and Ricky was spared a match and a possible carry-over loss. Conversely, Brandon’s win over Sean didn’t count. These were big head swings.
Still, Fate, Chance—that which isn’t caught on video tape—IS a reality, eh? At the moment I was involved in an upcoming USTTA Presidential election that might change my life. Unexpectedly, a little girl came up to me in Vegas and asked me for my autograph. I was surprised—understandably, it’d been a while since anyone had requested that from me. More seriously than playfully I asked for HER autograph in return. Very conscientiously she took my pen and as I watched she wrote…D…E…S…T…I…N…Y. I was startled: Destiny wanted my autograph.
Over 40 Champ Brathwaite, as if psychically opposed to the new 14-match format from the beginning, never could get his game going—and, watching his opponent Nguyen’s beautiful forehand cover, you could see how against players who gave him balls to hit he could easily win.
However, neither Nguyen (who, beating Brandon, finished 10th—$300) nor Olson (12th—$200) were ever really in contention to make the Team that, behind Danny and Eric, may arguably have to be selected. (It’s a blessing, is it, that we don’t have Sweden’s problem of nine near interchangeable players?) But Khoa did upset Jimmy Lane (finished 11th—$250), deuce in the third.
Brandon, who four years ago, had Defending Champion Eric Boggan 20-18 double-match-point down, this year again had him in trouble and again lost. Someone said that Brandon sometimes lacks motivation—but up 10-5, 15-12 in the third against Eric and almost effortlessly smacking in forehands, this sure wasn’t one of those times. True, Eric suddenly ran eight in a row, escaped right out the front door of a bad melodrama as it were, by shooting down anything from the opposite side that moved—still, for a while Brandon shone, burnished some heavy lead of his own.
In even more precarious trouble was Danny Seemiller against Jimmy Lane, who as even everybody outside California must know by now had beaten The Champ earlier this season. Up 1-0 and 17-13 in the second, Jimmy smashed a ball that freaked off the net post and caught the edge on Danny’s side. “YAHHHH!” yelled Jimmy, triumphant at 18-13. “I thought I had him,” he was to say later. And Danny? What was he thinking? “For a split-second after that shot I thought maybe it wasn’t meant to be. But then I thought if I could just get five good balls I could still win. And that’s exactly what happened. Maybe that crazy shot, Jimmy’s yell, broke his concentration, because he did get a little nervous, a little anxious.”
What during those five points did Lane do? He gave Seemiller two long topspin serves and missed two difficult follows. Then, Danny, down 19-16, had service. Jimmy immediately pushed two serve returns off (“by just a quarter of an inch”), then tried unsuccessfully to kill a backhand off Danny’s short serve. Now, as Danny was more and more psyched up and screaming out, Jimmy dropped two more points, and—since after that he wasn’t in the third game—lost the match.
“Lane knows how to play me,” said Danny afterwards. “His flat forehand’s hard for me to handle—it keeps me off balance and I often block it into the net. Also, he can lift my serves pretty good.” Jimmy agreed. “Yeah,” he said, “for a while I was returning serve aggressively—was looping the long ones and backhand-flipping the short ones cross-court. When I had Danny’s serve and loop-follow controlled, I was winning most of the rallies.”
Finishing 9th was Guillen—$350). Though, like Olson, Nguyen, and Lane, he only won two matches, he always seemed dramatically there. “This sport needs ME, not…,” he said, comparing himself to an observing official who’d again incurred not only Ray’s wrath but maybe his whole family’s. “This is Las Vegas,” said Ray rhetorically. “People pay $100 and a guy just doesn’t get spit upon, he gets killed.”
Of course, Ray, who’s very serious about his play and fun to watch, has a following. “You’re not supposed to serve out,” said Coach Bukiet helpfully from the sidelines—to which Ray, in the driest, most mock-repentant way possible, replied, “I’m sorry.” Not that this deterred Bernie in the slightest, though, for when again Ray strolled away from the table, Bernie muttered, “Short serve to the backhand.”
…Oh, my, at a crucial 18-all time, a paddle point is called against Ray. He crouches down, writhes, grimaces in anguish, then straightens up and says to anybody who’ll listen, “Did that really hit my paddle?”
“I like to watch Guillen,” said Scott Boggan. “He’s a fighter and he goes for the shots.”
The remaining eight players clearly had better results than the other four. Bui (finished 8th—$400), back now in Washington, going to Bellevue Community College and practicing ‘mid the robot’s oscillating ice crystals in his cold, cold garage, quickly warmed to his match with Danny. Smacking in even more than his usual number of spectacular shots, Quang held a 1-0 and 10-5 lead. But then Danny went on a 16-4 tear. And that was that? Nope, for Quang still stayed strong…until at 13-all in the third Danny made some good blocks and again angled away trouble.
Quang had had a discouraging draw from the beginning—he’d accumulated six straight early losses to the contending Seemillers, Boggans, Malek, and Schwartzberg, and deserves credit those last rounds for getting up every so often and putting the wood to his steady little fire.
With five rounds to go, Malek and Schwartzberg were not in a good Top 5 position. Attila was a bad 4-2 (8-6 in games) and had Eric, Ricky, and Scott to play. As it happened, he would lose to all three—and to Brandon besides: a bad finish to come 7th—$450).
Perry Schwartzberg had accumulated four losses—but he’d played Eric, Brian, Ricky, Scott, and Attila. He’d put a lot of pressure on Eric, always looking to counter to the forehand, and the 19, -18, 18 scores of their games showed Eric had had quite a struggle and wasn’t happy about it (the ex-enfant-terrible had begun to rip the rubber off his racket even before he was off the court).
Perry and his high-toss had Ricky in a worrying way too—had him down 1-0 and 17-16 before Seemiller got a key edge ball that raised his spirits.
Near devastatingly, Perry’d dealt Scott his first loss, coming back after losing the opening game, 21-7. This in effect forced Scott to think of the Championships as single elimination, for now to win he’d have to beat both Danny and Eric. Scott, totally passive the last two games, kept expecting Perry to give up? Or maybe, after he’d won the first game so easily, he thought he’d just steady it out, then got tight, afraid he’d lose the match?
Considering Perry’s win over Danny at the Eastern’s, some devotees figured he’d had a shot to finish 7-4. But as it turned out, his match with Danny (he was down 8-0 in the first game) was very disappointing, both to himself and the spectators. Schwartzberg: 6th place--$500).
With five matches to play, Brian had lost only to Scott—though that had been a nasty one, for he was up 10-6 in the third. Still, Brian was in contention after he’d held it together against the often calm, unhurried-looking Schwartzberg. He beat Perry, who had six three-game matches (none of the others had more than four), 19 in the third.
Masters tried hard but couldn’t beat Ricky (some thinker in the audience said Brian played on “worthless instinct”). Down 20-16 in the first, he’d deuced it—but after that Ricky’d had no problem looping Brian’s anti.
Danny, fearing a muscle problem, was saving his legs for Eric—or so someone said, and certainly Danny was not moving at all out there against Masters. No surprise, perhaps, that Brian had rallied and with one masterful block had brought the score in the first to 17-all. But then, more and more giving up, he lost 25 of the next 37 points. After further losses to Quang and Eric, and a shaky win over Lane, Masters finished 5th—$550.
The first four finishing players—the Seemillers and the Boggans—have for half a dozen years dominated the Vegas Team Trials. This year they all thought they had a chance to win the Championship. But Scott, after being beaten earlier by Schwartzberg, was the first to be knocked out when Ricky finished him off in three.
“I have to go back from the table against both Perry and Scott,” said Ricky, “because if I stay up close I can’t strike the ball. Scott’s dead counter can be returned hard but not unless you’re away from the table to do it. Yeah, he’s gonna sock that return too, but it’s not a set-up, and now he’s gotta make two quick shots off the topspin bounce. Up 16-9 in the third, Ricky failed to return four straight serves—but it was Scott who later said, “My backhand was petrified the whole tournament.”
Against Danny, Scott (4th place--$600) didn’t muster a challenge, but his match with brother Eric was undoubtedly one of the most talked about. “Eric was in a bad position when I played him,” said Scott. “It would really hurt him to lose to me—in more ways than one. But, after my two losses, I had nothing more to lose. Money, yes—but next to the Championship the money just didn’t mean that much to me. I didn’t defend in the $200 first-prize Hard Rubber event and didn’t defend my National Amateur title because I wanted to give myself the best chance to take the Men’s Singles that I’d won two years ago.”
“Every morning early, I was the first good player in the hall. I had a hard time understanding how seeded player after seeded player was just expected to come right out and begin an important match without any warm-up. I really need to loosen up for a while, practice some. Though I’m not the type to go to bed early at tournaments, I was never tired the whole time, never worked up a sweat, never even had to catch a breath. Of course I’ve trained for years in Germany. But the real reason I do physical training is to get mentally strong.”
Mentally ready to play Eric, Scott definitely was. “Dell Sweeris once told me,” said Scott, “that you should never try in a match a physically risky shot you haven’t practiced. So I’ve practiced (and I think Dean Doyle has too) all kinds of off-balance and dive shots.” Hitting in flamboyant kills, Scott, all loose, smiling and bantering with the crowd, was up 10-4 against World #18. And then at 10-all. Eric, relentlessly serious, never did smile any time in the match, and seemed irritated with himself, Scott, the crowd, and the conditions. He’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes from one of the distributors and within 45 minutes had worn a big hole in one of them.
More kills, more jokes that first game—and Scott was streakily up 15-10. And then tied at 16-all. Crazy game, huh? At 19-all Scott looped in Eric’s serve. At 20-19 he scored again. Needless to say, the one-minute break they spent in entirely different ways.
When at 3-all in the second, Scott got a net, Eric turned to the crowd and said, “You’re not supposed to applaud those”—whereupon Scott, grinning wagged a no-no finger at everyone. “It’d be nice to have reflexes like that,” said someone in the audience as Scott went up 9-7…17-14 on the ever-frowning as yet undefeated Eric. Then Scott took another fast-hand swing and complained playfully, “Why do I miss the easy ones?”
At 17-16, someone yelled out, “C’mon, McEnroe!” I didn’t know whether the voice was straight or ironic, or even whether he meant Eric or Scott. At 17-all they played a tremendous point, which Scott finally won and Eric in response kicked a nearby umpire’s chair. No, nobody was sitting in it. Eric needed a last-minute kick. He got three points at the wire and they changed ends if not personalities.
“I’m losing my forehand kill!” yelled Scott as Eric went up 4-1…8-2. But then to the spectators’ delight and Eric’s consternation, Scott found it again. At 8-all Eric served off. But then…“I’m missing again” and Eric was 14-11, 15-11, 16-11 up to stay. Down 19-13, Scott got to 16, then was at match point. As a natural quiet prevailed, Scott said aloud, “I can do it!” and the audience tittered. Said the guy next to me, “Your son should be an actor.”
Later, Scott said, “Would you believe that more than one person came up to me and asked if that was a serious match? The statement’s much stronger than you at first might realize. Good players never say such a thing—but naïve spectators do. What the hell do they think I’m out there for? Against a very good player my game can’t be tight. I don’t serve and loop. I do what I do—quickly. Who else do they see have Eric 1-0 and 17-14?” Wintrich, however, while praising both brothers for their respective but very different games, felt that Scott “had a chance to win had he played more responsibly at the right time.”
Frederick C. Klein, covering the tournament for the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 23, 1983), drew a contrast between the Seemiller brothers “who seem to get along with one another, and the Boggan brothers who don’t.” He wrote, “Scott can’t beat Eric any more, but he can sure mess with his head.” To which Scott responded, “Every bee can sting.”
It wasn’t only his state of mind Eric had to contend with. Towards the end of his match with Scott he pulled a (groin?) muscle—and off people went for ice-packs, pills, Ben-Gay, and acupuncture.
But though Eric’s lateral movement seemed a little affected against Masters, Brian just wasn’t much into playing and Eric had little difficulty.
Later, against Ricky, Eric didn’t seem much bothered (some of his hurt was psychosomatic?) and again won easily. Said one observer, ‘Ricky shouldn’t be playing backhand to backhand with Eric.”
Coming into his last five matches, Ricky had lost only once—to Lane. “Jimmy’s dead ball takes away my loop,” said Ricky. When at 8-all in the third, Lane got three unreturnable nets, followed by an unreturnable edge, followed by a “finger” ball that went crazily askew, Ricky couldn’t recover. “I was sick when I lost to Lane,’ Ricky said. “For, before, I was thinking the only way for me to win, considering I was gonna lose to Eric, was to beat Danny and hope for the best in a three-way tie.”
After his loss to Lane, Ricky had difficulty getting his head together against Perry, but down 1-0 and 17-14 and caught out of position he was able to backhand chop a ball that hit the edge for a winner. That was the turning point. Now Ricky, instead of being pinned, began backhand to backhand sticking it to an increasingly negative Perry.
Another big match for the younger Seemiller was against Malek. Up 16-11 in the third, seemingly secure, Ricky lost seven out of the next eight points. Then at 18-all, he served off, and in a moment Malek was 20-18 double-match-point up. But then Attila top-spinned Ricky’s serve off, and now—here, I’ll let Ricky tell you:
“Just as I was letting go another serve, I saw a ball come over from the adjacent court and I simultaneously served and called ‘Let.’ Malek half-turned away and looped in a ‘winner.’ But of course he agreed it was a let. Then, still down 20-19 match point, I served two net balls. Followed by serving the next one short to his forehand from my backhand corner—you know, the good one—and he steered it off. At deuce I went for a loop and whiffed the ball—but again he couldn’t get the point he needed. Finally, at 22-all, I got lucky, caught an edge, then won the game and match.”
Against Danny, Ricky started off with an encouraging high-up toe-kick, but soon came 19-7 down. In the second game, Ricky did much better, got to 19-all—but 19 wasn’t enough to win. So, 3rd place ($700) for, as someone said, “the best semifinalist the U.S. has ever had.”
As expected, the Championship again came down to the undefeated finalists. Eric, however, did NOT look like he had a good head. Right away, as Danny’s request for shortening the playing area into a more standard court was quickly being attended to, Eric was asking the umpire to urge the all-a-buzz audience to keep their comments, their applause, within limits. It was as if he were already distracted by them. When Danny wanted to play 3/5, Eric was politely but firmly insistent on 2/3—he’d been playing tough matches in Germany 2/3—and as all other matches in the event had been 2/3, officials sided with Eric.
As in their match last year, Eric got off to a fast start. He was up 5-1…9-5 when Danny brought the score from 9-5 to 9-8. No runaway today….Up 17-16, Eric twice failed to return serve. Not a confidence builder. He took the ball he was about to serve with, and threw it into the air…away from the table. “You’re just giving away points!” he screamed in frustration. Then he came back to the table, threw the ball up—and served off. Followed by losing the next two points and the game.
In the second—it was all happening so quickly—Eric was down 4-1, then at 4-all. And now Danny got another net, and was soon up 10-4….13-6. It was all over, was it?
But now Eric began a desperate run—closed to 16-15. It was at this point that Danny really won the Championship. He didn’t panic, didn’t choke—instead played strong and took an 18-15 lead. Helped by an irretrievable net, Eric again fought back—evened with Danny at 19-all. But then he made an error—and at match point so did Danny.
Eric now made a perfect serve and follow for the ad. But then, having a ball to hit, he half-carried it off the table. Then he made a blocking error. “SHUT UP!” he turned and yelled to a spectator or perhaps to a whole group of them. Now Danny served, Eric risked a run-around topspin that just didn’t have enough zip, and Danny was there waiting to block it to where Eric in this space-time continuum of history wasn’t.
Down, down, down, face to the floor he lunged, plunged, while up, up, up, even onto the table-top Danny leaped and shrieked. His fifth Championship in the last eight years Seemiller had won, and, deservingly, he was hands-to-the-heavens ecstatically happy.
Said one with both his feet on the ground, “Eric ought to learn from this match, see in it a challenge to change his psychology. He was much too down on himself when he didn’t return those two serves in the first game. Danny’s attitude was all ‘Good! Good! Good!’ whereas Eric’s attitude was all ‘Bad! Bad! Bad!’ Is it right that a person should want to criticize himself so? Is that what it takes to make him #1—a flawed #1?”
Interview with Champion Danny Seemiller
“INTERVIEWER: Congratulations again, Danny, on your win yesterday—your fifth National Singles Championship. You deserved it, for you again came through in close matches—against Jimmy Lane when you were down 1-0 and 18-13 in the second; and against Quang Bui when you were down 1-0 and 10-5 in the second. And of course against Eric Boggan in the final when you won that finishing game at deuce.
DANNY: Thanks, Tim. As I think you know, I’d been preparing for this Championship for the last 4-5 months—and I really wanted it. Wanted it maybe eight times more than the others did.
INTERVIEWER: More than Eric did?
DANNY: I definitely think so. Eric plays so many important matches during the season that though he wanted to win this one it was not nearly as clear-cut an aim with him as it was with me.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that’s gracious of you to—
DANNY: No, I mean it. I lost games, even some matches, this first-half season—to Ricky, Perry, and Jim Lane—and sometimes people just don’t understand why, tournament after tournament, I don’t want to give, can’t give 100%. But for this Closed Championship, especially for that 2/3-game final, I was really pumped up and ready to give 110%.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel about playing 2/3? Of course there’d never before been a 2/3-game final for the U.S. Championship.
DANNY: I wanted 3/5—in fact, it was my earlier understanding that we were going to play 3/5. But the tournament organizers decided that, since all the other round robin matches were 2/3, if Eric didn’t agree to play 3/5, the final would have to be 2/3.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to play 3/5?
DANNY: Because I wanted as much time as possible to put as many varying tactics into play as I could. In a 3/5 match I could maybe try more defense and, if that didn’t work, could even afford to give up a game. But in a 2/3 match the whole thing could be over within 15 minutes and I wouldn’t have had the time I wanted to maneuver.
INTERVIEWER: Actually, Eric, who seemed to be edgy before the match began, did come right out to take a 5-1 lead that first game. What were your thoughts about getting behind at the start?
DANNY: I felt Eric was nervous alright, but this wasn’t surprising to me, for, since I was sure I wanted this tournament more than he did, I expected him to be somewhat tentative and not as aggressively ready as I was. But then when I lost those beginning points I thought, “Oh, man, he’s been playing all those 2/3’s in Germany and now he’s come right outta the box”—which of course was just the worst thing that could have happened since now he had a good chance of getting all loose.
INTERVIEWER: So, with that start, you had no recourse but to follow pretty much your usual strategy against Eric?
DANNY: Yes. The main thing I wanted to do was just trade offensive shots with him—50% to 50%. I’d made up my mind to stay away from carrying 65-70% of the offense. And though I didn’t have the leisure to try too much defense, I wanted Eric to know I wasn’t afraid to chisel.
INTERVIEWER: Why? If you chiseled, what pressure would that put on Eric?
DANNY: Well, if you only topspin against Eric, that’s dead city. But since I don’t think Eric’s lift is so good—isn’t as good as mine anyway—I knew some mixed-in underspin would be very effective against him, especially on these Vegas Butterfly tables, where in this dry, desert air you can get a good dig.
INTERVIEWER: Can you give one example of your push or chop strategy against Eric?
DANNY: If Eric gives me this little hook serve of his, and I can get a lot of underspin on the ball with my Sriver, it’ll stop him from getting a good hard flick in to begin with, will prevent him from putting too much pace on the ball. I found this out when I played doubles against him. Also, if he’s not careful and tries to hit straight out instead of lifting the ball, he’s got a good chance of putting it into the net. Then, if I can go on to chisel deep and can get Eric so straight up as to be on his heels, I can out-maneuver him. Then, regardless of what spin’s on the ball, I can begin an effective lift attack of my own.
INTERVIEWER: So you’re saying that Eric’s body position at the table sometimes works against him, and that if you’re more of an all-around player you can sometimes take advantage of this?
DANNY: Yes. Eric’s often a straight-up player—he has to take the time to go down for the ball, then come back up. So as soon as I see him in that straight-up position I act accordingly. Of course you’ve got to play each player differently. If I can make Scott Boggan bend his legs and go down under the ball it’ll throw off his game, for he’s primarily a flat, fast topspin counter-attacker. But if I try to play as much defense against Quang Bui as I do against Eric, it isn’t effective, for Quang has too good a forehand against chop.
INTERVIEWER: In that first game against Eric, you were down 9-5, then caught up at 13-all, then were again down 17-15—
DANNY: Yes, and from there I won six straight points—though I really didn’t do anything to win them. Eric missed a shot, then tightened up and failed to return two of my serves, then started yelling at himself—just totally lost concentration.
INTERVIEWER: So suddenly the whole game changed and you were 18-17 up.
DANNY: Yes. I didn’t have the serve, but that didn’t bother me, for I’m actually more comfortable when Eric’s serving. As it happened, Eric now tried a really difficult serve. He came across his body to hop the ball from right to left court. This was a dangerous serve because it had so much forward movement that if it hit the net cord it would jump off the table. When he went for that serve it crossed my mind that, upset as he was, he might make a fault. If the serve went in, I was gonna push it back—but I knew Eric was ready to try to win the point with his follow—either a hard loop or an anti slap. Fortunately for me, Eric’s serve did hit the net cord and go off and I knew after that all I had to do was keep the ball in play and the game was mine.
INTERVIEWER: Not only was that game yours, but it soon seemed the match was too, for up 13-6 in the second you certainly looked a winner.
DANNY: Yes. I was saying to myself, “The title’s yours—just play decent.” But then Eric suddenly began to regroup and make a charge. I remember I was conscious of playing too much a safe center-game and I remember saying to myself, “Dan, if Eric keeps taking the initiative, you could lose 10 points in a row.”
INTERVIEWER: Eric almost did catch you, but at 15-14 you made a great shot and then went up 18-15, 19-17, and, from 19-all, 20-19 match-point—
DANNY: Yeah, and then I gave him a really bad serve. I wanted to give him a low one to his middle, but it got too high and he flicked it with his anti.
INTERVIEWER: And now at 20-all Eric served and followed for the point. After being up 1-0 and 13-6, and now game-point down, what were you thinking?
DANNY: Well, of course I was very disappointed. “If you blow this,” I told myself, “you’ve had it, you deserve to lose.” And then I blocked a ball right to where Eric was waiting. But I was lucky—instead of looping or cracking it he just sort of cradled it off the table.
INTERVIEWER: So then you took advantage of the reprieve.
DANNY: Yeah, suddenly I had the ad. And that last point of the match I chiseled hard into Eric’s backhand where he has this weakness—this trouble with heavy chop. I made him turn for the loop that he risked, and when he more carried than cracked it, I thought, “Don’t let the ball hit your finger. Keep your eyes down there. Just block the ball back to his far forehand, and you’ve got a winner.”
INTERVIEWER: A winner you certainly had—for though Eric dived for the ball he had no chance to get it. So with your repeated wins over Eric in these Closed Championships—he’s not won the title now for five years—it seems, regardless of his international success, you have some advantage over him. Would you care to make a final comment on that?
DANNY: Let’s just say that I know how to play Eric as well as anyone in the world. And that I respect him tremendously…but I don’t fear him.”
Interview with Runner-up Eric Boggan
“INTERVIEWER: Well, Eric, the snow’s falling, the trees are bare. All is black and white. Your plane for Germany leaves this afternoon…
ERIC: Yeah, Tim.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to play a 2/3 final? Was it—I remember you made this point in your U.S. Open interview this summer—because you were used to playing such matches?
ERIC: I was injured. I’d eventually pulled a muscle towards the end of my match with Scott. However, even as I went on to play Brian and Ricky, Houshang, Dr. Bauer, others were nice to me, tried to help me, and after a Ben-Gay rub I came on to play Danny. It was only practical to play 2/3. As it turned out, the injury didn’t bother me at all.
INTERVIEWER: How about the new round robin format? Did that bother you?
ERIC: Yeah, it was an up and down format, not only for me but for other players—sometimes you felt like playing, sometimes you didn’t. The Brandon Olson who had me 15-12 in the third was not the Brandon Olson who finished 12th. Fourteen matches for the National Championship was just too much.
INTERVIEWER: You were tired?
ERIC: Yeah, I WAS tired—physically and mentally. And I’m the type of player who when he overplays is in trouble. If I lose a little in my game, in my desire to play, I lose a lot.
INTERVIEWER: The player-spectators really liked all those rounds of matches though. In single elimination, even with very careful scheduling and day-long, four feature-table matches from the 16th’s on, the ambiance wouldn’t have been the same. The action for the player-spectators, considering that in the past so many hadn’t stayed the extra days to see the Team Trials, was unprecedented.
ERIC: Well, I don’t think the old format of the four-day Championships followed by three more days of Trials was good either. It’s just too much. Maybe, especially since the Selection Committee is now able to pick two of the players of a four or five-man U.S. Team, there should be not one but two six-man round robins with a crisscross semi’s followed by a natural final. After all, for five straight years, the U.S. Team has been pretty predictable anyway—with Danny, Ricky, Scott, me, and one other player prevailing. Of course I didn’t have to play in the Under 21’s or the Men’s Doubles, but, as Sean thought (and paid a price), money ($300 in my case) and titles were at stake. And though Scott opted out of two events that he was afraid might tire him, he didn’t win the Men’s.
INTERVIEWER: So your point is that in a major Championship the players ought to have a format that will encourage them to play consistently at their best—and this the audience would appreciate too as producing any number of fine matches. Why, by the way, at the start of your final with Danny, did you ask the umpire to address the audience?
ERIC: Because the court had been closed up, and some people were rowdy, were bothering me, and I didn’t want to be distracted by them.
INTERVIEWER: But surely by this time you’ve played before all types of audiences. Consider the ones in your recent seven-city tour of Germany who (“Yankees Raus!”) wanted all Yankees to go home. At 21-all in that crucial second game, after you’d gotten the ad and had cradled that possibly game-winning forehand off, you stopped play and yelled “Shut up!” to someone. Was that good?
ERIC: I don’t know whether it was good or bad—I resist analysis of that kind. I thought some guy in the audience was out of line, and instinctively I reacted. I trust my instincts. I think that’s in part why I’m a good player. I trust myself. Not clichés. But I’m more aware of the crowds around me now. It used to be I didn’t give a shit, I’d just play. But this U.S. audience in Vegas was more informal, more sweat-suit casual than I’m used to playing before in Europe where the more formal audience makes the match itself more important.
INTERVIEWER: Also, Eric, in that last game where you were up 17-15, then missed a shot, then failed to return two of Danny’s serves and began to berate yourself, I thought for the moment you were giving in to self-disgust, excessive self-criti—
ERIC: IS THAT ALL YOU OR A LOT OF PEOPLE CAN THINK ABOUT—MY SHOW OF EMOTION! I don’t WANT to be expressionless—bored—like lots of European players. If I scream or yell it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost my composure.
INTERVIEWER: But then you came back from that outburst and served off.
ERIC: Did I serve off?
INTERVIEWER: You certainly did. You lost six points in a row to end the first game and were down 13-6 in the second. Yes, table tennis is a streaky game—but you, World #18, lost 19 out of 24 points before you regrouped and began playing with great heart. Suppose I ask you, “Did you learn anything from this match?”
ERIC: NOTHING! I told you, I wasn’t playing solid. Strategically, I should have played Danny more to the wide forehand. Also, it may be that because I’ve no lefties to practice with in Germany I’m unconsciously hitting my backhand the same predictable cross-court way time after time. But far more bothersome to me is that even after four months I can’t get perfectly used to my new rubber. I just can’t drop the ball as short as I used to, can’t get a touch. Sometimes the ball sails, sometimes it goes into the net. Still, the rubber’s not THAT different—and I’ve certainly been playing better in Europe than I played in Vegas.
INTERVIEWER: Of course you did rally to catch Danny.
ERIC: Yeah, if I can get my game going, I can still play. Sometimes, though, it seems to me that any decent player in Europe can beat me. Of course I’m down now, am feeling burnt out. And naturally confidence comes and goes. But I’m just not happy with my forehand. Maybe when I return to Europe it’ll come back.
INTERVIEWER: But in that second game at deuce you served and made a PERFECT forehand follow to get the ad. Then—
ERIC: Yeah. What I did next I remember. Danny blocked the ball back, set it right up there for me, and if I were a kid again I would have just hit it in. But for whatever reason I was indecisive—I didn’t loop it, didn’t hit it, just half-looped, half rolled it, right off the table.
INTERVIEWER: As if you’d lost some of your killer desire?
ERIC: Well, I don’t know about that. But it’s tough to be just a T.T. player. So much traveling. So much training. So many matches. And yet, worst of all, so much free time. I really don’t play in that many tournaments—and the best training for me is actually tournament play. When I play well in international tournaments it all seems so exciting for me—but then after maybe a ten-hour drive back and my body seems vulnerable and sometimes I even get sick, then I begin thinking T.T. is not enough, that I need to do something else.
INTERVIEWER: But isn’t this to be expected, Eric? Isn’t this an occupational hazard? Don’t your Bundesliga peers have the same problem?
ERIC: Yes, they do. But they often play in tournaments I’m not eligible for—and then they’re always living at home. Not just the Germans but all the other Europeans who commute. Danny, I’m sure, has had his share of ups and downs (like at the recent World’s). But I’m sure he’d be the first to agree it’s a big plus to be playing table tennis and living each day comfortably in your home environment.
INTERVIEWER: Of course it works the other way too. As you well know, your life in Germany is not difficult and you can only get so good living in the U.S. where the competition is weak. And at 20 you still have a lot of years to play if you want to. In fact, you already seem somewhat hardened to me, seem not to have felt this loss to Danny as much as you did last year’s. Is that because on the whole—with your success at the World’s, your U.S. Open win, and your at least respectable 12-6 showing as the #1 positioned player on your Bundesliga team—you feel you had a good year?
ERIC: I felt I had a 50-50 year. However, I still feel I have half a season to go, and as things began to brighten for me last year after my loss, so I feel they might again. I think I took my loss better because I’m growing up more, am getting older. After all, though Germany had a bad World’s, Table Tennis is still going strong there. And look at Ralf Wosik—though he f…ed-up in Tokyo, what’s he supposed to do? Quit? No. He fights, he comes back—that’s what a professional does. I’m a professional.”