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History of U.S. Table Tennis Volume 13: 1984

CHAPTER TEN 

            1984: Future World Champions in Swedish Closed.           

            Because Scott Boggan gives us on-the-scene coverage of the 1984 Swedish Closed (Timmy’s. Apr., 1984, 4-6), interested readers will come to understand more about the rise of Sweden’s players, in both Singles and Doubles, to World Championship Greatness (1985-91): 

            “On March 2nd, In the Trelleborg Soderslattshallen, the Swedish National Bordtennis Championships commenced—the most important Championships of the year. As you might expect from the strength of the Swedish youth, there were very few players here over 30, yet surprisingly no 12, 13, or 14-year-olds either. Early 20’s—that was the average age of the participants.

            In Sweden, the National Championships begin with Doubles play—Mixed, then Men’s and Women’s—perhaps as a means of warming up the players, as well as unblocking them so that the later Singles rounds might run their time-scheduled course the more smoothly. (Maybe we in the States should do this too?) Although Singles play began to be mixed in with (particularly the later stages of) the Doubles, I’m going to comment on the Doubles in toto before discussing the Singles. 

Mixed Doubles

The top four seeds made it to the semi’s of the Mixed Doubles. On one side of the draw, Jan-Ove Waldner, currently the best player in Europe, and Anneli Hernvall (’82 and ’83 Swedish Women’s Doubles Champion) teamed up to defend their title against Ulf Bengtsson (Europe #16) and Menni Weizades (Europe #27).

Waldner’s masterful touch wasn’t working its usual magic and opponent Bengtsson was crackin’ in his share, yet the Waldner/Hernvall team managed to come back from an 8-point deficit to get to 19-20—only to have Waldner loop one off. In the second game, Waldner’s deceptive loops and flips, especially into the backhand corner, confused Weizades, who kept looking like, ‘Where’s the ball going now?’ Hervall, quite intelligently, just kept the ball in play while Waldner did his thing—which included throwing in a troublesome sidespin push ball—and the Defenders prevailed in three.

On the other side of the draw, service specialist Jonny Akesson and pop-shot looper Pia Eliasson were matched up against Erik Lindh (Europe #3) and Maria Lindblad (Europe #10). Eliasson’s bullet-loops and Akesson’s up-at-the-table forehand loop-kills made for a powerful combination against the experienced and certainly perfectly-named partnership of Lindh/Lindblad. Yet Akesson/Eliasson soon lost all their fire-power as Lindh’s backhand went devastatingly to work, especially in the second against Eliasson.

In the final, Waldner’s variety of chops and cross-court kills off the loop carried his team to an opening-game victory. But then Lindh decided to steal what little show there was, and, making some great up-at-the-table counter-loops, tied up the match. In the last game, thanks to some marvelous topspin rallies by all four players, the points just went see-sawing. In the end, though, Lindh’s loop-to-loop winners at the table proved deciding, so he and Lindblad were the new Mixed Doubles Champions.

            Not that this seemed important. Rather just the opposite. There was so little emotion shown by the players, and so few spectators watching, it reminded me of an American tournament. Though there was an Awards Ceremony, the only people it seemed important to were the photographers who were hopping around like chipmunks. Unfortunately, unless things change, Europeans are going to have to admit that table tennis has become an excellent ‘read-about-it-in-the-papers’ sport. 

Women’s Doubles

            The only interesting Women’s Doubles quarter’s match was between favored National Team members Weizades/Eliasson and unheralded Anneli Johansson/Gunnell Bergstrom. Right from the start you could see it would be a battle. The unfavored blondes were loose, were bouncing around, looping in shot after shot, giving each other constant encouragement, and when they won the first at 12, it looked as if they might pull off an upset. But then the Swedish Nationals changed their strategy a bit. They blocked more aggressively and, moving their opponents around, stopped the energetic Bergstrom from loop-killing. The last game turned out to be a dandy—with great rallies and long exchanges, punctuated with loops and kills. A tough 19-in-the-3rd loss for the upcoming Johansson/Bergstrom team.

            In the one semi’s, Lindblad/Hernvall’s strong loops wiped out the much too passive Ann-Christin Hellman/Kamilla Bjork combo. In the other, Marie Svenson/Annika Lath provided too much heat, burned National Team members Weizades/Eliasson.

            Svensson/Lath went on to lose, 19, 19, in the final to the #1 seeds Lindblad/Hernvall. But Lath, who has this very feminine take-your-time approach, and who, on her backhand serve flips, like most Swedish pips-out players, to inverted, again and again had all the topspinners moving every which way. Her success, I thought, was amazing, considering her lack of strong topspin and other modern-style techniques used by the Swedish women in today’s masculine-power-oriented sports world. The dark beauty of this Muriel Hemingway-type woman, in paired complement with Svensson, the lightest of all Swedes, who often followed Lath’s positional blocking with strong, point-winning loops, suggested to me that, in the delicate ‘touch’ so needed in our sport, there would always be resistance against anything so simplistic as unisexual brute power. 

Men’s Doubles

            In the second round of the Men’s Doubles, technical expert Jan Eckstrom and former Swedish National Per Sandstrom sent Ulf Carlsson (Europe #12) and former World Champion Stellan Bengtsson to an early afternoon shower.

            Later, in quarter’s action among the favored doubles teams, service perfectionists Waldner and Akesson were too much for past U.S. Open participants Mats Andersson and Peter Gripler. The Angby pair, Lars Mattsson and Anders Thulin, served and looped well, but couldn’t get by the pumped-up Lars Franklin (‘I came because of the doubles’) and his red-headed, flat-cracker Ulf Bengtsson. Lindh’s up-at-the-table backhand, coupled with Jorgen Persson’s right-off-the-bounce, Klampar-type loop, easily finished off Peter Greczula/Niklas Schioler. And Mikael Frank’s short service and Mikael Appelgren’s beautiful follows made for a winning combination over mad loopers Ekstrom/Sandstrom—though occasionally in the topspin rallies Frank with his backhand pips was caught immobilized in a dead-zone back near the barriers before he eventually got the idea of zinging in some forehands.

            In the top-half semi’s, with spindly Lindh’s speed and gangly Persson’s hook-loop and backhand-kill, this team was just a whole level above Bengtsson/Franklin. Though the Defending Champs scored with some flips and steady short-game play, poor Bengtsson could never get an opportunity to kill a ball, and Franklin was so preoccupied just trying to block back the zipped-in loops of his opponents, that it was clear the old would have to step aside now for the more aggressive style of the young.

            In the bottom-half semi’s, Waldner and Akesson were relentlessly looping every ball against the wall of Appelgren’s rebounding racket-shield and Frank’s pips. The points were long, often with fantastic loops and re-loops, for though Appelgren and Frank were blocking quite a lot they were never afraid to counter-loop. Appelgren was flawless in the first, and Waldner wasn’t at his best…so opening game to Appelgren/Frank, 25-23. The long rallies continued in the second game, but Frank was more effective, wasn’t the same predictable blocker he’d been in the first. He started looping more, and, since he was closer to the table than the others, his loop, because of his pips, was faster. Playing back from the table as they were, Waldner and Akesson couldn’t win against Frank’s carefully positioned blocks and Appelgren’s stingy loops.

            In the final, the lefty-righty forehand-loop aggressiveness of Lindh/Persson reminded me of the advantages of a power-hitting switch-hitter. Persson, whose straight-arm loop-kill is among the fastest anywhere, occasionally threw at both Appelgren and Frank an off-speed loop that unexpectedly was as effective as Gossage’s off-speed ball. Appelgren powered in some winners, and Frank’s on-again, off-again backhand jab won some points, but after the attacking loopers won the first at 19, they settled into an easy second-game victory that proved beyond doubt Lindh/Persson was the better team.

            Now it was time for another Doubles ceremony. Like after the Mixed Doubles final the day before, they took away the barriers in one corner and set up victory blocks. Then came some weak trumpet playing, and prize-winners from the quarter’s on took turns getting their little trophies, ashtrays, flowers, or what not.

            Again the place was practically deserted, and all this fanfare seemed rather pointless to me. Yet you couldn’t fault the Swedish organization, for to a man everybody was trying to make everything nice. The local mayor, or table tennis official, or both made at least one little speech, which fortunately I couldn’t understand. Then, after all the awards were given out, everyone there yelled out something like ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ And then there was more trumpet playing, which, as it turned out, was coming from a 13-year-old girl. At moments like these I wished I had my walkman.

            About this time I struck up a conversation with Bo Persson, who back in ’73, with a glorious victory over Japan’s Tasaka, had helped Sweden win the World Team Championship, and who now was a coach at the famous Swedish Table Tennis High School in Falkenberg. ‘Were things much different a decade ago?’ I asked him.

            ‘Ten years ago,’ said Persson, ‘the points were more interesting—they were longer, better for the spectators to watch. Today’s game is just so much serve and loop. Moreover, now the materials give you the spin—you don’t have to do it yourself. Table tennis seemed more important, more significant then. However, skiing wasn’t as big as it is today. And tennis—and Bjorn Borg. In the early ‘70’s, Bengtsson and Johansson were Sweden’s most popular athletes.

            Privately, my thoughts went to what Bengtsson had told me earlier: ‘I’ve never been to a Swedish Championships like this before,’ he said. ‘There’s no atmosphere.’

            I bothered Persson, who was about to leave, with one more question—a standard one about Waldner. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Waldner is naturally talented—that is, he knows what to do without looking at any textbook.’

            The hall had really emptied out now. Soon I was alone, except for a custodian tidying up across the way. ‘What did these Swedish players think of me?’ I began to wonder. Some of them had seen me in the past. If they thought of me at all, they probably couldn’t figure out what I was doing here at THEIR tournament. But I didn’t worry about that for long—I wasn’t that self-conscious. Besides, I knew what I was doing in Trelleborg. I made sure I had my pen and that I hadn’t dropped any of my scraps of scribbled notes—then I scuttled off in my determined way. 

Women’s Singles

            In the 8th’s of the 56-entry Women’s Singles, seeded players Weizades, Eliasson, Stromvall, and Lindblad, along with non-seeded players Susanne Dahl and Kamilla Bjork, all came through with easy three-straight victories.

            But ex-World Team member and Doubles specialist Hernvall, by winning the pivotal third game at deuce, just managed to squeeze out a five-game victory over Helen Lindvall.

            That left the advancing Defending Champion Ann-Christin Hellman and 17-year-old Anneli Johansson to fight it out in the quarter’s. Hellman was Sweden’s best a decade ago, but she’s retired from international competition now and is not close to being the full-time pro she was in her prime. But with or without the proper preparation she’d done or not done for eight of the last nine years, she still came to win.

            Table tennis knowledge the experienced Hellman certainly had, but the inexperienced Johansson had the speed and, after being down 11-4 in the first, began moving the out-of-practice Hellman all over the place. Up 19-18, Johansson twice served long and so allowed Hellman to twice get point-winning loops in. But then as if she were learning as she went along—and learning well—she served a short one and followed with a crisp kill. Staying aggressive, she played the deuce and two ad points in very fast fashion—too fast for today’s Hellman. First game to Youth.

            Just as I was thinking how important it’d been for Johansson to win that first close game to gain confidence, she suddenly fell apart in the second, lost concentration—began missing high balls, serving off, and slapping her stomach (to demonstrate how slow she’d become). Match all even.

            In the middle of the third game, Hellman’s backhand counter got better and it was harder for Johansson to jab her backhand pips down the line to catch her opponent out of position. But Johansson had found her speed again and it drove Hellman back to where she was eventually forced to chop—surely not a winning approach. At 18-all, Johansson came out with a quick long serve to Ann-Christin’s backhand and they engaged in a long exchange until Anneli went down the forehand line and then into the backhand corner, where Hellman, struggling, chopped one off. Another such exchange—and again Hellman became a chopper. Wrong move, lady—you can’t win that way. Johansson, 2-1.

            At the start of the fourth, it was already an old, old story. Youth just kept pounding away with that backhand (and occasionally the forehand) and Hellman was soon out of position. She was in truth near hopeless with her backhand and so her coach signaled her to forehand loop. But Hellman didn’t know whether to play slow or fast, and the confusion often led her to loop the first ball off. Fair to say, I think, that, along with her lack of speed, this Defending Champion lacked tournament toughness.

            In other quarter’s, the two favorites won easily—Weizades over Susanne Dahl, and 1979 Champion Lindblad over Kamilla Bjork.

            Little spinner Pia Eliasson was having her troubles with ex-National Team member Eva Stromvall. They split the first two games. But then down 19-13, Pia grooved her loop against Eva’s steady but ineffective blocking and burst through for a sudden 22-20 third game victory. Stromvall was more than a little upset by this and from then on seemed out of it.

            The semi’s produced lop-sided matches. The surprising Johansson just couldn’t buy a forehand kill and wasn’t psychically sound against the fast-playing Weizades. A 10-point game. Nor could Eliasson do any better against Lindblad. Another 10-pointer.

            In the final, in the first 12 points of their opener, Weizades must have gotten five nets and edges and was off to a 10-2 start. Lindblad came back to 14-17, then lost four in a row.

            Since both players were from the same club, neither had a coach to go to at the break (since how was one to take sides?). Lindblad could have used some steadying help, for naturally she was irritated by her bad luck…which continued on into the second game. At one point she showed her anger by hitting her racket against the table. Up 13-10, Weizades got another net and then she served an edge. In addition to getting all the breaks, Weizades was just playing so well that Lindblad couldn’t go through her. Down 16-12, Lindblad waited for a kid to stop yelling, then served into the net. No, it did not seem to be her day. Down 20-13, frustrated, she swatted the ball off the table.

            Up 2-0, Weizades prepared for the third (and she hoped final) game by going off into a corner, like a boxer, and psyching herself up. The third couldn’t have started any more predictably. Weizades and Lindblad ALWAYS played backhand to backhand, and at 2-2 Weizades got an edge. Sad but true. Although few American men could beat these women, it was just boring to watch their slow-spin exchanging. I mean, compare this pace to a Persson loop-kill, and you’d want to go for a hot dog too.

            I give Lindblad credit—she mastered her emotions to win the third. But in the fourth. Weizades was again dominant. A slight surprise perhaps that she was the winner. But who else more deserved it? After all, she’d done what no American woman I’ve known had—she gave up school and work for a year to get better. And it paid off with a National Championship. Luck, Fate, Destiny, Chance, Divine Providence may work an effect on one’s life. But there’s seldom a Champion anywhere who hasn’t worked long and hard, who hasn’t taken some risks, to get into the History books. 

Men’s Singles

            In the Men’s Singles, the top 16 seeded players got byes. In view of that, what American recorder would be interested in hearing about obscure Swedish players in the round of 128. Dan Ottoson over Peter Waltersson, 28-25 in the fifth; Peter Wallin over Per-Anders Kallberg, 22-20 in the fifth; Claes Sturesson over Glen Davidsson, 21-19 in the fifth; Ulf Karlsson over Jan Ekstrom, 27-25 in the fifth; Goran Wrana over Jonny Stockhaus, 21-19 in the fifth. So what, huh? Who cares? Or that Mats Andersson, Torbjorn Olsson, Tommy Jacobson, and Johan Ronnby all rallied to win from two games down? Still, I have to start somewhere.

Jens Fellke from Nisse Sandberg’s Angby Club—he’ll give me some beginning depth. A number of readers will remember him as having played in several U.S. Opens. His progress was of interest to me, for he was coming back to the tournament scene after a year’s absence.

            As I looked at this man I’d never beaten, it seemed he just wasn’t the tiger he’d been in his junior past. Down 9-2 and quickly losing the first, he seemed soft and weak. In the second, although he started playing stronger, he still hadn’t gotten himself together—was often taking a wrong shot. He was apparently having some fun out there, though—would occasionally even mimic himself, would pantomime, parody, his own poor play, especially during this second game, which he lost 23-21.

            But then—you could see it coming—it just wasn’t fun anymore. He started to get into a competitive groove—blocking Niklas Swalling’s high loops with high blocks until Swalling would kill and he, Fellke, would counter-smash back for a winner. Eventually Jens got his down-the-line forehand loop humming and pulled out the match. Fellke, then, slowly starting his comeback, could be a ringer in this tournament? No. Oh, no. There are no ringers in Swedish table tennis.

            O.K., now it was a must for every American here in the hall to follow Jens’s second-round match. Quick, quick, where was my Fellke flag? I couldn’t be too partial, though, for ironically Jens’s opponent, Ake Gronlund, was an ex-roomie of mine.

            Fellke was playing solid from the start—looping well…that is, compared to Ake who was whiffing almost every loop attempt off the push. Gronlund’s backhand exchange was hard and fast, but he simply couldn’t loop a ball or score a forehand kill. Fellke, up 2-0, looked to be a ringer after all?

            But Ake wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. He dug down inside himself, and, though playing bad, fought it out. He turned the match around in the third, then came through in the fourth when Fellke, down 21-20—trying to do it all, fans—realizing he had to be aggressive, looped Aki’s serve off. In the fifth, well, it was Gronlund all the way as he opened up an 8-0 lead. Hejdo, Jens. You tried.

            Five-game matches there were—in the first round when you weren’t too interested. A dozen of them—though only three of the winners would win again. But in the second round there was just this one, and none other: Mikael Frank over Peter Nilsson (that’s the Peter Nilsson from Lyckeby). 

Sixteenth’s

            The Waldner-Bo Persson match, beginning the round of 32, just looked ridiculous. Picture a year in the ‘40’s or 50’s where Dick Miles (in long, baggy shorts) with his hard-rubber chops is winning match after match when suddenly a 1980’s Guo Yuehua arrives with his never-seen-before sponge and bullet loops. If you can conceive of that you’ll have some idea of this current match-up.

            Waldner is a Boy Wonder. It’s like in the movie ‘Superman’ when the boy lifts up the car and gets a look from his father-to-be. It’s clear Waldner just comes from another world. You get the impression he saw table tennis played one day, and as easy as it is for young Superman to lift that car, so is it for Waldner when he comes onto court armed with space-age serves and counter-loops. The boy’s mystical fire kindles the normal unenthusiastic Swedes and he becomes a hero. And yet perhaps he does not always light up his own inner life, for when not playing points or twirling his racket like a baton, he often, it seems to me, just looks bewildered into the ceiling, the clouds, as if searching for the planet from which he came.

            Comfortably up 20-10 in the first, Waldner tried a rocket chop-kill from the barriers, which just missed. Everyone laughed, including Persson. One exception to Bo’s display of aging, not to say obsolete, shots was his overhead tennis-style forehand slice-kill against the always happy-to-be-lobbing Waldner. Jan-Ove couldn’t win a point from Persson lobbing. Boo, Bo—it’s not nice to take a toy away from Superboy.

            The new rules haven’t hurt Jonas Berner, whose service specialty has always been a weird quick-jerk-and-hitch of a high toss. This routine, coupled of course with the killer-follow, was enough to tie Magnus Karlsson into knots.

            ‘You’re an animal, Frank,’ I said as Mikael left the court a winner. ‘Thanks,’ he said. To which I quipped back, ‘I knew you’d take it as a complement.’ Frank, huffing and puffing, had just won a beastly battle from Leif-Ake Pettersson, 17 in the 4th.

            Joining Waldner, Berner, and Frank in the top half of the top draw was Stellan Bengtsson. Ake Grunland’s back-from-the-table play had impressed the spectators, but it wasn’t a winning game against Bengtsson’s backhand pips. Stellan could change the tempo as well as the ball distance, and his backhand-to-backhand was too severe for Grunland. Ake made a few good counter loops, reached deuce in the third, but couldn’t win that game either.

                                                            ***

            Ulf Bengtsson, since becoming a member of the National Team a few years ago, and on playing in the Bundesliga this past year for Grenzau, has a 100% professional approach toward the sport. But as with all professionals there are times when the legs feel wobbly and the bat heavy. This looked like one of those times for Ulf—he was struggling, was slow, and a little out of it the first game against Ola Werner. Yet he kept trying to push himself. Down 17-14, he got two nets in a row. Down 19-17, he stunned the aggressive Werner by unexpectedly giving him not one long serve but two. Then at 19-all he served and looped in a winner, then scored again. After that he didn’t have to struggle.

            Erratic Peter Nilsson (that’s the Malmo Nilsson) could average only 14 points a game against smooth, nationally-ranked Per Sandstrom.

            Roger Lagerfeldt, who was formerly on the Swedish National Team, and who the last couple of years has played for Pepsi Heusenstamm in the German Bundesliga, looped through the feisty head-down blocks, the spiked-hair shield of Johan Fallby.

            Joining Ulf Bengtsson, Sandstrom, and Lagerfeldt in the bottom half of the top draw was Erik Lindh. Niklas Schioler, alias Persson, who’d once won the European Junior’s when he and Lindh were schoolboy rivals. Much has happened since then for Lindh to beat him here 10, 7, 6.

                                                            ***

            Ulf Carlsson, former Scandinavian Open Champion, and maybe the player with the #1 record in this season’s Bundesliga, zipped by 14-year-old Thomas von Scheele, who’d gotten through a five-gamer in the first round.

            Bjorn Stark was too Stark, or not severe enough, in losing to seeded Hakan Jeppsson.

            Christer Andersson challenged Lars Franklin—but only in the 25-23 third.

            Joining Ulf Carlsson, Jeppsson, and Franklin in the top half of the bottom draw was Jonny Akesson. Yes, all was going as expected—the last 16 to a man would be the 16 originally seeded or placed players. Angby Viking, recent Junior Top 12 winner Lars Mattsson could be a football lineman, yet he’s only 15. Against an unusually passive Akesson he was initially hot, looping in ball after ball. Indeed, Lars kept up such constant pressure on Jonny that he forced him further and further from the table until eventually Akesson had no choice but to begin lobbing—which was certainly not the winning style.

            How Akesson kept himself so tan during the Swedish winter was just as much a mystery to me as the guy’s service ritual. He has the most unusual pre-steps to service I’ve ever seen. After going off to retrieve a ball he’ll always come back to the table via a special angle—that is, he’ll walk in an outside-to-inside arc to his backhand corner. ‘He does it to concentrate,’ someone told me. Anyway, even with his forehand loop off, Akesson was still Mr. Cool—down 2-1 he looked as though he didn’t have a worry in the world. Perhaps he got some good advice from a coach, for with a little help from the net he started out playing an aggressive fourth and totally began dominating the match.

            In the fifth, up 10-3 at the turn, Akesson stopped going for his shots, lost six in a row, then jumped ahead again, 14-9. At 20-14 match-point, Jonny served under his leg. This was allowed? Yes. The Swedish Association sees the under-the-leg serve as a cultural heritage and—new service rules or no—allows the tradition to continue.

            Mellow-cat Jorgen Persson yawned by Cay Tegner, 7, 8, 14.

            High-spirited glue-master Peter Greczula looped away Hakan Soderholm in straight games.

            Hustling Pete Rose-type Misa Valcic jabbed his pips-out backhand into Goran Wrana, former U.S. Open Under 17 runner-up to Sean O’Neill, for a 3-1 victory.

            Joining Jorgen Persson, Greczula, and Valcic in the bottom half of the bottom draw was World Cup winner Mikael Appelgren who joked with under-the-leg server Hans Persson. 

Eighth’s

            Waldner’s so good that some players can’t even fight against him. The usually psyched-up Frank just didn’t believe he could win the match—didn’t believe he had even that 1% chance.

            Last year when Stellan Bengtsson and Jonas Berner played in this Men’s Championship, Berner was up 2-0 and 20-12—yet didn’t win the match. This time things didn’t start off his way—and perhaps he’d be the better for it? Up 17-12 in the first, Bengtsson on getting his own serve could do absolutely nothing with it, and, after Berner started scoring with some loops, served off at the crucial 17-all stage. Whereupon Berner aced Stellan and ran out the game. Some reversal, huh? Nine in a row for Berner.

            In the second, Jonas was flipping well and looping loose. Up 9-3 he was unstoppable with serve and follow. Bengtsson, afraid of this one/two punch, failed to return two serves in a row and popped up a third. Now he was down 12-3 and his short game was obviously just horrible. There must be something wrong with him to lose 21 out of 24 points.

            After winning the second 21-7, Berner had an Ivan Lendl look to him that must have dispirited Bengtsson even more. Looping in some incredible balls, Berner was up 15-9. Yet, strangely, Bengtsson steadied, and with some excellent pips-out blocks drew to 16-all. But his inconsistency came back to haunt him, and at the end he missed two more of Berner’s serves and lost the game and match on an edge at 18.

            So the World Champion of 13 years ago did not this year make the quarter’s of his country’s Closed. I remembered a Houseman poem, “To An Athlete Dying Young,” called my father’s attention to it, and he found the lines I was thinking of:

            ‘Now you will not swell the rout

            Of lads that wore their honours out.

            Runners whom renown outran

            And the name died before the man.’

            Still, it was a hell of a lot better to be a live athlete like Bengtsson than a dead one like Alser.

            Ulf Bengtsson still couldn’t get out of his slump—once again he looked slow and erratic. But again he managed to fight and win the first from Sandstrom at 19. Although he would occasionally make a great shot—his sudden counter-kill after lobbing is the best there is—he never really had an effective game-plan this whole tournament. In the second game he was just helpless—was soft, slow, and weak.

            Definitely he wasn’t the serve-and-crack threat he’d been in the past and often resorted to lobbing….What’s this? At 15-all in the third, Sandstrom was suddenly staring Bengtsson right in the eye. No, Per wasn’t angry—good players don’t take the competition personally. There was a problem with Bengtsson’s contacts. But Ulf did better with those than he’d been doing with his backhand-to-backhand play. Down 18-16, he served and loop-killed. Sandstrom, however, realizing Bengtsson’s potential, initiated his own attack. Down 20-19 match-point, Ulf missed a forehand loop-kill, followed by flinging his racket through the barrier-curtain into a wall. Which act brought some concerned officials into the court.

            It wasn’t enough simply to be steamed—Bengtsson’s game couldn’t catch fire and he lost the fourth at 16. Exit Europe #16.

            In the first game, Lindh’s backhand chop, short chop-block touch, and his follow-up up-at-the-table loop was too fast for the back-from-the-table loops of Lagerfeldt. Also, Lindh’s short backhand block often set up his famous counter-loop (though if Lagerfeldt himself could loop the first forehand hard, Lindh would be in trouble).

            After winning the first, Lindh wasn’t his concentrated-self in the second. He often rushed shots, especially those high balls which he really didn’t need to catch right off the bounce, and which in fact seemed awkwardly too high for him. Second game to Lagerfeldt.

            In the third, Lindh often caught Lagerfeldt wide to the forehand, but his backhand couldn’t handle Roger’s spinny loop. Still, Lindh is the only player I’ve seen who can consistently backhand-loop a loop at the table.

            Down 2-1, Lagerfeldt changed his tactics. He started looping slower, so as not to let Lindh  use his opponent’s own spin against him, then went for the one-ball winner. Up 12-8, Roger was playing right off Erik’s left hip, where, as it happened, Lindh couldn’t do a thing with the ball. Soon, though, Erik began making points on his serve and follow. Down 17-13, he caught Lagerfeldt at 18-all. Then at 19-all, Lindh blocked one off. And then, ahead 20-19, Lagerfeldt unexpectedly stayed up at the table and surprised Lindh with a down-the-line backhand block. Two games each.

            Before the fifth game started, Lindh got some coaching from his brother. Someone told me how important it was for Lindh to have a coach—and it may be surprising to some that his older brother has been coaching him since he was 10. It’s said that Lindh doesn’t play well in the Swedish Top 12 because in that tournament it’s understood among the in-group National elite that no individual coaches are used.

            Lagerfeldt’s a big guy—looks like a body-builder—but he has a surprisingly good short game against Lindh or anybody else. Down 10-6 at the turn, Erik just seems to have been neutralized and was now making easy mistakes. Roger, beginning to sense victory, backhand-looped one in from the barriers that went flying by the frozen Lindh. Erik’s forehand was cold and for the moment he just couldn’t score against the Dvoracek-style of Lagerfeldt.

            But bad moments pass, and down 15-7 Lindh started a comeback—began yelling after every point. Only, having closed to 15-12, he then looped two off and missed a fade-away attempt. From 18-12 down, Lindh tried again: he repeatedly drove Lagerfeldt back from the table and again his strong loops brought the score to 19-17. But 17 in the deciding game was all Lindh could get—and out went Europe #3 without even getting to the quarter’s.

            Ulf ‘Tickan’ Carlsson’s high-speed play often puts him in a class of his own—and Jeppsson just wasn’t world-class enough to match him.

            Akesson’s game scores, stop-watched at any particular time, always related to whether he had the serve or not. If it was close late in the game, as it was here against Lars Franklin in the first, and Akesson was serving, he was a heavy favorite—so, no surprise, 21-18 Jonny.

            Franklin was a great fighter, but it didn’t look now that he could do much against Akesson’s spin. Just blocking with his backhand sure wasn’t gonna win him the second.

            But the ex-National has a great forehand kill when given the opportunity. And, after losing the first two games, he changed his style, started yelling encouragement to himself, risked the kills, and was up 19-16 in the third. Now, though, it was Akesson’s turn to serve—and Franklin missed the first of them. Lars knew he had to stop the tempo these modern-day loopers like to keep, so he flipped his next serve return, catching Akesson by surprise. Jonny hesitated—his timing had been taken away—and looped one off. A moment later, Lars was 2-1 still in the match.

            In the fourth, Akesson got a little soft, and with Franklin returning serve better it was gonna be a fight after all. From 19-all, Franklin sent it into the fifth.

            As they came into their end-game finish, the score was tied at 15-all. Akesson’s loop caught the edge—and Franklin spit out his disgust. Akesson then got a net—and Franklin kicked the table. Jonny backhand-looped one in, then Lars mis-killed a lob into the net. From 20-16 down Franklin couldn’t recover. Damn good try though.

            Persson with his up-at-the-table loops kept driving Greczula back, back, back. As earlier Peter had outclassed former Swedish National Ingemar Wikstrom (Remember him? He was on that ’73 World-winning Swedish Team too), so now, though he made a few running-in backhand loop-kills off the loop, was Peter out of it—couldn’t get a loop by Persson’s formidable backhand.

            Appelgren just ho-hummed looped and lobbed into, by, and beyond Valcic’s backhand pips. 

Quarter’s

Berner, looping Waldner’s long serves, taking Jan-Ove’s vaunted Superboy offense away, meant business—devilish business—right from the start. Down 20-19, Waldner loop-killed—only to have Berner block-kill back a winner to end the game. Up went a fight-signal from the hungry Berner—obviously a competitor not to be taken lightly.

But in the second and third games Waldner was back in his best form. His serve and loop were unstoppable. Off Berner’s serve, when the ball got into play, he almost never missed a loop, and once, when he had to—or wanted to—he made an unbelievable backhand slice-chop.

Berner began the fourth strong, and Waldner tried to stop him just by using his touch—which wasn’t enough. But in the fifth, Jan-Ove became aggressive again and looped to win. Waldner always wins when he has to—or so it seems.

Sandstrom was never in it with Lagerfeldt. Roger’s looping successfully controlled the whole tempo of the match.

Sometimes Akesson plays soft and sometimes hard, yet coming out against the favored Carlsson in the all-important opening game, his serve and loop was strong. Down 17-16, Akesson, who’d been looping all this time, just watched as suddenly ‘Tickan’ loop-killed one in—as if to say, ‘Hey, I can do this too!’ At 19-all, Carlsson looped another one in. Down 20-19, Akesson, anything but intimidated, flip-killed in a winner. Deuce. Now there was a long rally and from a lobbing position Akesson’s loop-kill caught the net and went over, but Carlsson got it back and killed the next one in for the ad. Akesson then served and missed his follow.

Second game to Carlsson as well. Which of course made him even looser. In the third, he was up19-16—but not a lock because Akesson was serving. And, sure enough, Jonny was third-balling his way back when one serve went a little too long and Carlsson looped it in. Up 20-19, Carlsson made a perfect short return of serve which Akesson couldn’t follow and could just get back—a craftily created set-up for Ulf and he looped it in for the match.

Persson’s strong backhand and zip-forehand posed trouble from the start for the back-from-the-table ‘Apple.’ On turning around to loop-kill from his backhand corner, Persson showed something of a golf stroke—as if his position were fixed out there, his head set, and he didn’t need to move that extra step you might have expected him to. His loop was always very good off the bounce when his opponent played a medium-speed off-the-table game, and he could hook the ball with an incredible amount of sidespin. Persson’s Klampar-like play totally controlled Appelgren, who was repeatedly caught on his backhand side back from the table.

Still, Appelgren stayed in the match because of a second-game win at 19.

Up 2-1, Persson started the fourth cold and now Apple was turning the corner more and playing with his forehand, which does wonderful things. Up 14-8 Mikael seemed a changed man. And yet Persson came slowly back—only to lose again at 19.

Looking at 17-year-old Persson’s shots you can see how he might well be the next European Champion. His strong backhand and stay-at-the-table forehand loop show the table tennis of the future. He also has an avant-garde technique of killing the lob. It’s an overhead motion, with a reared-back start way down low—just like a jai-alai stroke.

In the fifth, Appelgren was playing more forehand and looking pretty sharp himself. Persson was still putting the pressure on, though, by catching Apple wide to the forehand now that he was turning the corner. No one has a backhand kill like Persson. How can one describe such a long wind-up motion that kills the ball with amazing speed.

Actually those American enthusiasts who liked to watch Danny and Eric and some other good U.S. players, if they could see the Swedes play their great topspin-rally points, they would just freak out. Even I was amazed. The table tennis they play in Sweden is not the table tennis they play in America.

Still the Game nowadays WAS so much serve and serve return. Down 10-5 at the turn, Persson with the serve managed to loop in 4 out of 5. Ahead or behind, first game or fifth, the Swedes’ strategy doesn’t change: the best Swedish players, with the single exception of Appelgren, serve and loop-kill. In other words, the Sport becomes just like tennis when it comes to the service dominance—only with the current table tennis scoring system it’s not so obvious.

Down 12-9 after flipping one off, Persson made a beautiful drop. But then, despite his whole arsenal of shots, he couldn’t burst-of-fire get through…until at 14-10 he finally looped one in. Down 14-11, he came with the dreaded serve and follow. At 14-12, Appelgren flipped one off, afraid of the loop to come. At 14-13, Mikael looped into the net. At 14-all came one of those sweeping backhand smashes which so pleased the crowd and of course Persson.

At 18-all, Persson drove Apple back and when he was just about to send in a bullet loop he artfully caught Appelgren with a drop. Down 19-18, Appelgren wanted to be—had to be—the aggressor…and looped into the net. Down 20-18, Appelgren looped, Persson blocked, and Mikael mis-hit off his racket edge. Out went World #7 to a Swedish 17-year-old. 

Semi’s

            Against the intense backhand and forehand looping of Lagerfeldt, Waldner had a variety of answerable shots. Sometimes against topspin Jan-Ove blocked with his backhand then tried to forehand-loop against the loop by turning around or blocking fast so that his opponent had to play some balls to his forehand. Waldner’s loop-to-loop is the best, and, like almost all Swedes, when he has the serve he attacks. On the backhand-to-backhand exchange he sometimes used a modified Dean Doyle stroke—that is, not a flat but a sideways backhand. This wasn’t like Doyle’s windshield-wiper stroke, though, for with Waldner it was all just a wrist-touch and he moved his racket sideways only a few inches.

            Another technique the Swedes have mastered is this: when returning an opponent’s loop that’s been placed into their forehand corner, they don’t block it or smash it back, they kind of semi-smack it cross-court, using a much shorter stroke than the smash. Because of its quickness this return, while offering a much higher degree of accuracy than the all-out smash, has almost the same get-back-into-the-point positional effect. Today’s fast sponge, and the increasingly sophisticated glue applied to it, encourages this stroke.

            Only when both players looped old-style back from the table forehand-to-forehand was Waldner helpless. So naturally he stayed at the table as much as possible exercising his options—which seemed to me a much better way of playing.

            Up 20-18 in the first, Waldner looped, his ball caught the net and popped up, but—first game to Waldner—Lagerfeldt’s backhand kill was off. Angrily he threw his racket at the offending net. Then went for a drink.

            Holding up this huge two-gallon container, alone in his corner—unlike most of the top Swedish players he had no coach—he looked like some Hercules, perhaps with one labor too many.

            Sometimes Waldner purposefully served long to set up his counter-loop. He’d serve into the backhand, his opponent would turn around and loop cross-court, and Waldner would turn around and loop it back down the line for a winner.

            At 19-all in the second, Waldner got an edge, then won the final game-point after a long rally. Lagerfeldt, angry again, threw his racket at a barrier but it popped up and hit the official who, because of Roger’s earlier outburst, had seated himself nearby. After the racket had caromed off his shoulder, this official, whose back was to half the audience, suddenly stood up and, only an intimate few feet from Lagerfeldt, reached with his left hand to pull the ‘blue’ card out of his pocket to warn the temperamental Swede. But Roger, in a perfectly coordinated follow-through was too quick for him. In an oops, excuse me acknowledgement of a mistake (or was it an apology?), he flashed a handshake, much as referee and player might do in a fired-up soccer match, and the official, nonplussed, hid the half-slipped-out card back in his pocket. The fans on the one side of the hall who saw this bit of by-play laughed, but those on the other side didn’t see what was funny about it all.

            In the third game, Waldner was lobbing too much, so, down 10-6, he suddenly took command of the rallies by topspinning. Score: 12-all. But—maybe winning that way was too easy—he then served off and lost the game at 16.

            In the fourth, Waldner was more aggressive, but, much to the fans’ enjoyment Lagerfeldt continued to hold his own. At 15-all, Waldner high-tossed/loop-killed. Then served off. Down 18-17, Lagerfeldt served and followed for a winner.  At 18-all Roger’s long serve was looped and he blocked off. Up 19-18, Waldner was back lobbing and of course lost the point. At 19-all, they played short pushes until one of Lagerfeldt’s was too long and Waldner looped it in. Down 20-19 match-point, Roger served and scored with his follow. Tough hombre. At 20-all, Lagerfeldt looped in Waldner’s long serve. But then Jan-Ove deuced it with a classic counter-loop. At 21-all, Waldner served and—what else?—rolled one in. Now a flip of Lagerfeldt’s serve and Roger missed his backhand follow. Hercules at rest.

            From the beginning, Persson looked to be the eventual winner over Carlsson. Tickan has always had trouble with the big spinners—they take away his fast, flat offense. But he’s one of the greatest fighters in the Game with a good serve and follow-up attack. He hustles, he struggles, for every ball, whether he’s hot or not. When he’s hot, he’s untouchable, but it’s very hard to get hot against such a player as Persson.

            In the first, down 19-18, Persson was looping to Carlsson’s backhand as always, but—surprise—Carlsson chop-blocked a short one that Persson wisely pushed, then backhand-looped the return to tie it up at 19-all. But though young Person showed poise, it was the scrappy Carlsson who eventually won the first, 23-21.

            In the second, Persson, far from being discouraged, began making some solid backhand kills with those gangly arms and won rather easily at 16.

            In the third, the 17-year-old took such control as to dominate Carlsson, World #27, 21-7.

            In the fourth, Carlsson tried to be more aggressive, but he was just helpless against this tentacled young monster’s sweeping motions. I’ve never seen such an unstoppable backhand. Down 16-9, Carlsson kicked the table and got a warning from the umpire. Another backhand kill by Persson—and Carlsson was finished.

            One shot this space-age Persson has mastered that I’ve not mentioned: when he’s back from the table looping and someone makes a great short block, he can catch the ball from way down under the table and bring it back into play. Not only can he do this, but with his amazing touch the ball doesn’t even go high over the net, just slow. The only way you can catch him back from the table is by double-bouncing your block, which is hard to do against the topspin he generates. 

Final

            Historically, the best players always win the Swedish Championship. In 1960, Hans Alser won it for the first time. Then, from 1963-1980, just three players—Alser (5 more years), Johansson (6 years), and Bengtsson (7 years) totally dominated this tournament—for 18 years (!) no one else won it. Then Appelgren won twice. And last year Waldner won. So statistically it would be hard for the still very young Persson to pull an upset. And yet Sverige never saw a backhand kill or loop like his before.

            The first game had barely gotten underway when it was stopped. Persson had pulled a muscle. But—perhaps after a very quick massage—he came back into the hall again to loud applause. This, after all, was a Star Wars final everyone wanted to see.

            Persson, looking strong, looping ball after ball, his backhand a killer, was up 12-8. At 14-10, in the middle of the point, Waldner suddenly caught the ball and crushed it. No problem. And it needed only one of these honest Swedish players to know it.

            Persson now threw in some unbelievable chops, spiced them with a point-winning follow. Waldner’s face showed concern—such a look from him one rarely catches. Down 20-14, Waldner began spinning in, reached 18, then looped one off.

            In the second, Persson started off playing fast—only to miss a hanger. Then they went backhand-to-backhand harder and harder until Persson just crushed one onto Waldner’s chest. Up 4-1, Jorgen missed two serves and Waldner faded one by him. At 5-all Persson took control with his service—went up 8-5. But more and more, Waldner’s short block began setting up his loop, and from 8-all Waldner won the second game comfortably.

            Many of the spectators were amazed at the shots these players even tried. At the beginning of the third, Waldner looped a cross-court beauty in, but it came back and, practically diving for the return, he smashed that in too. Then—talk about creating a shot—Jan-Ove went up 7-5 by killing a ball out of his stomach. Still Waldner couldn’t come away a winner just by using his forehand loop and magnificent touch. Against Persson, as opposed to the others, he had to generate power. At 18-all, he served and looped two off. Then, down 20-18, knowing what he had to do and not afraid to do it, he looped in a down-the-line winner. Down 20-19, Waldner, totally loose, interrupted a long exchange, turned around, and loop-killed in another winner. At 20-all, he looped in Persson’s serve. Then, having gotten the ad, he killed again. Four straight unbelievable shots—and precisely when he most needed them.

            The finalists didn’t take a long 2-1 break. Swedish players in general like to play fast. Waldner’s short game was very strong now. Also, his versatility was never more apparent. He chopped a great one, then, as he went flying for a backhand kill, all he needed was a Superman cape. Down 15-10, 17-12, and finally 21-13, Persson ended by playing soft, soft, soft.

            Waldner, the boy of steel, showed no emotion. He accepted his award without the slightest enthusiasm and waited patiently as the photographers took every exterior picture of him possible. Then he flew away.