USA Table Tennis

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

CHAPTER ELEVEN 

            1984: USA Men/Women Bring Home Gold From Cuba. 1984: European Championships. 

The Fifth Annual Cuban Invitational, held in Santa Clara, Apr. 2-8, was attended by USA Men’s and Women’s Teams. Coverage will be in two parts (Timmy’s, May, 1984, 5-6)—first, a background article by Sylvia Rosenthal, followed by one on the actual play by Sylvia and Perry Schwartzberg. Here to begin is their de rigueur intro opening: 

“Again were the Stars and Stripes raised to the seldom-heard strains of the Star-Spangled Banner when the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Teams stood to receive their Gold Medals. Accompanying the Men’s Team of Quang Bui, Brian Masters, and Perry Schwartzberg, and the Women’s Team of Lisa Gee and Lan Vuong were USTTA President Sol Schiff, USTTA Executive Vice-President Gus Kennedy, Photographer Cameron Clark, and Interpreter/Reporter Sylvia Rosenthal. 

Here’s Rosenthal’s “It Was the Worst of Times; It Was the Best of Times”: 

“The Worst of Times

When one enters Miami, one enters a different time zone! Neither good nor bad, just different! Being the ‘gateway’ to Latin America, Miami initiated our USA Team members and officials to this ‘time war’ with an interminable seven-hour wait at the Miami airport. Big problem was that, up until minutes before take-off, our Lan Vuong had not yet received a visa, or even confirmation that she would actually be permitted to enter Cuba! (Red tape distinguishes neither political right nor left!)

A telex from Havana, arriving minutes before we boarded the plane, authorized Lan’s entrance into Cuba, but our immigration complications were not over yet. Lan still had no visa! Though all her papers were in perfect order, the Cuban Interest section in Washington refused to issue her a visa, and 11th-hour efforts on the part of the USTTA were to no avail.

Thus we landed at Havana airport only to face another group of bumbling bureaucrats, each kowtowing to the one above, up the chain of command, until after another interminable several-hour wait, someone finally made the decision to let Lan in!

Seldom has there been seen such an all-out effort made by people to get into Cuba.

Since it was too late now to leave for the tournament site—which by the way was not to be in Santiago ‘by a lovely beach-side hotel in Havana.’ The following afternoon, along with the Nicaraguan team, we bussed four hours to Santa Clara and were back to those thatch-roofed Tahitian huts of two years earlier.

As Quang Bui put it after the first night in our tropical huts, ‘I found a lot of new friends there—the mosquitoes—they soon became my “closest” friends.’

And if the mosquitoes struck us the first night, disaster struck us the second! While we were all at dinner, our room was ‘broken into’ and both Lisa Gee and Lan’s tournament bags were stolen and a few of my personal belongings. Not only stolen from Lan and Lisa were money, a watch, a camera, playing clothes, and warm-up suits, but, worst of all at the time, Lisa’s one racket and Lan’s two rackets.

With all due deference to the Cubans, it should be mentioned that this theft was a very unusual occurrence, not at all common to that country. So unusual, in fact, that the policeman who first came was able to recall only one similar theft—which had taken place three years earlier! I would challenge any American policeman to recall the details of a three-year-old theft!

So, as the night of the first round of Team ties got underway, Lisa was playing with a borrowed type of racket she had not played with in a number of years, and Lan was playing with a racket graciously given her by the Cuban Coach. As I later learned—since I spoke Spanish I remained behind at our ‘hut’ with the police—Lisa and Lan (as well as the Men’s Team) scored first-round success. We who remained behind to explain the loss were not so successful!

If the thefts were not so tragic, the investigation would have made for a good comedy short feature or another vignette for ‘Police Academy’! As the evening wore on, the number of police increased in direct proportion to the number of times I repeated the details of what had happened. First came the contingent of the grounds’ security guards, who discussed the details with great dismay. Next on the scene was a detachment of local gendarmes, and the detailed discussion of the crime was repeated, evoking new glimpses of dismay! Finally, Sherlock himself arrived with his regiment to survey the scene of such a dastardly act!

Sometime in the night a shepherd appeared, sniffed the scene, and disappeared around a bend—neither dog nor master ever to be seen again! Other investigators climbed into the rafters, and even dusted part of the ceiling for fingerpints. Of course there were reports and forms to fill out, and then more forms and reports when Lan and Lisa returned. All this long into the night.

And, if bad things come in threes, then the third turn was for Brian Masters. He started running a fever almost from the outset, and it lasted on and off for days, until it finally peaked at 102. Half the time, being the fighter that he is, he was playing matches with a 101-degree fever—and winning! Which segues us from the worst of times into… 

The Best of Times

            As Sol Schiff so accurately noted, ‘The hospitality was much better than I expected. Everyone treated us exceptionally well.’ Indeed, we all agreed that everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome. ‘The Cuban players seemed warmer and friendlier than the last time we were there,’ Gus Kennedy commented. ‘I’m not sure why, but they were more talkative and mingled with us more than in the past.’

            And as Lisa mentioned, ‘The teams were really nice, the hospitality was great, and I made a lot of new friends. Next year, if I have the chance, I want to go again.’

            I, Sylvia, live in Miami, a city predominately Cuban, and one cannot live here long without being affected by the good qualities of that culture—Cubans are warm, friendly, and hospitable people. On the final evening, at the end of tournament play, a huge banquet was held, and for dessert—to celebrate Lan’s 15th birthday—they brought out this huge birthday cake. ‘It was half the size of me,’ said Lan. ‘I really didn’t know what to say. That was the day I was so sick and really down, but everybody made me so happy with the surprise. Everyone was so nice and really cared.’

            And Cam Clark took pictures—lots of pictures, and as he noted, ‘The people overall are very friendly and courteous, and they really loved the polaroid pictures I took of them because they’d never seen such a thing before.’

            ‘Having gone to Yugoslavia for the World’s in ’81,’ said Cameron, ‘I knew that a socialist life-style was spartan compared to the U.S., but the resort we stayed in was a very nice Tahitian-theme park.’

            Yes, I agree—it was very nice, with a swimming pool, discotheque/night-club, and recreation room with video games. During one free day, between the team and individual competition, we spent a day and a night at a town near the beach, and from our hotel rooms we had a panoramic vista of the bay and seaport.

            Indeed, the Cubans did everything they could to make us feel comfortable and welcome, both at the tournament site and away from it. As Gus said, ‘They went out of their way to help us in all cases—gave us equal to, if not more than, the help they gave the other countries.’ 

In Appreciation

            As Sol said, ‘Our Team was terrific. We couldn’t have picked a nicer group of people to represent us.’ And as Lisa echoed, ‘The Cubans had great sportsmanship and team spirit, and our team too had great team spirit. We didn’t have a coach with us, but Quang, Brian, Perry, and Lan were right there after every game to coach and give me pointers and encouragement. And Sylvia was there sitting behind me on whatever side I was playing, cheering for me and encouraging me, and it helped a lot because I could hear her even above the noise the Cubans were making.’ And Lan, too, expressed similar sentiments. ‘I thank everybody on the team for coaching me through these matches, especially Sol Schiff and Perry, and I want to thank the USTTA for sending us to this international tournament. We learned a lot and gained a lot of experience.’

            And Lisa, too, commented, ‘Representing the United States has been a great experience for me, and I want to thank Sol Schiff and Gus Kennedy for making this trip possible, and thanks also to Mr. Dennis Masters for getting us our visas, because if it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have been able to go at all.’

            And Gus Kennedy seemed to sum up all of our sentiments about the tournament organization when he commented, ‘Renato and his staff of workers and umpires had the knowledge World Championship organizers have, and this is greatly to be commended for a country much smaller than any that has held such Championships. I was very impressed with their standard of officiating.’

            Yes, all things considered—now, after the fact—it was the best of times. We brought home Silver in Women’s Singles, Silver in Men’s Singles and Doubles, and Gold in Men’s and Women’s Team’s and in the Mixed. I, too, promoted courtesy of Mr. Schiff to ‘Women’s Team Captain,’ was given a Gold medal, for which I humbly thank him. We made many new friends, and those of us who had been to Cuba before renewed old friendships. I, for one, look forward to returning next year.” 

Whew! Alright, now to the write-up of the play by Sylvia and Perry (Sylvia continuing to do the heavy-duty work of writing, and Perry adding details?): 

“Women’s Team’s

            Not since the Tokyo ’83 World’s, when I saw Yang Young-ja of South Korea, down 20-16 in the Women’s semifinal, save four match points, and move to the final, have I seen a more spectacular women’s match than that which I witnessed in the U.S. vs. Cuba ‘C’ Women’s Teams. In the one semi’s, the U.S. had handily defeated the Cuba ‘A’ team [their best team met our U.S. team in the semi’s?—the organizers wanted an all-Cuban final?], and in the other, in an unprecedented upset, Cuba ‘C’ had downed Cuba ‘B.’ So in the final, we were up against Marisol ‘Mamita’ Oliva and Yolanda Rodriguez.

            Playing to a Corbillon Cup format, Lisa took the first match against Oliva, -18, 15, 6. And, following that, Lan destroyed Rodriguez, 17, 12. It looked like it would be an easy 3-0 win for the U.S. But that was not to be: Cuba took the doubles in a close 2-1 battle. In the fourth match with ‘Mamita,’ Lan dropped the first game 21-18, but with her usual fighting spirit came back to eke out the second, 21-19. The third game saw Lan down 17-13, but, with incredible serves and powerful loops, she rallied, took an 18-17 lead. Then spectacular loop followed counter-loop, smash followed smash, and the score remained even, point by point—with the stadium resounding ‘Mamita! Mamita!’ after each point the Cuban won, and before each serve was made—until the score reached 21-all. Two final lucky shots by Oliva, and with Lan’s 23-21 loss we were forced into the fifth.

            Lan was later to comment, ‘When I played Yolanda, I had no problem with her, but when I saw how she started to play Lisa I thought our gold medal was gone. The Cuban attacked everything—low, high, medium, whatever—she killed everything.’ Lisa seemed to confirm Lan’s apprehension when she lost the first game to Rodriguez, 21-14. In fact, we were all pretty sure it was all over for us. Lisa was obviously feeling the pressure—earlier, she’d said, ‘When Lan was playing her match against Oliva, I was really hoping for her to win, but when she lost and I knew I had to play the final gold-medal match, I was really nervous. I knew it was all up to me now.’

            Since Gee was unable to use her own racket [as Sylvia’d explained in her companion article, it’d been stolen], and was now playing with horribly blistered hands, we all seriously doubted that she could regain her control and confidence and pull out the second game. Our feelings seemed confirmed when, in the second game, she was down 20-16. But the spirit and strength of the champion in Lisa came through. A heavy chop serve by the American, which Rodriguez pushed into the net, brought the score to 20-17. Another such serve, which again Rodriguez put into the net—and now we were all screaming with excitement. Hope had come back into the game. Could Lisa get to deuce? On the next two points Gee sent powerful well-placed loops—and the score was 20-20!

            Again, with a dynamite loop, Lisa was up 21-20, but then the Cuban came back with one of her amazing forehand smashes. Deuce. Then two points with her strong forehand loop and Lisa took the game. Unbelievable! Incredible! We were back in the match, and Lisa had regained all her confidence and was ready.

            The third and final game began close and remained close, point by point, to 14-all. Then Lisa went out in front 16-14. But Rodriguez responded by twice serving and following with kills and it was 16-all. Lisa came right back—winning points on a loop and a counter. Lisa back in front, 18-16. But the Cuban scored with a heavy Phantom chop. Up 18-17, Lisa served, Rodriguez returned well, Lisa pushed up the middle, and the Cuban all-out smashed it in for what looked like a sure winner. But, wait, Lisa was not to be denied! Her racket came out of nowhere and, with her back to the table, she somehow counter-returned the kill! Not even immediately realizing that the ball had hit, and that when it did it totally shook up Rodriguez, Lisa won the point. The Cuban crowd was amazed! The Americans were in a frenzy! Lisa led 19-17.

            After that miraculous return that completely unnerved the Cuban, Lisa took the 20-17 point easily. Then Gee went for a loop that, as Perry would say, was ‘The right shot at the right time.’ But it didn’t go in—20-18. The stadium was in an uproar, and Rodriguez fed off the crowd. Showing great intensity and concentration, she smashed in a winner to bring her within one of tying the game. But Lisa showed her poise and experience, and to a you-could-hear-a-pin-drop, dead-silent stadium, Rodriguez misplayed the gold-medal point!

            ‘During the last couple of points in that final match,’ Lan would later say, ‘I thought I was going to have a heart attack I was so excited. I really wanted to bring home a gold medal to prove that the U.S. juniors are equal to international players.’

            ‘Well, indeed [this is surely Sylvia talking] there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind now that you are! Because with Lisa’s brilliant play and fighting heart, and Lan’s indomitable spirit and incredible loops and serves, with both playing with rackets not their own after theirs had been stolen, with both playing with horribly-blistered hands at the racket-contact point, Lisa had just pulled out a gold-medal save, and Lan had just defeated the four top Cuban women, including in the  Team semi’s Baez (19, 20) and Armas (11, 12), each of whom is a 2000+ player.           

Women’s Singles

            In the Women’s Singles, Lisa moved through the first two rounds easily and went into the quarter’s against Clara Sabina, Cuba B’s left-handed looper. With excruciating pain showing on her face each time she pressed her blistered hand against the racket for an all-out dazzling, well-placed forehand loop, yet refusing to ease up, Lisa battled relentlessly. But down she went to a deuce-in-the-first, 18-in-the-second defeat. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind (least of all the Cuban doctor who earlier had seen the condition of her hand), that had she been playing with her own racket she would have undoubtedly won the match. Under the circumstances, the scores could only be considered a reflection of her championship ability and spirit.

            Lan, too, breezed through the first two rounds, then met Carmen Miranda, the other half of the Cuban ‘B’ team in the quarter’s. An easy 11, 9 win brought Lan into the semi’s against Cuba’s #2 woman, Marta Rosa Baez, and again Lan distinguished herself with an easy 13, 9 win. Thus Vuong reached the final without having lost a game.

            In the final, Lan again faced Cuba’s #1, Madeline Armas, whom Lan had defeated in the Team matches, 13, 11. The first game was an easy win for Armas (who, incidentally, had just returned from several months’ training in Bulgaria with the Bulgarian National Team). Lan had been sick that morning, though she’d braved through to win the Mixed. But like the fighter she is, Lan came back, and with unbeatable serves and perfect placements moved Armas from corner to corner to take the second game. But by this time with blistered hand and in severely weakened condition—and, having already played several hard-fought matches that day, including the gold-medal Mixed final, Lan’s strength finally gave out and she lost the next two games to Armas and had to settle for the Silver medal.

            Though I’m sure Lan thought she was the better player, she had gracious words for her final opponent: ‘Even though I beat Armas in the Team’s, I think she plays very smart. She’s a really tough left-handed looper who has a really good coach.’

            Lan also said, ‘No one on the Cuban teams or even the Cuban officials could believe Lisa and I were only 15 and 14 years old because of the strong way we played. They were really shocked when we told them.’ 

Women’s Doubles

            The first rounds were easy wins, but in the quarter’s Lan and Lisa, who’d never played doubles together before this tournament, went up against the established Cuban ‘B’ partnership of Clara Sabina and Carmen Miranda, and lost 23-21 in the third. Sabina/Miranda, in turn, were beaten conclusively in the final by the favorites, Armas/Baez. 

Men’s Team’s

            Due to the late arrival of the Dominicans and a no-show by Canada, the Men’s Team event was dominated by Cuba and the U.S. with only Nicaragua and Mexico the other participants.

            Though the Cubans showed great depth and strong players, their decision not to field any one team composed of their strongest men (they fielded ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ teams), and the fact that they had to play without their #1 player Raul Betancourt, who was injured, made each Cuban team about equal in ability, but significantly weaker than the U.S. We had no competition in beating teams 5-1, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, and 5-1 in the final. Quang lost one match to a Nicaraguan, and Perry one to a Cuban. 

Men’s Singles

            In the Men’s Singles, Brian, though losing the first game, won his opening match against a Dominican, while both Perry and Quang easily advanced to the second round.

There, though, Gabriel Gomez, the top Cuban chopper, who two weeks earlier had returned from several months’ training with the North Korean National Team, defeated Perry in a close 2-1 match. And Juan Vila of the Dominican Republic defeated Quang two straight by repeatedly blocking Bui’s bullets. [Coach Li Ai, impressed with Quang’s fast footwork and attacking forehand loop, urges him to improve by developing a backhand loop.]

            Brian, however, continued on easily, defeating all foes, until the semi’s where he encountered Quang’s nemesis, Juan Vila. ‘That match killed me,’ Brian said of the 19-in-the-third struggle that brought him to the final against Dominica’s Mario Alvarez. Regarding that final, Brian commented, ‘No excuses, but having just gotten over a 102 fever, and the heat being intense, and Mario’s lobs wearing me down, I just couldn’t keep going.’ Down 1-0, but up 20-16 in the second, Brian and everyone else had to admit that Alvarez played six great points to win the game and with it the match. 

Men’s Doubles

            Brian and Quang, though both being lefties, have played many a tournament together and feel that Brian’s ability to get loose balls from the opponent, and Quang’s ability to annihilate the loose balls is a perfect doubles combination.

            Perry played with one of the Mexican players, defender Sergio Sanchez, and they won their first round over the #1 Nicaraguan team before losing to Alvarez/Vila. Brian/Quang, meanwhile, continued to advance without difficulty until they fell in the final, 2-1, to Alvarez/Vila. Aside from the Women’s Team final, this match brought the most response from the crowd. Tremendous loops, blocks, and smashes, along with strong technical play from all four players, made this a match to behold.

Up 18-14 in the third after splitting the first two games at deuce, the Dominicans seemed on their way to victory. But as most Americans know, when Quang gets hot, he’s scorching! And did he get hot! Soon the Americans found themselves up 20-18 when shot after blistering shot off both Quang and Brian’s racket found the table. But then a rare lapse of concentration by Brian, a flip of a serve return into the net, followed by a sad-but-true anti-loop long—‘Right shot, right shot!’—forced the final game into still another deuce. Though the Americans staved off three match-points, the Dominicans triumphed. To great applause, the players left the court—each a winner. 

Mixed Doubles

            With Brian playing with Lisa, Perry with Lan, and Quang with a cute 15-year-old Cuban girl (‘Every girl I met either at the tournament or outside was only 15,’ said Quang), we had good chances for a medal. Though Quang’s partner was weak, ‘she was so good-looking,’ he said, ‘it made me play better.’ After winning their first-round match, they put up a valiant effort against Roque/Armas, the Cuban Silver medalists, but went down 2-1. Since the team of Masters/Gee lost in the quarter’s to another Cuban pair, all U.S. hopes for a Gold were with Perry and Lan.

            ‘Smart play, confidence, and our ability to fight hard every point,’ said Lan, ‘pulled us through many a tough match.’ Said Perry, ‘Up until the final, I just stood there and watched. Lan’s serve-return abilities allowed her to dominate both the men and the women we played. Just standing there and looking like a player was all I needed to do.’

             Proceeding to the final without dropping a game, Perry and Lan seemed destined for Gold. But on the day of the final, Lan’s strength began to waver since she couldn’t keep any food down. ‘I sensed physical weakness,’ said Perry, ‘and realized that the time had come for me to dominate. Luckily, I played well and Lan pulled through like the fighter she is.’

            Losing the first in a tough deuce game to Cuban ‘A’ players Carlos Baro and Marta Baez, Perry and Lan rebounded to take the second. In the third, it was nip and tuck until the midway point when Perry was serving to Marta and Lan to Carlos. ‘Plain and simple,’ said Perry, ‘we served them down the last half of the third game.’ [Coach Li had praised Perry’s service—said it was excellent ‘not just because he has a high toss but because he can vary the speed, spin, and placement of his serves.”] A turning point came at 13-all. Perry said, ‘I felt that my only kill shot of the match—against Baro’s soft loop—forced him at 15-all to attempt to drive Lan’s serves harder than he had been doing, thus causing error after error. Lan’s serves were just too tough for him—an incredible five straight aces!’ The best came at 19-15. Lan looked at Perry and said, ‘What serve should I give him?’…‘The feinter,’ Perry replied….‘The feinter?’ asked Lan…‘Or whatever,’ said Perry. The feint it was—for an all-out ace! Carlos swung hard and came up empty!

            Perry and Lan looked at each other and smacked hands approvingly. The U.S. knew they had their third Gold.”            

We go now to a different part of the world. Germany’s Engelbert Huging and Sweden’s Jens Fellke (Timmy’s, June, 1984, 3-4) cover the 1984 European Championships for us, held Mar. 14-22 at the Luschnikistadium in Moscow.  Engelbert will start us off with the Men’s Team Championships, then Jens will follow with his report, mostly on the Individual play.

            Here’s Huging: 

            “Moscow in the early spring, site of this year’s European Championships, is grey, colorless, and dirty. The State buildings at its center look huge, vain, and snobbish.

            The people seem apathetic and indifferent—as if they knew there was no displacing any stone in any building.

            Do the Russian people really believe in their System?

            There was a very stiff-looking policeman at the entrance of the Playing Hall. For 10 seconds, then another ten, then still another ten, I looked into his eyes. Nothing. Then, incredibly, he winked—gave me hope. [Lucky to have Engelbert giving us coverage, huh? Those who like to write I want to encourage.]

            The top 12 teams were divided into two groups. In Group A were: Hungary, Sweden, England, France, Bulgaria, and Norway. In Group B: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, West Germany, Poland, Russia, and Italy.

            Sweden’s team of Waldner, Lindh, Carlsson, and Akesson finished first in Group A. (Appelgren, having hurt his arm [strained his elbow, Sweden’s Fellke said] at a pre-tournament Training Camp in his off-hours bowling, continued his painful practice at the request of Swedish officials, but then had to give it up, so he didn’t come to Moscow.) France (Secretin, Birocheau, and Renverse) was up 4-3 on Sweden, with Secretin leading Waldner, but lost 5-4—and came second. Both teams beat the Hungarians (Klampar, Jonyer, and Kriston) who were third in the Group.

A big surprise was Norway’s 5-1 victory over England.

            Czechoslovakia (the Broda brothers, Pansky, and Dvoracek) got off to a bad start, losing 5-3 to Russia (Mazunov, Sevchenko, Dvorak, and Solopov). But then they righted themselves. In their last tie they were down 4-0 to Poland, whose three-man team (Grubba, Kucharski, and Dryszel) was fast being overworked, but pulled it out 5-4, and so came first in their Group. Poland finished second. Russia, losing only to Poland and Yugoslavia, was third.

            How have the Russians, since their relegation at the ’83 World’s, improved so much? Well, their players went into hiding two months before these Championships and practiced 5-6 hours every day. Igor Solopov told me his coaches wouldn’t let him see his daughter who’d been born in his absence. Incidentally, Defense isn’t dead yet. Solopov had a 9-2 record in the Team’s—beating, among others, Surbek, Kriston, Miroslav Broda, and Pansky (Surbek, however, did win the Men’s Doubles here with his World Champion Doubles partner Kalinic, 2-0, over Waldner/Lindh). It’s as backhand topspinners, though, that the Russians are now making their mark. Mazunov, Sevchenko, and Dvorak all practice with a wheel. As the wheel turns, their backhand practice-movement continually follows it up and out.

            In the semifinal cross-over matches, France finished off Czechoslovakia 5-2 when the Czechs were just burnt out after their 5-4 back-from-the-dead win over Poland in the morning. As for the Poles, who’d fought so hard to try to keep from playing the Swedes in the cross-over, they unexpectedly beat Sweden 5-3 when the 18-year-old Waldner lost to both Grubba and Kucharski.

            The Swedes’ famed serve-and-follow play didn’t present a problem to the Poles, particularly Grubba. Perhaps this is because the service rule’s been changed, or perhaps it’s because the players have started to adapt better. [Swedish Captain Tomas Berner said, ‘I think we lost every match against Poland in European League play.’] Grubba, who won all three matches from the Swedes, has become the most consistent European top player with both forehand and backhand. He has extremely good lateral footwork, excellent anticipation, and such a loose wrist that you often can’t see early enough where he’s playing the ball. Likely his two-winged topspin style reflects the future of table tennis.’

            In the final, France, who, playing without Secretin, had just been relegated in the European League, downed Poland 5-3 for their first European Team Championship ever. I don’t know who thought up the Poles’ strategy—but it was bad. Grubba played in the worst (9th) position both because Poland wanted to lead 2-0 (so the French would feel the pressure) and because Dryszel wouldn’t have to play French Champion Renverse if the tie went 4-4.

            Poland did lead 2-0—but could you really expect to surprise an experienced team by such a positional change? France came back with double the strength they were earlier vanquished by. Unfortunately, there was more nervous than brilliant play in this final. In the decisive matches, Kucharski was beaten by Birocheau, and Dryszel by Renverse. In this 5-3 loss, Grubba of course  played only two matches. Nope. Not smart.

            In the Germany vs. England Demotion Match, which I was very much a part of, it was quite a shock for #4 seed England to lose to Stellwag, Huging, and 38-year-old Lieck, and so be relegated in 1986 to the non-Championship category. Douglas, 7-time English Champ, won his anticipated three—but both Prean and Sandley looked paralyzed out there—as if they never did realize what was going on.

            Arthur Ashe, the famous tennis player and Davis Cup Captain, in a recent article in Der Spiegel, said that the Germans are so bad in tennis because the players make good money from their Bundesliga clubs and aren’t motivated to go to their limits. Where the money-oriented players are concerned, the same situation is generally thought to apply in table tennis—the Germans don’t want to fight.

            But perhaps in this European’s, Germany had an advantage over England, for, having been relegated out of the Championship Division at the last World’s, they did have some face-saving to do here. ‘Don’t even consider losing to Italy so that you might not have to play England in the cross-over,’ said the new German Coach Charles Roesch—‘it’s not sporting.’” 

            Now here’s Fellke to elaborate on the Singles Championships:

            “Six thousand spectators, enrapt in the Men’s Singles final at the European Championships in Moscow’s Luschnikistadium, are totally silent. It’s 20-19 in the fourth and perhaps final game, favor of Sweden’s Bengtsson—Ulf Bengtsson—against the favorite, Andrzej Grubba of Poland.

            ‘Benke’ (normally Sweden’s #5) serves, exchanges a couple of short balls, then backhands one cross-court deep, out to the Pole’s forehand, then follows with a nifty forehand into the other corner….Bengtsson’s frown of deep concentration quickly turns into a big, big smile. He stretches his arms in the air, jumps four times toward the ceiling, then is hoisted into the air amid the tumult.

            To the accompaniment of the Swedish national anthem, the Swedes in the stands shake their heads in happiness and tears appear in the corners of most eyes. Ulf Bengtsson, European Champion, after a final which belongs with the best. Where are words to describe that?

            This result will take a long time for everyone to understand. Bengtsson, a lefty, was ranked #14 in Europe before the tournament. Now he’s European Champion—that’s almost too hard to believe.

            Says the new master, Bengtsson, calmly at the international press conference when the buzz had finally subsided, ‘I came into the final match feeling perfect. After five-ten balls I knew I had a good chance to win. The only pity at this moment is that my father and mother are back home in Hoganas (in the southernmost part of Sweden) and not here in Moscow. ‘Cause they have done most for me in my t.t. career and without their support I would not be here with the gold medal round my neck.’

            It all started for Ulf in TTC Force when he was only six years old. Dad Lennart was the Chairman of the Club and the family Bengtsson lived only 300 meters from the practice hall. When ‘Benke’ turned 14 he packed his bags and moved to Trollhattan and the table tennis high school there.

            In 1977, Lars Franklin and today’s Swedish Junior Captain Glenn Osth brought the 17-year-old to their hometown Soderhamn—to an atmosphere Bengtsson loves so much nowadays that he feels ill if he’s not there.”

Of course, as Croatian T.T. Historian Zdenko Uzorinac tells us (Timmy’s, June, 1984, 4), Ulf had some early triumphs: ‘In 1977, Bengtsson was Swedish Junior Champion, and in 1978 the European Youth Doubles Champion with Franklin. In ’78 and ’82, Ulf was a member of the winning Men’s team at the Swedish Team Championships. Also in ’82 he was the Swedish Doubles Champion. In ’83, he won the Czechoslovakian Open. At the ’83 Yugoslav Open, he beat Gergely, Surbek, and Cheng Yinghua before losing to the Chinese winner Wang Huiyuan. His coaches were, first, Goran Steen, then Glenn Osth.”

            Fellke says, “Aside from the fact that he won the European title—but what a title!—this season has been almost a drag for Ulf. He started well with some good play and almost a couple of set-ups against some of the best Chinese in the autumn’s first international championships. But his first season in the German Bundesliga was not totally successful, and during the camps with the Swedish National Team before the European’s nothing in his game had worked decently at all.

            ‘I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so bad before a competition as before this tournament,’ he said. ‘But some days’ rest before our departure to Moscow was exactly what I needed…because when the Team event started I was in good shape again.’”

            With Defending Champion Appelgren not even in the hall, Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner (runner-up as a 16-year-old two years ago at the Budapest European’s) was given the shortest odds by the overseas bookmakers in London. A bet on Grubba would pay 14 times every staked pound. Ulf Bengtsson, 25 times every pound, but 1979 SOC winner Ulf Carlsson had no odds at all and was not even playable.

            Waldner somehow was a bit sick. He took penicillin from the Team semi’s on, but that was not the main reason why he totally flopped, lost to the Czech Dvoracek in the third round.

In that match Waldner played the first two games as he had been doing most of the season. He attacked well, served well, and seemed able do whatever he wanted to do with that light ball.

            In the third, everything looked all right too. Waldner led 10-5. But then Dvoracek’s game became safer and he started to swing his loops harder and harder until he’d tied it up at 17-all. Waldner then fell like a card-house, and it was only when he was down 19-14 in the fifth that he could collect himself. But, after tying it up at19-all, Waldner was forced into playing two magnificent points, both of which he lost—and, astonishingly, he was out of the tournament.

            This upset had its explanations. More important than the bad cold (which obviously prevented Jan-Ove from being at full strength) was that this was the first time Waldner played like the hunted #1.  After winning the SOC in December, the European Top 12 in February, and the Swedish Closed in March (which is even harder than winning the European’s—ask Ulf Bengttson: this year he lost to old-timer Per Sandstrom in the eighth’s), Waldner had been regarded as divine. Of course for sure he is, someone on his way to a World Championship, perhaps just a year from now.

            I think Jan-Ove’s showing here didn’t change the prevailing opinion that he is still the best player in Europe, and I myself still think he is going to be outside of China the best bet to win the World’s. But in Moscow, because of the pressure from everywhere, he choked, became passive at the table when the wind started to blow harder. So I think this was an important (and maybe necessary) experience for the young Swede to have gone through when he stands there in Gothenburg in less than a year.

            After Dvoracek’s upset, everything was turned upside down. Suddenly a lot of players started to regard themselves as potential winners. In the first quarter, Gergely beat Douglas, then  lost to ‘The Phantom’ Surbek, now 38 and a semifinalist in this Men’s event.

            Secretin, as if too satisfied with the Gold in both the Team’s and the Mixed, lost 19 in the fifth to Mesaros, a decent Yugoslavian chopper. Klampar, Hungary’s big problem child, has now aged into his immature 30’s, and, after February’s Top 12, was not officially going to be allowed to play any more EVER on the National Team. Of course he was given a reprieve just before coming to these European’s where he had Grubba 13-7 in the fifth, but wasn’t strong enough and lost 21-17.

The most intense quarter of the draw was the third one with Lindh, Birocheau, Bengtsson, and Pansky fighting it out. Lindh had some trouble with Birocheau, but finally crushed him in the fifth. Bengtsson, who’d never lost to Pansky before, didn’t this time either. Then the Bengtsson-Lindh struggle began and was up to this point the best match of the tournament. At 20-20 in the fifth, Bengtsson saved a couple of balls from half-distance and Lindh (as he often does) got too excited two times in a row.

The fourth section of the draw was won by Russia’s 17-year-old Mazunov who showed good concentration at the table with a five-gamer over Huging, then a shaky (but gutsy) -18, 19, -9, 20, 23 win over Sweden’s Akesson (a substitute for Appelgren), and then a much easier advance over Yugoslavia’s Kalinic.

Totally unknown Mazunov is not. He was at 19-all in the fifth against Appelgren at the German Open, and last summer he beat both Waldner and Jorgen Persson when the Soviets won the Team title at the European Youth Championships in Malmo.

In the semi’s, Grubba had no problems at all with Surbek, but Bengtsson was pressed to 19 in the fourth with Mazunov.

A big part of Bengtsson’s remarkable victory may be attributed to precisely how diligently he worked through the tough Swedish preparations for this European’s. The last two-day camp is the only one during his four years on the National Team where this new Champion played all ten sessions. Before, he had not managed psychologically. That he was better prepared mentally and physically was obvious on the hard road he’d had to travel in winning the title.

In the first round, the Bulgarian Stojanov did not give up until the (21-14) fifth. Against Italy’s Pero, Ulf won three straight. But after that he played 3-2 matches with both Pansky and Lindh. In these two matches ‘Benke’-the-Winner started to find his master-game. He anticipated much better than ever before, he thought positively after all ball duels (even after the ones he lost), and he fought hard through the heavy parts of the matches knowing he was going to be the first to reach 21. This gave Bengtsson’s play steadiness. The big difference between flashes of world-class greatness, mixed in with unbelievable misses, was leveling out. Now Bengtsson’s forehand kill (which is a real kill, if not an atom bomb) started to work. He was ready for his final with Grubba—a test of patience, for no player in Europe is safer than this esteemed Pole. In the big Team matches, Grubba was fantastically steady—did not give Waldner, Lindh, Bengtsson, Secretin, or Birocheau more than 17 points in any one game.”

Uzorinac has this to say about Andrzej (Timmy’s, June, 1984, 4): “Multi-time Polish Champion. World Student Champion in 1980. ’81 Italian Open winner. ’81 Scandinavian Open Mixed Doubles Champ (with Vriesekoop). In the Norwich Union Masters tournament in Hong Kong in 1981, he beat ’81 and ’83 World Champion Guo Yuehua and ’82 European Champion Appekgren to finish 4th. In ’84 he won the German Open.

Grubba, a member of the AZS Club in Gdansk, is a Physical Culture student in his last year. His trainer is Dr. Adam Giersz, who has Andrzej working 4-5 hours a day. Grubba has an excellent feeling for the ball, attacks near the table from both sides, has clean, crisp drives, is very quick on his feet, and can explode with a splendid backhand. Having just turned 26, he should have a great future ahead of him.”

Fellke, continuing, says, “In the final against Grubba, Bengtsson dared to press his backhand and so got the time to load his forehand. ‘I tried to keep the ball to Ulf’s backhand side, but everything came back—and with a hell of a lot of speed too,’ explained Grubba after the prize ceremony.

Even though Grubba was out of the match almost the whole time, he was yet not that far from winning. When Bengtsson was up 2-1 and 16-12 in the fourth and seemed to have everything under control, Grubba slowly came back and tied the score at 17-all. ‘But I never became nervous,’ Bengtsson said. ‘At 19-all, the only thing you think is to take it easy without being passive and let your opponent at least get an opportunity to miss—and if he doesn’t you’d better break through him yourself.’

Next season, Bengtsson will go back home to Soderhamn again. Earlier, everything had seemed o.k. for one more season in the Bundesliga, but when ‘Benke’ came down to Grenzau for the last League match, he found out that his club boss Gestettner had fired him and had signed the Czech Anton Stefko instead. And all this without telling anybody on the team.

Now, Bengtsson declared in a TV interview, his former boss ‘ought to be sitting there with a long, long nose—and that’s a sweet revenge for me.’

            Even if Gestettner would change his mind and offer Bengtsson maybe double what he’d earned before, that wouldn’t matter. ‘Benke’ would refuse and tell him to put his money in some dirty place and would play for Soderhamn in the Swedish First Division anyhow. ‘Cause that’s the way he is, this sensation in Moscow. Loyal—reflecting true solidarity—Bengtsson is a player who is very popular all over the table tennis world, a person whom everyone—except Gestettner—did not begrudge the big victory in Moscow.

            This Championship was also a little triumph for the old boys. Surbek’s successful achievement has already been told, but it is really amazing how he still can be in there—16 years ago (at that time Waldner was two and could hardly walk) he won the Men’s Singles in Lyons. Dvoracek is another potential father to the young man he beat, Waldner. And Secretin, who is not far from 40, did not lose more than two matches in the Team competition (which the French sensationally won) then went on to take the Mixed.

            When Appelgren and Waldner played their final two years ago in Budapest (they were 20 and 16 then), most t.t. experts thought that the old boys’ time was gone. But obviously that is not true. Since the old guys seem to be holding their own, maybe that’s a sign that the Europeans have NOT come closer to the Chinese after all. 

Women’s Play

Huging has covered the Men’s Team matches for us—but nothing as yet has been said about the Women’s play—so here’s Fellke again, first on the Women’s Team matches, then on the Women’s Singles.

            “In the Women’s Team final, Russia was just so 3-0 strong that runner-up Yugoslavia had nothing to put up against the Russian war-chariot. The Soviets have at least eight women players who are European top class. The soon-to-be Women’s Singles runner-up Bulatova was not even participating in the Team final; instead Antonian played and won both her singles and doubles with Popova. These two Russians also won the Women’s Doubles, first squeaking by Hrachova/Vriesekoop, deuce in the 3rd, then finishing off Batinic/Perkucin in straight games. Popova/Secretin won the Mixed—2-0, over the Czechs Pansky/Hrachova.

            The Women’s Team semifinalists were Hungary (who lost to Yugoslavia 3-1) and the Netherlands (who were 0-3 helpless against Russia).

The Joola prizes for best records were won by Marie Lindblad of Sweden (three losses) and Jacques Secretin of France (two losses).

Regarding the Women’s Singles, after the Team’s (and maybe even before), 23-year-old Valentina Popova, from Baku by the Caspian Sea, became the favorite. European Top 12 winner Marie Hrachova from Czechoslovakia almost lost in the second round to an unknown Bulgarian girl, Daniela Guergeltcheva (who several years later will be Europe #3); then in her five-game semi’s she wasn’t able to loop through the USSR material chopper Bulatova. Actually, except for the men and women Singles finalists, quite a number of players—both men and women—didn’t play as well here as they did in the Top 12 Tournament in February.

Popova was forced into the fifth in the quarter’s with Yugoslavia’s Perkucin, but the Russian girl is a very slow starter and as soon as she finds the angle on her blocks and exchanges, she hardly ever misses.

Hungary’s Szabo upset Defending Champion Vriesekoop in the quarter’s, and started with a 16-4 lead against Popova in the semi’s, but then quickly succumbed in four.

The final was not too exciting. A lot of chops, one or two Popova loops, and then back to chopping again. But as always when two countrymen (or in this case two countrywomen) meet, and one of them is an all-defense chopper, the offensive player wins. This time, Popova triumphed, -15, 15, 17, 16.