USA Table Tennis
1985: First Europe Top 12 Junior Tournament. 1985: U.S. Team in Cuba. 1985: USA Juniors in Europe. 1985: Two European Grand Prix Tournaments. 1985: Sue Butler Interviews Surbek. 1985: Liguo and Henan Li Ai’s “Do I Need a Coach?”
I’ll begin this chapter with the results of the First Europe Top 12 Junior Tournament, played Jan. 5-6 in cold and snowy San Marino. A number of the players eligible for this tournament stayed away (for example, no Swedes came), but probably two thirds of this closely- bunched junior field would go on to make their mark as world-class title-winning senior players.
Results: 1. England’s Carl Prean (11-0). 2. Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive (7-4). 3. Romania’s Vasile Florea (7-4). 4. Czechoslovakia’s Milan Grman (6-5). 5. Romania’s Calin Toma (6-5). 6. France’s Didier Mommessin (6-5). 7. France’s Regis Rossigol (6-5). 8. England’s Andrew Syed (4-7). 9. Italy’s Lorenzo Nannoni (4-7). 10. France’s Jean-Philippe Gatien (4-7). 11. Yugoslavia’s Zoran Primorac (3-8). 12. Czechoslovakia’s Josef Braun (3-8).
USA in Cuba
The USTTA decided to send a U.S. Team (three men, two women), for the fourth consecutive year, to Cuba for their Apr. 22-23 International Tournament. But as I explained to the E.C. in my April, 1985 Update, I wasn’t happy that Selection Committee Chair Bill Walk, because of time pressure, had handed over much of the please-contact-the-selected-player work to Headquarters. This presented a problem. Though Emily dutifully tried to follow the Selection Committee’s established order of players, she was NOT, despite repeated phone calls, always able to make contact with a player and so went on to the next in line. This procedure later made for complications because, on receiving not a I-can’t-get-you telegram but a letter to that effect in the mail, a couple of players rightfully protested that the USTTA had not been fair with them, should have made a stronger effort to get in touch with them.
On my return from the Gothenburg World’s, having heard these players’ protest via Dennis Masters, I immediately tried to rectify whatever injustice I could. Thanks to Dennis’s work as liaison, Khoa Nguyen, who’d protested vigorously that he’d been passed by, was a last-minute replacement for Perry Schwartzberg who now willingly became the Non-Playing Coach at a salary of $200.
The problems of Julie Au (she couldn’t go after all because she didn’t have a re-entry visa), Cheryl Dadian (her passport was lost in transit), and Khoa (who for some reason wasn’t getting his ticket to Miami that was supposedly last-minute being sent by United) made finalizing this trip a bad dream for Gus Kennedy and a nightmare for Dennis Masters who was burdened with trips to embassies and airports.
And, after all this, do you think any account of this trip, or even just the results from it, were printed in SPIN? Nope—though “Perry Schwartzberg” (or his ghost Sheila O’Dougherty) was said to have written something; and Bill Steinle noted that, although the players had been informed they must pay their own fares to Miami, the trip was over budget to the extent of six such fares.”
USA in Scandinavia
Sue Butler, “team leader, cheer leader, and friend” to eight USA Juniors, reports (SPIN, July-Aug., 1985, 20-22) on the enjoyable spring tournaments in Scandinavia they participated in:
“Representing the USA were Junior Girls Lan Vuong, Diana Gee, Vicky Wong, and Jasmine Wang, and Junior Boys Gene Lonnon, Jim Butler, Scott Butler, and Sean O’Neill. Because of school commitments, Scott and Sean couldn’t join the group until May 2 for the tourney in Bergen, Norway. The rest of us arrived in Stockholm Apr. 25.
SSS Cup Grand Prix
(Stockholm, Apr. 27-28)
The SSS Cup is the last big tournament of the season for juniors and adults where Grand Prix points can be won for respective clubs. Maud Waller [who Sue said would receive a nice gift for her 10th anniversary working for Nisse Sandberg’s Angby Club] explained that the Swedish girls would not be as strong as ours, but that the boys at this competition were exceptional.
Our players couldn’t get over the number of junior entries competing in five separate age brackets. In the Junior Open, there were 76 boys and 32 girls. In Class A (born in ’69 or after), 166 boys and 32 girls. In Class B (born in ’71 or after), 166 boys and 17 girls. In Class C (born in ’73 or after), 87 boys and 34 girls. In Class D (born in ’75 or after), 44 boys and 16 girls.
Boys could only play two singles events and one doubles event per day due to the large turnout. Angby had provided free entries for our kids, and had entered them in the appropriate events before the deadline, which was two months prior to the event itself. All Swedish tournaments have strict entry deadlines and the draws are made weeks in advance.
Saturday play included all the Girls’ events and the Women’s (as well as the Junior Boys’). In the Junior Girls Open, Lan Vuong was seeded first, while Jasmine Wang was seeded second. (Originally, the second seed had been Lisa Gee, but she had been unable to make the trip. Instead of Lisa’s opponent advancing, late-entry Jasmine was allowed to fill the empty slot in the draw.) We were very grateful to the Angby people for allowing this substitution. Third seed was Diana Gee, while the fourth was Vicky Wong. [Since, as Sue had explained in an April 28th letter to me from Stockholm, seeds #1 and #3 would play in the semi’s, this had not won Diana’s approval, even less her father Yim’s (whom I as President might be stridently hearing from?). In personally asserting herself to the drawmakers (uselessly of course), Diana embarrassed Sue and gave her something of a hassle. But on a rare competitive trip like this how not have a fired-up, concerned player, and a glitch or two?]
Vicky ran into early trouble with Angby’s rapidly-mproving Maria Hedlund who beat her 19 in the third. Meanwhile, Jasmine was busy knocking out her opponents—looking most impressive in her quarter’s win over Sweden’s #3 junior, Marie Loverfelt. After winning the first game at 15, Jasmine seemed to forget her game plan. But down 19-16 in the second, she began playing very aggressively and won five straight points and the match.
Against Hedlund in the semi’s, Wang survived the first at deuce, then advanced easily.
On the other side of the draw, through the quarter’s, no one scored more than 13 points against Gee. But in the semi’s against Lan, Diana was beaten two straight.
Jasmine was up for her final. The first game was rather close all the way, with Vuong, the favorite, playing inconsistently, while Wang was steady. Although behind 15-12, Jasmine, blocking well and showing excellent shot selection, caught Lan at 19-all. But then at deuce, Lan executed her finest shot of the game—a beautiful loop drive into Jasmine’s backhand that turned the match her way.
In the second, down 12-6, Lan couldn’t reverse the momentum. One each. In the third, Vuong, more cautious about her play, was up 11-4. Only to see Jasmine run off five straight. Lan went for her towel—as if to say, Enough! Then proceeded to widen the gap and finish a 21-17 winner.
In the Girls A’s, Lan and Vicky, seeded #1 and #2, met in the final and finished according to their seeding.
The Women’s event was similar to the Junior Girls Open in that in the one semi’s Lan and Diana went at it again. However, from the start, Diana was determined not to make this match a repeat of the Junior Girls Open. In their first game, every ball Lan hit came back in standoff fashion…until finally Diana prevailed 27-25. This win surely made the second one easier—21-17 to Diana. In the other semi’s, Angby juniors fought it out with Marie Waller defeating Kristine Lowdahl. The final saw Waller, by smashing in many crosscourt kills, able to take the first game. But thereafter, blocking well, Gee remained in control.
Since the U.S. Boys Team also had a late entry in Gene Lonnon we had to accept, and graciously, the draw available to us. Thus in the Junior Boys Open, Gene was placed in the same half of the draw as Jim Butler. Unfortunately for Gene, neither his first or second round opponent showed, so he had to play and lose his only round in the event to fellow team member Butler.
In the quarter’s, Jimmy met Lars Mattsson, a 6’2” 200-pound 18-year-old who’s a veteran of several U.S. Opens. This top Angby player was just too strong for young Butler. ‘I can’t believe my great birthday eligibility,’ said Lars. ‘This year in Sweden a junior had to be born on or after Jan. 1, 1967. I was born Jan. 2, 1967.’
In Sunday’s action, Gene Lonnon was in the Men’s Singles and in his first round he beat a hard-bat chopper. He then had to play another chopper, which was unusual because there are just a few of them in Sweden. Choppers are rare, say the Swedes, because they don’t win. This one, who used anti, did win against Lonnon though. Gene complained later, “I just don’t play many choppers with anti.”
Jimmy, in the Boys B event, plowed through the field to take the title. After his straight-game win in the final, Maud Waller said he’d been seeded not #1 but #2 because ‘We hadn’t seen Jimmy play in awhile.’
Moving on to the Boys A event, Butler found the going much tougher. Jimmy, 3rd seed, met Marcus Gustavsson, 5th seed, in the quarter’s. On the way to his own table, Lars Mattsson had said to Jim, ‘Look out—this guy’s good.’ Jimmy likes a challenge, and Gustavsson was certainly that. He could loop off both wings, smash, and lob.
The match was a crowd pleaser from the start. Each boy was determined to win the rallies and some incredible points were played. Neither player could get more than a two-point lead until Jim made some careless errors and was down 20-17. He then got to 19 but that wasn’t enough. In the second, though, Jimmy rebounded. And the third he won decisively.
Jim’s semifinal opponent was his old nemesis and past Iowa City houseguest of ours, Daniel Frejhammer. Every time these two have played it’s been a real dog fight. The first game was no exception. At 15-all, Daniel, serving, scored on a succession of third-ball attacks to take a 19-16 lead and Jim couldn’t recover. Nor could he contest thereafter.
Frejhammer then went on to defeat Peter Karlsson in the final—that same Karlsson who’d eliminated the #1 and #2 seeds, Mikael Frank and Lars Mattsson.
This Stockholm tournament ended one hour ahead of schedule. On the second day, Sunday, five singles events with 422 entries were started and completed, again, as on Saturday, with no delays or hassles. The prizes awarded included blankets, toasters, clock radios, money, shirts, sport bags, games, tapes, records, crystal vases and bowls. The number of prizes given out depended on the number of players in the draw. The winner picked first from the total prizes, the runner-up next, and so on. I was told that the first thing that had to be done after a tournament was to notify all the Swedish clubs of the prizes that were awarded. Clubs watch very closely to make sure that quality prizes are given and that no tournament director is trying to skimp his responsibility.
Scandinavian Open Junior (SOJ) Championships
(Bergen, Norway, May 5-6)
Probably the only thing that prevented the tournament from having most of the strong junior teams in the world was the absence of China. This SOJC was a mini World Junior Championships, full of the best young talent around. ‘What a difference from four years ago,’ stated Scott. [Uh, reality check needed: four years ago in this tournament the competition was tough enough (see Vol. XI, pp. 72-77). Scott and Sean O’Neill lost in the quarter’s of the Cadets, and Eric Boggan won the Junior Singles from a field that included, among others, the Broda brothers (Czech Team members), and the Swedes Waldner, Lindh, and Akesson.]
As was the case in the Stockholm tournament, the boy entries were particularly strong, and our U.S. teams were not seeded. USA I beat Denmark II (3-1), and the Faroe Islands II (3-0). But Norway I was another matter. Sean won the first singles match, but Scott lost his. The doubles then went to Norway. Sean returned to win his second singles against the Norway #1. But Scott couldn’t pull out the fifth match, losing in three to the #2 Norwegian (whom he’d easily defeat in the next day’s singles play). This created a three-way tie [Denmark II must have blitzed Norway I to produce these final results: Denmark II (4-3), U.S. (5-4), Norway (3-5)].
[Didn’t Jim and Gene play on a USA II team?]
As for our Girls teams, I was most disappointed to see that not only was our USA I team not seeded but that, presuming we advanced out of our initial round robin as expected, we had to play France I in the quarter’s. USA I did advance—easily taking out Norway I, Angby, and England II, all 3-0.
USA II, Vicky and Jasmine, was placed fourth in their most difficult opening round robin group—against Germany, England I, and Korea II. They lost 3-0 to the eventual group winner, Germany. They also lost to Korea II, 3-1, but Vicky had a sparkling two-deuce-games victory over Tae Jo Lee, the Korean #3. Against England I, the U.S. was down 2-1, but abruptly rallied. Then, following Vicky’s fourth-match win, Jasmine faced Andrea Holt, one of only two choppers in the tournament. First game: 21-8…to Holt (‘Please,’ Jasmine had said before the match, ‘place me so Vicky gets the chopper.’) But Jasmine got stronger, and went on to win the match, 16 and 18.
In the quarter’s, even with former World Mixed Doubles Champion Claude Bergeret coaching the French team, Lan and Diana beat them 3-0.
This brought our girls to the semi’s and Korea I—an historic tie for our U.S. Team to remember. Diana opened against Hyun Jung Hwa, a penhold pips-out attacker who’d eventually win the Girls Singles at this tournament. [Later, in 1989, with 1988 Olympic Champion Yoo Nam Kyu, she’d win the World Mixed Doubles, and still later, in far-off 1993, she’d become the World Women’s Singles Champion.] Diana lost to Hyun but contested in three. Lan followed by downing Park Kyo Soon, 14 and 10. The Koreans played well in tandem, however, and took the doubles in straight games.
In the fourth match, Lan started out very strong against Hyun, winning the first at 18, and just losing the second at 19. [Was it conceivable that either of our players could one day come to have the illustrious career that awaited this young Korean they were battling? How could that happen?] On into the third they went. Vuong had remarked, ‘She’s so good. She just keeps pounding them in.’ Lan soon looked like a battery-operated toy that was losing power, while Hyun kept sending crisp shots deep to the backhand and then angling the returns wide to the forehand for winners. This time Lan got only 12 points. So, though the U.S. lost, they’d challenged the South Koreans—something no other team could do, including the Swedes who were blanked in the final.
On Sunday, in the Singles, our boys were again in trouble. Scott, seeded fourth in his initial round robin group behind Korea #2, England #4, and Norway #2, finished second, losing only to Korea’s Kim Kyung Ho, the eventual finalist to a fellow Korean. Jim was seeded second and finished third, losing to the excellent #1 Finnish player Matti Seiro, and also to the Dane Lars Persson (What? Jimmy, you lost to a 13-year-old?). Gene, seeded second, finished fourth in his group. First seed Sean fell to Europe’s #5 Cadet, France’s Olivier Marmurek. Thus none of our boys advanced to single elimination.
[What happened in the Boys Doubles?]
The U.S. girls again rose to the challenge, especially in the Doubles. USA II (Vicky and Jasmine) defeated England I. Then they had a most impressive two-straight win over Germany I, a pair that included European Top 12 star, European Girls #2 Olga Nemes. Finally, in the semi’s, they were stopped by Korea I.
USA I (Lan and Diana) eliminated Denmark II and France II, then went down to Korea II who’d fall to Korea I in the final.
The Girls Singles was a more interesting event. There were eleven round robin groups with five of the winners advancing to the round of eight, and the other six having to pair off in a single elimination match that would allow the three winners to join the five others in the quarter’s. Nemes, seeded first, and Vuong, unseeded, were the only players who were members of their National Women’s team.
After losing to England’s Holt, but still winning her group via a tie-breaker that depended on games won/lost, Lan was faced with Ilka Boekning, a 6’1,” 160-pound looper. It could have been easy for Vuong, Ilka’s striking physical opposite in height and weight, to have become intimidated, but she kept firing away and came away a 21-16 winner in the first. ‘Play to her middle,’ said Scott. ‘She’s good on the wings. Move her, fox her.’ After dropping the second at 15, Lan almost did play the wily fox, but at 19-all the powerful Ilka was able to hit in a winner, then follow with another.
Diana and Jasmine were unable to advance out of their round robins. But Vicky, though unseeded, managed to advance to the quarter’s. There she met Lee Tae Jo, a girl she’d beaten earlier in the Teams. This wasn’t a surprise because Vicky’s very talented and when she concentrates she’s hard to beat. With her close-to-the-table aggressive play, characterized by quick, hard smashes, she scores a lot of points.
In the first game, Vicky down 20-19, smashed in a winner to deuce it up. The Korean coach and a player had been coaching Lee on every point and Vicky had become tired of it. She asked them to be quiet but they ignored her. She walked over to them, waved her hand and yelled, ‘Yoo-hoooo—shush!’ Everyone laughed, including the umpire, but the only one distracted was Vicky. She failed to score again in the first, and also lost the second.
The one semi’s pitted Lee against her far stronger teammate Hyun with the expected result. In the other semi’s, Sweden’s Barbro Wiktorssen, Europe Girls #24, couldn’t get through Nemes’s steady blocking. However, in the final, the West German’s unorthodox defensive blocking was no match for the quick, crisp continuous bullets from the Korean.
The tournament was a clean sweep for South Korea.
(Hallstahammer, Sweden, May 10-12)
Stig Eklof and members of his bordtennis club met us at the train station, and I can’t say enough about the kindness, generosity, and hospitality shown us by this Hallstahammer community of 18,000. We were fed and cared for in the best possible manner. Stig had every minute planned. We played a club tournament with our boys against their top men (we lost 5-4) and our girls against their #2 team (we won 8-3).
On Friday evening, May 10, we were treated to the finals of the Grand Prix Junior Championships. Eight of Sweden’s top juniors with the most Grand Prix points accumulated during the season played off for a top money award of $175 for first. Europe Boys #14 Mats Andersson, 1979 U.S. Open Under 11 runner-up to Sean O’Neill, and son of Bengt Andersson, owner of Stiga and Banda, won the top spot over Goran Wrana. Goran was another Swedish junior star, who in 1983 was runner-up to O’Neill in the U.S. Open U-17’s.
The U.S. kids had another fantastic tournament. Several area papers ran pictures and articles on us and the Swedish officials were impressed and delighted that the USTTA sponsored this expensive venture. The girls did all their playing on Saturday. None of them had ever played so much in one day. Lan, for example, was entered in six events and was in the finals of five.
Results: Women’s Elite: 1. Lan. 2. Diana. Women’s Class I: 1. Diana. 2. Jasmine. 4. Vicky. Women’s Doubles: 1. Lan/Diana. 2. Vicky/Jasmine (after losing a deuce-in-the-third final). Junior Girls: 1. Diana (def.). 2. Lan. 3. Jasmine. Women’s Class II-III: 1. Jasmine. 4. Vicky.
In the Women’s Elite, Lan was seeded third and the rest of our girls were unseeded. In the second round, Jasmine faced the #1 seed Angela Lath, and took the first at 16. But the beautiful Swedish star forced the match into the third and finally outlasted Jasmine 26-24. That set the crowd abuzz, for Jasmine was our #3. How would Lath fare with our #1 Vuong?
The semi’s told us. But the Swedes wouldn’t like the result—Lan in three after she’d had a mental lapse in the second and fell way behind. Despite Lath’s training experience in South Korea against penholders, she had unsolvable problems with penholder Vuong.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Diana eliminated the #2 seed, Halstahammer’s Ulrika Hanson, two straight. In the final, Lan won the $33 first-place prize, Diana the $16 second-place prize. [To me—love ya, Stig—offering such insignificant money prizes cheapens the worth of the win, the title (better you give something inexpensive but unique, memorable)].
In the Women’s Doubles, ‘spoilers’ Vicky/Jasmine got a high by knocking off #1 seeds Lath/Hanson, then a real low by blowing a quadruple-match-point 20-16 lead in the third to finally lose it 25-23.
Early in both the Men’s Elite and the Class I Singles, Scott went out. But at least in the quarter’s of the Doubles he teamed with a local Elite player Bo Goraer to give the eventual winners Wrana and Tommy Johansson a match.
Lonnon had a good win in the B’s over the #5 seed, Sweden’s Patrick Torsell, 30-28 in the decider. But that was as far as he got in the 71-entry draw. Scott, however, advanced, downing in the semi’s a local favorite and former t.t. exchange student to Oklahoma City, Mikael Steiner. Then in the final, Peter Sterneborg, a strong looper, couldn’t find many balls to attack against Scott who quickly became the event winner.
Jimmy had a super day on Saturday, finishing fourth in Men’s Class II and sixth in Class I. On Sunday he was still playing in the B’s when it was time for us to begin our long journey home. The Swedes helped us out, and while seven of us left on the train to Stockholm, Jim was able to finish his match and was taken by car to join us.
[What did Sean do?]
Some significant things can be said about this trip. The cost was high ($10,000) but was reasonable considering the time we were gone and that most of the hospitality was supplied by families in Stockholm and Hallstahammer. Our expenses pale when compared to the South Koreans who, with eight players, two coaches, and a team leader, spent four weeks in Europe [doing what? with who?].
The countries in Europe were impressed with the USTTA effort. It’s a difficult feeling to express, but the USTTA is expected to participate in almost everything. Non-participation to them denotes indifference and that doesn’t help us in dealing with ITTF committees and other member associations.
Our efforts to improve our position in table tennis encourages countries to attend our tournaments, such as the U.S. Open. Also, several countries are now talking about exchanging juniors as we have been doing with Sweden.
Perhaps most important to some worldly progress, a trip like this lets our top juniors know where they are in relation to their peer group. Most of the boys have had considerable world competition, but I don’t think our girls knew beforehand how good they actually are. When Eric Boggan was 15, he told me in North Korea he was scared to death every time he walked out to play a match in the World Championships there. Of course he was. But you don’t adjust to all kinds of conditions, extreme or not so extreme, by staying in the U.S. to play all your tournaments. I think we must have more trips like this one, and that we need major sponsorship for our junior teams. Also, we need more international competition here in the U.S. [Yes, our teams to improve must compete against formidable opposition.]
Two Grand Prix Tournaments
We see in the ETTU/AIPS publication that a new European Grand Prix tournament was formed—a Ladies Grand Prix—that had a successful debut May 19 in Breda, Netherlands. “Well over 600 spectators were often brought to their feet by the exciting matches they saw. And the players themselves were rewarded not only by the enthusiasm of those watching, but by a total of DM 31,000. The fact that so much money went to the participants was due to the sponsors: Philips, KLM, and Posno Sport (Holland), GEWO (West Germany), ISI (England), and Nassau (South Korea).
A new system of play was put into place for this tournament. Four players were seeded—two to head Group A; two to head Group B. In Round One, Hungary’s Csilla Batorfi d. France’s Nadine Daviaud, 17, 13, and Hungary’s Edit Urban d. Netherland’s Mirjam Kloppenburg, 10, 18. In Round Two, Batorfi d. Yugoslavia’s Branka Batinic, -14, 15, 16, to become the third player in a Group A round robin, and Urban, in a great crowd-pleaser, d. Yugoslavia’s Gordana Percucin, 11, -14, 23 to join the two players in Group B.
Results of the A Group: 1. Olga Nemes, 2-0 (d. Marie Hrachova, -16, 6, 21; d. Batorfi, -20, 13, 16). 2. Hrachova, 1-1 (d. Batorfi, 18, 12). 3. Batorfi, 0-2. Results of the B Group: 1. Bettine Vriesekoop (d. Olah, 15, 14; d. Urban, -20, 18, 12). 2. Zsuzsa Olah, 1-1 (d. Urban, 14, 15). 3. Edit Urban, 0-2. FINAL: Nemes d. Vriesekoop, 19, -15, 14.
Prize money distribution: 1. Nemes, 9,000 DM. 2. Vriesekoop, 5,000 DM. 3.-4. Olah and Hrachova, 3,500 DM. 5.-6. Batorfi and Urban, 2,500 DM. 7.-8. Batinic and Perkucin, 2,000 DM. 9.-10. Daviaud and Kloppenburg, 500 DM.
Hungary’s Zsuzsa Olah, Europe #5, reports on the Grand Prix Masters, held in late May at Seoul. The “dead” season had already started, she said, which meant that many players who were eligible to play didn’t come, and those who were here weren’t much into trying to challenge the Chinese. Also, the tournament was way too long “due to the fact that everyone had only one match to play daily.”
At the banquet after the finals, “a special prize was awarded to Poland’s Kucharski for being the most popular athlete with the Seoul public. The organizers presented all participants with photo albums containing colour pictures of the tournament. Then, before leaving Seoul, we all looked around the sites of the 1988 Olympiad and got to see a film on the preparations.”
Results: Men’s Singles: Wang Huiyuan over Jiang Jialiang, 19, -17, 18, 18. Semi’s: Wang over Kim Ki Taek, 10, 18, 15; Jiang over Lo Chuen Chung, 16, 10, 14. Women’s Singles: Geng Lijuan over Qi Baoxiang (no score). Semi’s: Geng over Yang Young Ja, 17, 14, 15; Qi over Olga Nemes, 14,-18, 15, 12.
Sue Butler’s Surbek Interview
Although in the Seoul tournament above, Kucharski was the most popular player with the fans, at many another tournament over the years that honor has gone to the great Yugoslav international—Dragutin Surbek. In the May-June, 1986 issue of Topics, Sue Butler has the following Interview with the ageless, colorful “Dragon”—well known as being twice the World’s Doubles Champion, former European Singles Champion, and three-times World Singles semifinalist:
SUE: Were you satisfied with your results at the 1985 World Championships in Sweden?
SURBEK: I am pleased with the Team finish. Sixth place for Yugoslavia is a very good result. I would like to have given Jiang [China’s World Champion] more trouble, but to place in the Top 16 in the world is a fine accomplishment.
SUE: How old are you?
SURBEK: I will be 40 in August, but my age at this last World’s wasn’t my problem. The Draw was not good for me, and I just didn’t play well in the tournament. I had been busy with my restaurant and didn’t feel as well prepared as usual. [Years ago, I, Tim, was at a vacation-tournament for some European stars in Jamaica, staying at the same casual hotel with them and noticed Surbek writing a flurry of postcards. “Who’s that one for?” I asked, interrupting his concentration. “My butcher,” he said smiling. So you see how well prepared he was then.]
SUE: What do you feel has been the major change over the last 20 years in table tennis?
SURBEK: The mental aspects of the game have changed, and of course the speed and spin. Also, the Chinese players are traveling all over the world. Well-established players are leaving the sport and the Chinese are replacing them. The early rounds of the World Championships are now very difficult. You have to give your best performance or you’ll get knocked out. This hasn’t been true in past years. The first rounds then were like a warm-up. Still, if you have a good backhand and forehand—an all-around game—you can stay at the top for .a very long time. [As of July, 1986, Surbek, almost 41, will still be World #33.]
SUE: Are you satisfied with the equipment change?
SURBEK: Yes, I’m happy. Before, it was all service and attack. Now it is somewhat more interesting to spectators.
SUE: Will table tennis always be an amateur sport?
SURBEK: More and more money will be in table tennis, and I think we will have professional leagues all over the world. If a player is expected to work, train, and practice 6-8 hours a day at table tennis then he or she must be paid as a professional. [The ITTF Council, meeting in Dubrovnik in June, 1986, would make (World Table Tennis, Oct.-Nov., 1986) the following decision: “The system of ITTF recognition of prize money tournaments has been abolished and players may now accept prize money in any competition without prejudice to their Olympic eligibility.”] It is important that table tennis eventually becomes very popular in America, for then it will be accepted all over the world.
SUE: What will the Olympics do for table tennis?
SURBEK: I have no idea…we will have to wait and see. I’m also interested in what will happen if we return to annual World Championships. I believe all of this can only help the sport.
I don’t like the way the Olympics are set up for Singles. Players from every country should be able to participate. It is only fair.
SUE: What will it take to equalize the Chinese superiority?
SURBEK: In China, of course, table tennis is a national sport, and there are over 12 million players. Their way of thinking and training is a science, not a sport. They are so fast and in such good physical condition. For the players there, it is the way to a better life. I have played six generations of Chinese players, and have improved by playing them—especially as they have increased my speed. If the Europeans can play the Chinese more and more, then we can learn how to beat them.
SUE. In Yugoslavia is table tennis as popular as it was?
SURBEK: The older players are popular, but the halls are not as full of spectators as in the past. This is because they also feel that we are getting older and the younger players are not of a high enough level.
SUE: What about the junior programs, especially in the Eastern European countries? Aren’t they strong?
SURBEK: The new generations are not bad material, but it will be necessary for them to work very hard. Berczik has been a very positive influence in Hungary, and his loss here in Europe is missed a great deal. In Yugoslavia, we have lost many of our good players by emigration to other countries.
SUE: Has this caused bad feelings in Yugoslavia—after bringing them up and training them—to have young players leave?
SURBEK: Of course, but we understand that everyone has to decide for themselves what is best. I only regret that the coaches and trainers haven’t found a good solution to keep them.
SUE: How should we attract juniors, especially girls, to table tennis?
SURBEK: It is much easier to get boys interested because they can get famous in a shorter amount of time in table tennis than most other sports. Girls are the bigger problem. They seem to have other goals. They fall in love, or get interested in more glamorous sports. Also, they don’t like coaches yelling at them. Their feelings and emotions get in the way too much.
SUE: Tell us about your family.
SURBEK: I am married and have two sons. The oldest is 16 and plays tennis. Since I have been playing in the German leagues, I have not been home enough to coach my boys in table tennis.
SUE: Do you feel your influence as a coach for your sons is so important that you wouldn’t want anyone else to coach them?
SURBEK: It is most important to teach the proper technique to a beginner. It is very difficult to correct faulty technique habits, especially in table tennis, after they are ingrained. A player who has bad technique from the beginning and doesn’t correct it will never be able to play well.
SUE: So, do you feel that the first 1-2 years are the most important to the development of a player?
SURBEK: Yes, the coach lays the foundation for the future, and not only in technique but in manners and behavior as well.
SUE: Are you interested in coaching in other countries—for instance, in the U.S.?
SURBEK: If there is a possibility for six months, one year, I would accept.
SUE: If you were hired as a U.S. coach, what would you do first?
SURBEK: I would try to get more money offered in tournaments, so that the interest of your young people could be attained. [This of course is NOT what our Olympic-based Colorado Springs Headquarters (with their grass-roots emphasis on Boys Clubs and Boy Scouts), or our amateur-minded (we can’t spend money) E.C. is interested in; there is no organized thrust to favor a world-class U.S. team.] I would train coaches to show correct technique. They must be able to demonstrate not just verbalize. The physical and mental training of players is also very important.
SUE: What contribution should the U.S. make?
SURBEK: The U.S. must get something going at home. The fact that the top players are in Europe is not good. There should be a lot of opportunities and incentives.
SUE: What is ahead for Dragutin Surbek? You say you have a restaurant?
SURBEK: That’s true, but I will continue to play table tennis because I like it so much. I think I can always be very useful.
SUE: Have you ever gotten up in the morning and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore?”
SURBEK: Never! Table tennis is my hobby, profession, and satisfaction.
SUE: You have always had so much confidence when you play. How do you develop this?
SURBEK: I practice technique every day. It doesn’t matter who I play. I use my style and do everything I can to beat that person.
SUE: I feel you are the best player ever who has not won the World Singles title. Does this fact frustrate you?
SURBEK: Many coaches and people around the world have told me that I was the best in the world even though I didn’t win the title. This has been enough for me. Next year at the World Championships I will be 40 and I’ll not only play, but win! Everyone has to fight for every point against me. I won’t lose easily.
SUE: What will it take for you to retire—five Yugoslav juniors who can beat you?
SURBEK: Five Yugoslav juniors will never beat me. Every team needs a player with fighting spirit. I have a lot of experience and can teach our juniors a lot.
SUE: How do you feel about the behavior of the American team?
SURBEK: They are at times too loud and boisterous, but you must never take them lightly or you could lose. They are always in the public eye, and so everything they say and do is remembered. I think mostly they act within the framework of what world-class players generally consider accepted behavior.
Liguo and Henan Li Ai’s “Do I Need a Coach?”
Henan Li Ai has said that serious table tennis players in the U.S. need “a strong Training Program.” If we want to be a power on the world scene, she says, our “players have to try harder or we have no future.” Here I give you the gist of a coaching article by the Ais (SPIN, Apr., 1985, 15):
“…Back in 1959, Rong Guotuan became the first Chinese to win the World Men’s Singles Championship—and this was primarily because of the coaching he got when he was down 2-1 to Dick Miles in the semi’s. Rong’s teammates on the outside saw what Rong, too much on the inside, caught up in the play, couldn’t see. Their suggestion he defend, not drive, changed the match. So it is, even with very intelligent players: if they want to get to the mountain-top, they may need help to keep from getting lost. Had Chinese teammates not been playing, they could have coached Xu Yinsheng in the eighth’s and Yang Huihua in the quarter’s against Miles, and perhaps one of them could have gone on to become the Champion.
After this ’59 victory finish at the 25th World Championships, Chinese players felt strongly that they needed coaches who were available to give them advice any time they wanted it. They wanted coaches who were more experienced, knowledgeable, and who would take responsibility for what they said. With one voice they asked for coaches who cared about the players’ future and who would encourage them. This collective voice marked the maturation of Chinese table tennis, for now China’s Sports and Physical Education Committee (the Sports Ministry) formed a training center centered on coaching.
Today there are more than 2,000 professional table tennis coaches in China, mostly working in spare-time junior sport schools. In Beijing alone, there are 11 such schools. The Chinese TTA sponsors coaching seminars with nationally certified coaches explaining the newest theories, techniques, and most advanced training methods.
Of course, no matter how good the coach, he/she too has room for improvement, and it behooves the player to take this into consideration as he and his coach—his performance partner really—make what well may be their zigzag way up the mountain. In China there are special research institutes helping coaches who want to improve, for expert aficionados know that table tennis is too complicated to deal with individually, though it is an individual sport.
U.S. table tennis is not nearly as instructionally organized as China’s; still here both the player and the coach, working together, can make headway. All you as a player have to do is tell your coach the truth, what you are feeling, what you are thinking. You may or may not agree with your coach, but tell the truth. Without this communication there likely will be no necessary adjustment. Don’t be impatient or get mad at your coach if his first efforts haven’t worked well and you don’t immediately see improvement. Only when your coach doesn’t pay any attention to what you are thinking and feeling may you reject him.
Table tennis is a sport of cleverness. And the sport makes you more clever if you act with not only muscle but brain. We encourage players to make every big decision themselves, while considering what the coach has advised. There is a rule for the Chinese table tennis team that bears repeating. Players decide what to do when they disagree with their coaches during matches and there is no time for discussion.
A player’s improvement depends on both coach and player, but mainly on how good the coach is. If you are a good coach, players love you, respect you, listen to you. If not, they keep a certain distance from you.”