USA Table Tennis
1985: USA Team Play at the Gothenburg (Goteborg) World’s—Tom Wintrich on the Women’s; Tim Boggan on the Men’s. (Also U.S. Men’s/Women’s Individual Results.)
“U.S. Women’s play:
The USA Women’s team, led by 15-year-old Lan Vuong who posted a 7-4 match record, fought admirably to finish 28th overall in World Team competition. It was a good showing indeed for the four women making their World Championship debut. Supporting Lan in her starring performance (she often played with great poise and strength) were Jin Na, Lisa Gee, Takako Trenholme, and coach Henan Li Ai.
The U.S. was seeded second in their seven-team Stage One round robin. Unfortunately their lead-off tie against Indonesia was a five-match losing effort that proved to be critical in terms of the final standings. Lan Vuong, who’d won the women’s event in an Angby Sports Club-sponsored tournament a week earlier in Stockholm, continued her winning ways with a three-game victory over chopper Diana Wuisan. Lan won the first game at 8, lost the second after being the victim of an edge ball at 19-all, then played more patiently, picked more carefully, and won easily at 11. But then USA’s chopper, Jin Na, had difficulty keeping her returns low and lost to Carla Tedjasukmana two straight. Tie 1-1.
After Vuong and Jin lost the doubles, Lan came back to defeat Carla to tie up the tie again. Now in the decisive fifth match—Jin against Wuisan—the players split one-sided games, both women scoring with pick-hits off high returns. In the end-game third, the U.S. player had a commanding 20-17 triple-match-point lead…only to see Wuisan courageously hit in winners to run out the game.
Tie two was against New Zealand, but the women from Down Under, Jan Morris and Kadia Rice, couldn’t down the Americans. Jin and Vuong each won their opening singles, then Lan paired with 16-year-old Lisa (who showed no fear in her World’s debut) to end the tie.
Next up Switzerland, and the U.S. doubled its win record. They repeated as in the last tie their two-singles start, but this time Lan and Lisa lost the doubles in three. Then, however, Lan, who always played the #1 position, staved off a three-game challenge by Brigette Hirzel. Lan’s serve-and-follow game was again key to her victories (especially in first-game confrontations), but even when opponents adjusted to her third-ball attack she kept the offensive pressure on with her unrelenting looping.
In tie four, Australian stalwarts—their young Champion Nadia Bisiach and penholder Myung Hee No—stopped the Americans, 3-1. The U.S. lost their first three singles, Lan dropping both in three, the last against No at deuce. Lan and Lisa did win the doubles, 18 in the third. Their confident, consistent offensive play, combined with exceptional teamwork (they traded roles of shot-enabler and shot-producer) to overcome a first-game loss.
In tie five against India, USA raised its record to 3-2 with a convincing victory over Vyoma Parikh and Indu Puri. India, whom we zipped, would finish first in our Group C, losing only to the U.S.
But in the sixth tie, Austria beat us 3-1. Lan opened by defeating Elizabeth Maier, 19 in the 3rd. Jin, though, couldn’t contain the attack of Barbara Wiltsche. In the doubles, Lan and Lisa lost the first, but up 20-19 in the second, Lisa confidently stepped in and countered a loop down the line to even the match. But then they couldn’t win the third. When Maier defeated Jin, the U.S. was left with a Stage One record of 3-3. However, since Indonesia with their 3-3 record had beaten us head-to-head, we finished not fourth but fifth in our Group.
This meant that in the Stage Two first crossover we’d be playing the sixth-place finisher in Group D, Denmark. Win that tie and we’d be playing Luxemburg for 25th Place, lose it and we’d be playing New Zealand for 27th.
Against Denmark, coach Li fielded Lan and Lisa for both singles and doubles. Lisa hadn’t played singles yet, but that didn’t keep her from coming through for the team. She lost the first game against Susanne Pedersen, but maintained her composure and aggressively spun and hit her way to a 21-17 win in the third. It was a satisfying moment for a smiling Lisa who received a strong round of applause from the USA spectators. Lan also defeated Pedersen. Disappointingly, though, neither Lan nor Lisa could beat Denmark’s #1 Charlotte Polk. Her two wins plus Denmark’s doubles victory (14 in the 3rd) gave the Danes the tie, 3-2.
Takako Trenholme had patiently waited for her own competitive debut, all the while encouraging her teammates during the first seven ties. The U.S. was facing the same New Zealand team we’d blitzed before. This time, though, neither Lan nor Jin was playing. Lisa led off against Jan Morris and in the first game the two fought on and on, point for point. Lisa, however, couldn’t capitalize on her ads and finally lost 25-23. She rebounded, though, with confident stroking and blocking to take the second game at 18. But in the third it was Morris all the way.
Now it was Takako’s turn and she came out and won her first World Championship match from Kadia Rice with her pips-out blocking and hitting. Then she and Lisa had no trouble taking the doubles for a 2-1 lead.
In the fourth match, though, the experienced Morris was able to handle Takako’s pips and this produced a first and third game win for her. So the U.S. was in its third five-match tie. It was Gee against Rice and the two shakehanders exchanged games at 16. In the third, Lisa again displayed her fighting spirit, challenging Rice to the end with aggressive play, but falling short at 18.
Finishing 27th instead of 28th wasn’t important. Gaining experience was the real objective of this USA team, and the lessons learned will benefit America’s women at the next World’s.”
USA Singles and Doubles Results
Before I continue with the U.S. Men’s Team play, I’m going to briefly tell you anything worth telling you about USA Singles and Doubles play. Ladies first: Lisa Gee moved easily to her second Qualifying Round where she had no chance against Japan’s Nobuko Kohno. Jin Na won her Opening-Round match against Maria Louka of Greece, -15, 11, 20, 8, before at least having the fun of losing to European Champ Valentina Popova. Takako lost in her second Qualifying match to the strong Swedish player Barbro Wiktorsson, -20, -14. And Lan, in her Opening Round, lost a toughie, outscoring Indonesia’s Monalisa Barua, 98-87, but losing the match, -18, 12, 11, -20, -18.
In their first Women’s Doubles Qualifier, Lisa/Takako dropped a killer to Monica Portin/Marianne Skarpenes (Fin./Nor), -15, 20, -19. And Lan/Jin, after 19, 12 downing Singapore’s Kim May Wong/Koh Li Ping, could not contest with superstars Marie Hrachova/Bettine Vriesekoop (CZ/Neth).
The Mixed saw USA challenging: Eric Boggan/Jin moved to their third Qualifier where they went down, 18, -10, -8 to England’s Alan Cooke/Lisa Bellinger. In their first Qualifying round, Brian Masters paired with Sweden’s Anneli Johansson and lost a -19, 20, -21 heartbreaker to the Czechs Jiri Javurek/Daniela Davidkova. Sean O’Neill/Lisa were right in there, winning three Qualifying matches before losing to Chinese Taipei’s Wu Wen-Chia/Chang Shiu-Yu, -21, -10. Danny Seemiller/Lan in their Opener knocked off Australia’s Robbie Javor/Nadia Bisiach then were stopped -17, -20 by Hungary’s accomplished Zsolt Kriston/Csilla Batorfi. And Ricky Seemiller/Takako, -5, -24 fighting to the end, lost their second Qualifier to North Korea’s Chu Jong Chol/Kim Yung Hui.
Now to our Men’s Singles and Doubles play. Eric, after having to go five to down the promising young Czech Milan Grman in his Opener, didn’t put up much of a four-game fight against one of Africa’s best, Nigeria’s Atanda Musa. Brian in his first Qualifier had a good -10, 19, 18 comeback win over Ecuador’s Gustav Ulloa, then was 19, 18 beaten by Thailand’s new arrival in the U.S., Chartchai Teekaveerakit, armed with a letter of recommendation from Charlie Wuvanich, former Thai and Australian Champion familiar to many readers from his play here in the U.S. several years ago. Sean in his Opening Round lost -20, -18, -13 to West Germany’s Joerg Rosskopf. Danny did away with France’s Bruno Parietti in straight games, then fell to South Korea’s Kim Ki Taek, -17, -12, -21. And Ricky with Qualifying wins over Egypt’s Ashraf Helmy, Hong Kong’s Vong Iu Veng, and Yugoslavia’s Stefan Kovac, was finally brought down in four by Poland’s Leszek Kucharski.
In Men’s Doubles, Eric/Danny breezed through Nigerians Yomi Bankole/Thomas Ogunride, then 19, -15, -10 gradually weakened against the Czechs Orlowski/Pansky, destined to be this year’s Doubles runner-up. Brian/Ricky 15, 20 won their first Qualifier from Ireland’s Merwyn Kelly/Colum Slevin, then were beaten by one of the top teams that had to qualify, West Germany’s Wilfried Lieck/ Ralf Wosik. Sean paired up with Chinese Taipei’s Chung Yong and put up -19, 27, -12 fierce resistance against the Czechs Vladislav Broda/ Jiri Javurek.
U.S. Men’s play:
The not much attended opening-night ceremony at the Scandinavian had dimmed toward a close with just a spotlight or two on…well, it was as if table tennis had suddenly taken a frightened step backward—no, wait, surprise, it was a routine, a comic routine: two ape-like ancestors of ours had gropingly appeared. Of course they couldn’t play very well—the costumes, you know, and it was too dark to see, even up there ON the table. So, soon, enough of this exhibition. Masks off…and “That’s my husband,” said Angie Rosal Bengtsson, new mother to twin boys Chris and Sam. And with Stellan was Kjell Johansson—the two of them in another time and place champions of the world.
Our first Men’s tie was against Poland. Kucharski, standing tall as this year’s winner of the Dutch and Czech Opens (in the latter he’d wiped out 1-2-3-4 members of the Swedish team), wasn’t about to back off from Danny Seemiller’s topspin. He took it and twist-of-the-wrist sent it hurtling back in a way Danny wasn’t used to. As for Danny’s off-pace blocks that back home would have outright won him or set him up for points, Kucharski pushed or flipped them back and either wouldn’t be budged from the table or voluntarily retreated to lob until he had the opportunity to counter. Poland 1-USA 0.
Down 1-0 and 20-16 to Dryszel, Poland’s #3, Ricky Seemiller fought back to 19, then rolled a serve return into the net.
Eric Boggan, who’d just won a preparatory tournament in Stockholm that he’d kept trying to back out of, faced Grubba, winner of the English and Welsh Opens and only a month ago the European Top 12. So how’d their opening play begin? Eric was promptly down 0-6, that’s how…then won it at 18. In the second, Eric, down 1-7, came within a moustache-length of catching this Poland leading-man type at 9-10, then down 10-12 failed to return serve—whereupon Grubba ran out the game. In the third, Eric was up 5-1, then quickly all tied up at 6-all. Down 9-11, Eric got caught out of position, and down 12-16 there seemed little he could do, or wanted to do, and Grubba again ran out the game.
So four times in the match Eric had lost (6, 6, 9, 5) huge chunks of points. Perhaps team psychologist Nisse Sandberg, who had earlier been speaking to me about the new Angby Club underwear (worth a couple of points to anyone’s potential score, would you say?), needed to be at the ready.*
Down 19-18 in the first against Dryszel, Danny blocked the Pole’s serve off, lost the game at 19. In the second, Dryszel, controlling the game, was up 14-5. But Danny kept at it. Down 17-13 he served short and the Pole backhand swept it in for the point. Down 18-13, Seemiller frustrated, yells, “I should beat this guy.” But on the very next point Dryszel comes up aces—hits in a marvelous forehand. Still Danny fights—gets to 17-19 before losing a final long point and the match. “Why didn’t he play like that earlier?” someone in our entourage, shaking his head, asks.
So we’re down 4-0, but not disgraced, to one of the best teams in the world. Against Kucharski, this season’s Grand Prix winner (he’d had such a commanding lead he didn’t even have to go to the last tournament on the circuit, the Romanian Open), Eric, doing his new thing, is down 6-0, 12-4, 21-5, battling, or rather not battling, something alien, unseen. Nisse!
Now we’re one game away from being blitzed in a tie that everyone knows we can’t win, so what does Eric do? He wins the second game at 15. As he comes back to his bench (for what?—counseling?), nobody applauds, so Eric applauds himself and some of our players and entourage pick up their cue from that and follow suit.
At the turn in the third game, Eric is up 10-3, then plays two totally passive points, fails to return serve, then himself serves off, and the score is 11-7. As Eric is not now playing forcefully, Kucharski pulls to 14-12. Twice more Eric fails to return serve, and up 16-14 he serves and misses a follow: 16-15. But then he regains control, is up 20-16. Only to (angrily? but what is he angry about?—at times he’s playing better than ever) take the worst shot, the most perverse throwaway shot I’ve ever seen. And, sure enough, he’s soon lost five in a row, is down 21-20 before finally winning 24-22.
So, Nisse, what in the hell is going on? Is it a question of biorhythms? Hardly. Eric, I’m sure, has built up over the years his own psychic system of checks and balances (neuroticisms, if you like), but to the average person his behavior thus far has been bizarre, unpredictable. In his three-game split with these two world-class players who’ve been dominating Europe all season, he not only at times intensely tried, he at times intensely didn’t try (perhaps more so than any other world-class player in the whole tournament).
For at least one of our supporters, one of our entourage, never mind Eric’s six-game results. It’s just too exasperating. He has no idea what Eric’s head is like, why it does what it does, why it’s achieved what it has—he only knows it’s not normal and that he doesn’t like it (and some of our other players’ heads as well). So he’ll grumble about Eric for the remaining 10 days of the tournament. But O.K., O.K., a free-speaking USTTA will always be built on, will always have to suffer the tensions of variously felt, variously expressed opposites. Hopefully, out of a self vs. society understanding and acceptance of this (ohhh) constant strain can come real team harmony.
Eric’s win is our only win against Poland—for it’s almost a 10-point game between Grubba and Ricky.
In our second tie against the Chinese, we will not win a game. But then of course in the crisscross semi’s later neither will the Japanese-and they’ve been training in strict seclusion since November. Well, they had their heads, and we had ours, right? Would the Japanese play a practice match with the U.S.? Houshang had asked earlier. They would, except that our Brian Masters had on a casual T-shirt. “No practice unless he takes off that T-shirt,’ said the Japanese. “No practice then,” said Houshang. And the U.S. moved on to practice with the Yugoslavs, where one of their players had on a white T-shirt. No problem.
As I say, against the Chinese, not Danny, not Eric, not Brian will win a game. But live with it. Some aficionados say, “The Chinese and anyone else? It’s an eight-point game.”
Up 20-19 match point on Danny, Jiang Jialiang scored on a succession of—surprise—1-2-3 pushes.
Against the two shakehand Chinese—Wang Huiyuan and Chen Xinhua (who was usually smiling and always with that touch of insouciance, of arrogance, that you’d seen in former world finalist Cai Zhenhua)—Eric was certainly not playing with any spirit at all.
Though a full-bearded Mike Bush’s presence was felt here at the USA ties in Gothenburg (he’d been off to and perhaps would return to an Israeli yeshiva), the English did us one better—they actually uniformed ex-team member Paul Day and squeezed him onto their bench. “QUIET!” Eric yells back to his teammates. Then, down 13-5, he yells to himself, “Why did I play this tie? I only embarrass myself.” And during another point, Eric, having been out-maneuvered, forced back from the table, seems to arms-down drop all interest in the point. He’s already lost it on technique, so what difference does it make if the Chinese misses?
M’god, this was a tie we could easily have won. There were nine 21-19 games in this tie—and the Czechs won out 5-4—which was exactly what the final score was.
In an early turnaround match, Danny had taken the first game from Orlowski (“He’s afraid to loop my serve—but as soon as he rolls with the pips I gotta loop it every time”) and in the second Danny had rallied from 17-13 down to 19-all. But then he’d served and pushed into the net—then served into the net (“I didn’t misplay,” he said. “It skidded.”) After that he was down 9-3 in the third and couldn’t recover.
Against Pansky, Eric again got off to a terrible start. Why was he having so much trouble concentrating? Dick Miles thought there were too many people around the players’ bench trying to tell Eric what to do. “He’d do best to ignore them all,” said Dick. “Eric has to develop his own mental style. The decision process is his and his alone out there at the table.” I told Dick I thought that, deep down, Eric always did make his own decisions—at least I hoped so. I thought we’d already seen quite a few—some would say too many—instances of Eric’s individuality.
Anyway, down 8-2 to Pansky, he fought back to take the lead at 19-18—but then Pansky got a net and finished off the game with a sensational forehand. In the second, Eric, down 10-6 and not hitting his forehand with any intensity or power, surprised Pansky at 8-11 with a fast down-the-line serve that would have won him the point had it not gone long. After that, he fell back to 10-16. He again rallied to 16-17, then failed to return serve. Then again he rallied until Pansky, up 20-19, caught an edge to win.
Though the Czechs were up 4-2, the U.S. didn’t give up. Eric downed Orlowski, 19, 19. (Up 14-6 in the first and losing a point he yelled angrily to himself, “Think!”) Then Danny, playing like the Danny of some years ago, was not only steadily pushing and blocking well (at one point Pansky, describing one of Danny’s anti returns, zigzagged his forefinger at his bench), but was zinging in bullet loops for winners. Match to Seemiller, 13 and 19. (That last game, at 19-all, Pansky whiffed Danny’s serve, then Danny finished serve and follow, and flared his fist on high. U.S. 4—Czechoslovakia 4.
“O.K., Ricky baby,’ said a pumped-up Danny, “your serves should work against this guy. Just drop it over, keep the spin short.” But all too soon the Czech Vladislav Broda was up 8-2 and someone was shouting to Ricky, “Try some new serves.”
Yeah, we lost. But this Czech team would finish seventh in the world. And Milan Grman, the 15-year-old reserve, conqueror of Secretin in the French Open, who placed fourth in the recent European Junior Top 12, and whom Eric would beat in five in the Singles wasn’t bad either.
Against Hungary, Houshang, though he was getting some flak about not playing 17-year-old Sean, who’d finished third in the Vegas Trials, decided to play Pan Am Champ Brian Masters, and Brian responded by beating Hungary’s #3 Janos Takacs (Tak-kahsh), 22, -9, 19—a gutsy win.
This advantage was immediately offset, however, when Eric lost to the Hungarian #2 Zsolt Kriston, -18, 19, -15. Everyone seemed to remember Eric’s amazing string of victories at the last World’s and was naturally disappointed that, at this time and place (someone said he was playing too far back from the table), he was struggling to hold his own against the good Europeans.
Our advantage was regained, though, when Danny downed Kriston, 19 in the third, and Eric won his remaining two matches, including a final-game 21-8 rout of the aging Klampar. So how about this? The U.S. was 4-3 ahead of once mighty Hungary—now minus Jonyer and Gergely and dispirited in that they would be for years, perhaps forever, a team totally out of contention for world titles.
The past was past. There were no new techniques at this dull World’s—either by the Europeans or the Asians. Every European’s stroke—in the Championship or the Second Division as the teams tended to even out—was beginning to look like every other European’s stroke. While the penhold Chinese, on the ball as ever, were quick to continue their dominance.
At least the U.S. ties, if you didn’t count the China one, continued to be exciting. The 4-3 swing match between Danny and Takacs was wild. In the third game, Danny down 20-13, but igniting and then all afire, blazed to 20-19, had Takacs out of position, but the winner that would have deuced it ticked the net cord and went long. This of course for the U.S. set off a tremor that brought down a mountain of darkness…and psychic silence.
And now, though Brian too was in the third with Kriston—he’d won the second at deuce (Bravo, Brian!), had thus kept our team alive for another breathing, cheering moment, but he just couldn’t contest this deciding game. Hungary 5-U.S. 4.
I really felt down. Despite the fact that we’d played three of Europe’s best teams better than any U.S. Team in recent history, we still hadn’t produced what everyone, or—was I getting paranoid?—almost everyone in our entourage wanted—an important, encouraging victory. Without which the grumblers, hungry, would be looking everywhere for food. I as President felt something nibbling at me.
Our record was now 0-4 and next up was North Korea. But, no, we had no chance.
Sean O’Neill throughout the tournament always tried hard, went for the point-winner and showed great presence and poise for one so young. But he was just not good enough yet, especially in the end-game, to pressure the North Koreans. One shot in his arsenal—the slow loop—would not be much good against penhold hitters.
Against Chu Jong Choi, the North Korean #2, Danny went three but couldn’t win.
Eric had Cho Yong Ho, the North Korean #1, 1-0 and 20-17 triple-match-point, but Cho repeatedly strong-spine smacked the ball, and played an exceptionally good 19-20 point. Eric finally lost that game, 26-24. Behind 9-5 in the third, Eric tied it at 9-all, but then from 15-13 down put up little resistance.
With the U.S. behind 4-0 and the tie hopeless (in fact, unless Boggan won three, every tie would be hopeless?), Eric had to play a chopper and almost immediately totally gave up. When someone asked Danny why Eric had done that, Danny said, “It would have taken him 15 minutes to grind out that match, even if he could have brought himself to do it. He’s tired now—he’s played more matches than anybody on the team. Most teams try to give their best players at least some rest. But we haven’t had the luxury to do that.” I myself thought that Eric wasn’t physically or mentally well prepared for this tournament. He seemed to be going through some tension fatigue, brought on in part by what he was eating or not eating. My wife Sally had just read a book called Sugar Blues. She thought, as people were constantly abusing themselves with alcohol, cigarettes, or dope, so they were too with sugar. She looked with a critical eye at Eric’s liking for chocolate. Quick energy. But ups always brought downs.
The team and its entourage were seeing what some had predicted for it was coming to pass. As everyone knew, the teams in the A Group, the group we were in, were unfairly much stronger than the teams in the B Group. (In the later crossover matches, the A teams would win out over the B teams 11-3.) If we had been in the B Group, we would have had a fighting chance to beat at least half the field; in the A Group we were going to be hard-pressed to win a tie.
We were about to play in our sixth tie South Korea—a team that had just gone 4-5 with China. So we’d have to contend with the following very formidable players. Kim Won, whom the Chinese were saying had the best penhold backhand in the world—he’d done away with Jiang Jialiang. Kim Ki Taek had beaten Wang Huiyuan in three. And Ahn Jae Hyung had downed Chen Longcan, the eventual Men’s Singles runner-up here.
U.S. Captain/Coach Houshang decided that at this advanced stage of the competition we would have to accept the fact that what mattered most to us was to stay in the Championship Division. From now on, only the first crossover tie was meaningful to us—win that and we were sure to survive. Even if a tired Eric and Danny were somehow psychically able to fight hard in their sixth and seventh straight tie, and we would lose to the South Koreans, say, 5-3 (Eric had never beaten World Cup finalist Kim Wan), we would then have to score a 5-1 victory over the Hong Kong team, who’d defeated Hungary and South Korea, to break out of a four-way tie and come a safe sixth in our Group. That clearly wasn’t going to happen. So Houshang’s strategy was to rest Eric and Danny—and via an understanding between captains this gave Kim Wan a chance to sit out too before his country played their first crossover, their world final, as it were, that evening against the North Koreans.
Sean, unintimidated, did very well to take a game from Kim Ki Taek who in the Singles would reach the quarter’s. Ricky, though, was our only winner in this tie, over the South Korean #4 Park Ji Hyun, who’d also have trouble with Brian’s unorthodox style.
Our last tie before the crossover matches was against Hong Kong—but since this tie was relatively meaningless (even if we won we’d finish last in our Group), Houshang again decided to rest both Eric and Danny.
In addition to defeating Hungary 5-4 and South Korea 5-2, Hong Kong had played both Czechoslovakia and Poland 5-3 ties, so it figured they would beat our “B’ team handily. But they did not.
The significant result of this tie in which the U.S. was down 3-0 and 4-1 and rallied to win were:
Ricky lost to Vong Iu Veng. (He was down 9-1 in the first, down 9-2 in the second and saying, “Vong’s ball goes to the left, goes to the right. Those pips are weird. I don’t know what the hell he’s got on his backhand, but it can’t be legal, can it?”) Still, he beat both Chan Kong Wah from 18-all in the third (Chan twice failed to return serve), and Lo Chuen Chong (19 in the third).
And despite an “I can’t tell what’s on the ball” yelp to his bench, Brian beat Chan 18 in the third, doing a Daffy Duck little waddle in acknowledgement.
Our other two wins came when Brian beat Vong after a key 22-20 first game, and when Sean in the ninth match, playing determinedly, keeping up the pressure, not succumbing to it, downed Vong in three. The U.S. “B” team 5-Hong Kong 4.
Crossover Tie #2: USA-Hungary
There now remained only the two crossover ties. The last of these would be almost meaningless—would mean one position higher in the final placings. For nearly all the teams this tie would give their weaker players experience. So, yes, Zsolt Harczi and Andreas Podpinka from Hungary would be playing and winning over both an out-of-it Brian and an into-it Sean, and splitting wins with Danny who wanted practice for his upcoming Singles play. Hungary 5-USA 1. But that was the second crossover to be played, the last tie, of little consequence.
Climactic Tie #1: USA-Italy
The tie that we knew from the very beginning of the tournament would matter most was the first all-deciding crossover one. It wasn’t until India beat her last two opponents that we knew we’d be playing Huang Liang-coached Italy. (In the companion crossover, Hungary would avoid relegation by beating an unhappy Denmark.)
I expected Houshang to go with the more experienced Ricky as our third man, the more so because the Italians would remember with a faint heart Ricky’s win in the ninth eight years ago over Costantini—a match that sent us, and not Italy, into the Championship Division.
Some in our entourage thought Sean should play, for, though he had won only one match, he’d be sure to play with high seriousness. Besides, perhaps for variety we needed a non-anti player.
But Houshang went with Brian, not because he had the best record of the three (3-6), but because Brian’s unusual style would be more apt to give at least one of the Italians trouble. If Brian could win just one match, Eric and Danny figured to win between them the other four we needed.
In the first match against the veteran Giovanni Bisi, Danny broke away from 16-all to go up 19-16. But then Bisi made a good serve and follow. “Watch the Chinese coach,” Danny hollered to his bench. “This guy Huang is telling Bisi what to do every time.” (Yes, that’s true, Danny—but, legal or not, coaches yell or signal to their players. They do it in every sport. What’s a coach for?) But Danny had no difficulty in the end-game here or in the next. His win over Italy #2 started us off right, gave us the advantage.
The next match was Eric vs. Lorenzo Nanonni, ninth-place finisher in the European Junior Top 12. But though Eric was not hitting the ball hard, and Nanonni could get in some threatening one-ballers, Eric was too end-game steady from 16-12 down in the second. USA 2-Italy 0.
When Brian, after rallying from 18-14 down, won the first from Massimo Costantini, Italy’s #1, where was our problem? If he won the next game, the tie would be virtually over.
But from 12-all in the second, Brian played badly. In the third, up 9-5, he again lost concentration after Costantini had gotten in a serve and follow. On serving into the net, Brian was down 10-9 at the turn. Gradually Costantini pulled away—and Italy was still very much alive.
In the fourth match, against Bisi, Eric, down 14-12, won nine straight. He wasn’t going to be ranked 18th in the World after this Championship, but one could see how all season he’d been good at his job, winning 3/4th’s of his matches for his Bundesliga team. Bisi went back to his Chinese coach, threw up his hands. In the second game, Eric failed to return the first two serves, but later, ahead, he was perversely defending from afar, was confident he had an easy win.
Against Danny, Costantini again lost the first game—and again the U.S. was looking real good. But then the match often turned into serve and follow—and, on winning the second game, Costantini would not relinquish the momentum. U.S. 3—Italy 2.
Against Nanonni, Brian, down 10-9, turns to our bench and mouths, mimes, “I can’t play.” Just what we want to hear, huh? But Brian’s not about to give up this match. This one—#3 vs. #3—is why Houshang is playing him. He wins the first at 17. Looking good.
In the second, up 18-16, Brian serves into the bottom of the net. But (“Alright, Brian”) he holds strong—and, up 4-2, we can’t lose now, can we?
The seventh match is Eric vs. Costantini. But for some reason Eric can’t play at all—can’t return the Italian’s serves. Down 18-12, he gives up the game. Eric! Eric! In the second, down 9-5 and showing no forehand power at all, Eric utters an audible obscenity, and, 13-6 down—Nooo! Eric, don’t do it!—gives up the game and match.
Ironically, it’s precisely this match that ABC Wide World of Sports has chosen to close in on. For the first time ever, thanks to liaison Sue Butler, they’re finally putting together a profile on an American player—Eric. They’ll soon be sending a film crew to our home on Long Island and to Eric’s apartment in a private home in Germany, and immediately after this tie, Eric, Danny, and I are each scheduled for an interview, an interview Eric for some time now has been preoccupied in resisting. It’s as if he’s saying to a persistent Sue at an increasingly critical hour, “Look, the TV people should have done all this at the last World’s when I was up and playing well, when I deserved it. I’ve a mediocre record here in Gothenburg. Where’s the ABC logic? The world is crazy.”
And as he’s playing horribly, just horribly, the cameras roll in, sight almost on the shoulders of his teammates and shoot—even as Eric, stopping play, turning away from the table, frowning, waves them away.
No, Eric’s no Bobby Fischer—but you’re never going to make him ordinary either.
He’ll be cheering for Brian and Danny as he would his Bundesliga team, and still later he’ll be calm, will give a good interview, but now his head is here, there, and everywhere—nowhere. He’s routed 12 and 12.
Naturally I’m feeling just sick. Nisse Sandberg, the team psychologist, will have to look after me? If we lose to Italy, it’ll take all my reserve to look into that ABC camera and pretend strength. USA 4—Italy 4.
Watching one of their own who’s unable to find the desire to win, will Eric’s teammates rise to the occasion? Or will Eric’s alien virus be contagious?
Against Bisi, from 18-all in the first, Brian wins it. He’s having a good World’s. But in the second he’s down 11-4 “Move!” he roars. And from 17-12…19-16…20-19 down, he needs only one more point to tie it up. Brian serves, Bisi pushes into the net—and swats the ball out of the court.
But his anger seems to work for him, gets his blood up. He comes back, serves, and fearlessly follows. Brian’s rally is stopped. In the second, Brian is down 16-7—no chance. U.S. 4-Italy 4.
Houshang, a good captain, has prepared for this possibility. It’s not up to our #3 player to bring home this ninth match. It’s up to Danny. And since he doesn’t know any more than the rest of us that in just a few days at the ITTF Delegates Meeting the category system will be abolished, he thinks only that if he doesn’t win this match he will be almost 35 years old before the U.S. is back in the Championship Division again.
Clearly, neither player’s going to win by being tentative. Young Nanonni’s obviously not as good as Seemiller—he scores with forehands but he makes too many mistakes. Still, he’s giving it everything he’s got. From 10-all, Danny plays with such surety that, to more and more whistling from the Italian fans, the game’s never in doubt.
In the second, the same pattern prevails. From 12-all, Danny screaming, leaping, dominates play. When he wins, we all run happily to him…backslap, handshake, hug and kiss him.
So, though we weren’t the most conventional or disciplined team to quell the critics or excite the purists, we were a thoroughly individual American one, and, when it most counted, a winning one.
Good team effort, guys. For the first time in modern table tennis history, the U.S. has been among the top teams in the world for three straight championships.
*More importantly, a short time later, Nisse Sandberg would really need to be at the ready. Just after the World’s had Closed on the 7th, I received the following Apr. 10th note from him:
“I’m sorry to report a not very pleasant thing. The Saturday night after I got back from the World’s, I had a bad car accident. It had been raining for two hours and there was ice on the road. Going about 65 miles an hour I crashed front into another car. My own car was thrown 30 meters into the forest with many bumps and turnarounds on the way. It ended up upside down and was completely destroyed.
I broke some ribs, hurt my neck badly, my head, nose, and back—but I’m alive and home now. It must have been 1,000 to 1 I’d survive such an accident….”