Vladimir Shapiro Interview

By Rahul Acharya | Nov. 17, 2014, 12 a.m. (ET)

Vladimir Shapiro Interview

Courtesy of Rahul Acharya

I can't remember exactly when, but it was early 2013 when I practiced with Vladimir Shapiro for the first time at my home club. I had seen Vladimir several times before that as he regularly competes in our club's monthly tournaments. I knew how good he was, so when he asked me to warm him up I couldn't help but feel nervous. I was afraid of not being able to keep the ball on the table enough or hit it at the right spot because he was way better than I was. Anyways, he hit with me and even encouraged me and complimented me. Since then we have spoken several times. He has always made it a point to ask how I am doing, etc. Vladimir is one of the many nice people that I have met through the sport.

Anyways, about a week ago I had the opportunity to play him in a tournament for the first time. Needless to say, it wasn't easy, and yes, he beat me!

I wanted to get to know him as a player and a person so I asked him a few questions. Enjoy!

Quick facts about Vladimir Shapiro:
#5 for Men over 55 in USA
#2 in state of Massachusetts
Former USSR Junior National Team member
Former USSR National Team member (see below for more titles and honors)

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Vladimir Shapiro
Westchester TTC's Will Shortz (left) 
& Vladimir Shapiro 

Please share with us your journey with table tennis.
Table tennis wasn't the first choice of my parents. As a 10-year old kid, I was chubby, nerdy, and shy. So, my parents wanted me to do something physical, intense, and manly. The first stop was a swimming pool. They tried me in deep water. I started drowning. The coach saved me by extending a rod to hold on to. So much for the swimming career ... Next was tennis. The coach wasn't impressed. Make yourself fit, he went, and then come back. My parents purpose was to use sports to become fit and not the other way around. Table tennis was the 3rd, probably, last desperate attempt to get into any sport. Perhaps, because the coach wasn't slim herself, I got a chance with Dynamo Moscow, USSR. The year was 1967. 

What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: Butterfly Viscaria
Forehand rubber: Tenergy 05
Backhand rubber: Tenergy 05

Where do you currently train and how often?
I practice twice a week at Boston Table Tennis Club, Medford, MA. I also attend a weekly yoga class and run and swim couple of times during the week. 

Do you also coach?
I used to coach a long time ago, but not now. Playing and coaching require different mindsets and I'd rather not mix them at this point. May be one day ...

Many adults complain that they cannot compete against the speed and power of young players, but you are definitely an exception. Please share what is your secret to playing so competitively.
Not sure if I fully agree. I am recently doing better against younger players. I have always had the speed and power to be competitive, but lately I have managed to improve my service receive. So it is somewhat easier now. Many kids play predictably, making the opponent's life less challenging. On the contrary, younger players struggle against non-standard players. My game is pretty typical, I think. But, I have overheard youngsters complain that my spin is heavier than usual.

Do you do any special preparation before a tournament or a match?
I try to get enough sleep, eat well the night before, and eat a good breakfast prior to the tournament. Staying well hydrated is a good habit, too. Getting warmed up before a match is kind of obvious.

I've observed you during a match. It seems like you are in deep thought. What goes through your mind between points?
It is more of a nirvana than deep thought. The game plan doesn't change too often, so there is not too much to think about. You are monitoring the opponent closely and make slight adjustments only when required, so mostly it is autopilot who is running most of the systems. Attention span is limited and I'd rather stay focused in the match than waste attention to unimportant details off the court. There is enough going on on and around the table to fully consume you. By staying focused, you are also saving mental energy, which is precious resource in a serious tournament.

Do you play internationally? If so, in how many countries have you played?
I lived and played in USSR, Bulgaria, Israel, and now USA, for a number of years in each place. As far as international tournaments go, I have played in some exotic countries, i.e. North Korea, Nigeria, New Zealand, plus some European countries. As a member of USSR’s junior national team, I played in a singles tournament - European Championship in Yugoslavia in 1975. Later, being on the Men’s national team for nearly two years, I had zero international tournaments - nature of living behind the iron curtain in a poor totalitarian country. The fact that table tennis wasn’t an Olympic sport back then felt painful. My “luck” was the fact that in 1975-76 when I emerged as one of the best young upcoming players in Europe, men’s table tennis in USSR was enjoying its golden age having 4 players in World 50 (I couldn’t find exact ranks). Being #5 on national men’s team then, I was scheduled to play in European Championship 1976 in Prague, Czechoslovakia in a men’s team 6 players strong. I used to play some exciting table tennis back then, playing fast off the bounce including counter looping off the table. When playing abroad for the first time, I was surrounded by foreign coaches and players who said that they hadn’t seen the counter loop off the bounce before. I already knew who I was going to play against in the individual draw (Denis Neale from England). Preparations in the national team camp went full force and I hoped to make a splash there. Few days before the departure it was announced that due to the budget cuts only 4 players would travel. It became obvious to me that if I can’t go to a friendly neighboring Czechoslovakia, what could I expect regarding more distant and expensive countries to travel to. Even traveling on my own expense wasn’t possible in a totalitarian country. I hit the brakes and started paying more attention to the college. My professional career was over and table tennis became a hobby.

What is the biggest tournament you've ever competed in?
This May I played in the World Veteran Championship 2014 in New Zealand. There were 66 round robin groups of 4 (over 260 players) in my age group of 50+.

What was the toughest match that you have ever played?
I don't have an archive or diary as the human brain protects itself by clearing old memories. There have been so many of them. It appears that each tournament brings at least one tough match, or is it just me?

A couple of recent matches at the World Veteran Championship come to mind. A player from Australia, country not known as a table tennis super-power (he probably thought the same about me representing USA), Wayne Heginbotham, turned out to be a very tough opponent: all-round technical game, fast, great physics, true fighter. I played well too and we exchanged 2 games each. By then the match became a well attended show. I went up 8:4 in 5th. Wayne fought back and forced deuce. The opponent had 6-7 match points one after the other, but I kept the faith and managed to pull it off 20:18.

In the round of 16, I met Yang Jin Liang from China with a very unusual style: penholder grip and blocking when at the table; shakehand grip and chopping when away. In addition, he used an odd combination of long pips rubber with thick sponge on backhand, and worn out smooth on forehand. I started poorly in the 1st, but caught up and then at 10:10, when the opponent gave an outrageously illegal serve, he caught me off-guard. The reception was inadequate and I lost the point. The referee didn't stop the game, and my arguing only caused me getting more frustrated and lose the game. The next game, I lost on deuce after a fair game. Long story short, I went down 0:2 in games, then made 2:2, went up 8:6 in 5th. I lost two tough points (one of his shots landed on the edge). At 8:8, the opponent repeated the illegal serve. As before the referee kept a poker face. I lost the match on deuce with my hopes, dreams and preparations going down the drain... Only then it dawned on me that the referee was just a volunteer, put there to keep the score. The poor guy probably didn't know what rules I was talking to him about. I should have asked for a real umpire. Being focused on the game, I totally forgot my rights... A chance to get to first 8 in the world and play for the medal were lost…

Finally, there was a third tough match at that same tournament when I did actually play for a medal - QF in Men’s doubles against Czech double. I together with my Japanese partner, was down 0:2 and 8:10 in 3rd. Then, my partner took a risk. I stepped up my game and we turned it around - equalized and took a lead 7:5 in 5th. It got to 9:9, when I went for a kill on two seemingly easy balls, only to lose the match, fail the partner, and bury the rest of the hopes. Should I describe the emotions ?

Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
My favorite international table tennis players have been innovators who brought something new to the game, often but not necessarily biggest champions. In the 70s and 80s, Hungarians Klampar, Jonyer, Gergely - these guys were actually World Champs.

Check out their matches on youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUMTcc9Kl8shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7SuriJtzzk

They, along with Yugoslav Stipancic (also on youtube), pioneered the backhand loop as a weapon to win points rather than an auxiliary tool to start an attack in 1979. They also kicked the heavy forehand loop and counter loop up a notch. Pole Grubba and Greek Kreanga continued the trend for the next few decades.

Swede Persson and Croat Primorac ratcheted up the pace of the game and combined spiny loops with punches or flat drives. Waldner made blocking a weapon. French Secretin and another Swede Alser showed that fishing is a legitimate style.

One thing all innovators share: they are ahead of their time, so their game stays relevant for many years.

Nowadays, we have the amazing Chinese Zhang Jike, who has taken the game forward with his brilliant backhand flick, which has become a game changer.

Honors, titles, and awards that you have won in table tennis.
European Youth Championships 1975: Team champion, single, and double bronze
USSR Open 1977: Team champion (playing with the legendary Sarkis Sarkojan on a team)
Bulgarian Cup 1985 winner, and some National Championship medals here and there.

What are your goals with regards to table tennis?
I haven't beaten a 2500+ player yet, so this is a short term goal. Winning an event at the US Nationals and a medal in the World Veteran Championships are other tangible goals. The prerequisites are to stay fit, avoid major injuries, and improve my game, without which other goals are hardly achievable.

What do you like to do when you are not playing table tennis?
Reading (besides journals and magazines, I don't read printed media anymore; I'd rather listen to audiobooks while driving). I like to read history, biographies, science, business, but rarely fiction. I like to have music as a background for almost any activity. Chess (I played well as a kid. There are strong computer programs to play against). I find international politics interesting. My favorite TV shows are sports: tennis, followed by other ball sports, followed by the rest of sports. Almost any sport is fun to watch. Its competitive nature excites me, whether it is golf, football, track and field, cycling, or something else.

Would you like to share any interesting facts about you that many people who know you don't know about?
I hold a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering (computer vision and image processing). Could I claim being the best table tennis players among Computer Engineers, and the best Computer Engineer among competitive table tennis players?

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WOW! What an incredibly accomplished man and table tennis player! I most certainly don't feel bad losing to him now :-)