Jimmy Butler Interview

By Sean O'Neill | Feb. 01, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

USATT:  Jimmy Butler, this year for you has been insane!  Making the World Team, dominating all the senior events everywhere, winning the Southern Open (with leg cramps), and now the US Men’s Singles crown!  For the benefit of your new fans, let’s start at the beginning of your comeback as we look back at the incredible year. Ok, let’s go, what caused you to retire in 1998 as a 27-year old?

Jimmy Butler: In 1998 my body was over-run with chronic pain and injury issues.  I was born with moderate scoliosis of my spine.  Anyone that has a crooked spine means their muscles are alarmingly stiff.  Their stiff muscles have become so tight and short that they are pulling their spine and joints in the direction they are shortening.  This is not good, and at some point as my muscles continued to stiffen from all the training and physical activity I was doing in Table Tennis, my body became over-whelmed and I could not play or function anymore without pain and difficulty.

USATT: When and how did you start your rehab?

Jimmy: I saw many top Medical Doctors, Chiropractors, Massage therapists, Physical Therapists, Medicine men, Rolfing Specialists...everyone and anyone highly recommended or different I would try.  Nothing was working.

During my last few months of training and competing in 1998 I was living at the Oakbrook National Training Center in Flint, Michigan that was run by Bob Allshouse.  Eric Owens was living there with me also, and saw my sad predicament.  He recommend that I speak to his dad (Kenny Owens) because Kenny was an expert with the issues I was experiencing.

I consulted with Kenny Owens by phone.  He recommended I move to Houston so he could troubleshoot and treat my issues.

USATT: so what did Kenny recommend for treatment and what was your regiment?

Jimmy Butler: Kenny Owens originally recommended 2 hours of therapy a day.   He estimated about a year and a half of this and thought I would be close to some reasonable state of health.  However, after a year and a half I was nowhere near the finish line, and we both realized it would take a much greater effort than that.  Furthermore, to get the necessary time and treatment I needed,we would need to build an electric, mechanical device to push into my muscles.  My issues were beyond the scope of a Human Being's ability to fix me.  I required a lot of time, and a lot of pressure pushing into my muscles, and I was wearing out each and every therapist that attempted to push into my muscles.

Ultimately we built the machine, and I spent anywhere from 6-14 hours a day for 8 years working on my body.  During the week I usually did at least 6 hours or more.  On the weekends I would  generally work on myself all mourning, day, and night.  My goal was to be healthy again.  Playing Table Tennis again was the least of my concerns.

USATT: So speed forward to the 2012 Cary Cup.  You enter the event.  What were your expectations?

Jimmy Butler: 2012 Cary Cup...My only expectations were to play better than my previous tournament.  I had just played a tourney in California, my first 4 star with real competition since I had returned.  I lost to 16 yo Ariel Hsing deuce in the 7th...there was no shame in losing to her as she was about a 2500 level, and I had just picked up a racket for only 2 months.  However, losing to Ariel Hsing doesn't happen quietly as she is a female star, and I was in the spotlight for my first appearance in 9 years.  The match so far has attracted 30k views on utube, which is sizable for an American match, and I was a laughing stock for hecklers chiming in about losing to a young girl. 

I didn't get offended by any of the comments...I was actually pleased I could pick up a racket and play a similar level as Ariel Hsing.  Several weeks later at the Cary Cup I defeated the current U.S. Champion Peter Li and finished in the final 8...not a bad result my third month back.  My Ariel Hsing loss was quickly forgotten and my defeat of Peter Li was being discussed in  a positive way. 

USATT: so now you are little bit back in the game. What type of practice and training were you doing in Houston?

Jimmy Butler: I train daily, and I play as much competition as possible on the weekends.  Texas Wesleyan is a 4 hour drive from Houston, and the Texas Wesleyan Open and the great players that are there make it possible for me to be battle tested and sharp on a tournament level.  Texas Wesleyan holds a tournament every two months, and combined with Austin and Houston I am able to play a tournament almost every weekend.

I am a big believer in as much competition as possible.  This makes me sharp, and it keeps the game fun for me.  

USATT: So after playing in the 2012 and 2013 National championships and coming up a bit short. What did you primarily change to get ready for 2014 season?

Jimmy Butler: Overall I didn't change much.  I don't put too much stock into my results in one tournament.  I look at my body of work throughout the year, and I am confident I will continue to improve as long as I continue to consistently put in the practice time, and continue to play as much competition as possible.

Before the Nationals I started running, which was the only major change I made from previous years.  If my legs can stay relatively fresh, I am confident in my ability to win matches up to a 2650 level right now.  If I get tired I become a 2500 player.

Damien Provost from France, a player I respect a lot defined my abilities on the American scene best.  "You are the most dangerous," he said when discussing whether I should play or not in team matches.  I really appreciated that comment from him, and it gives me confidence when 2700 level players show that kind of respect for me at this point in my comeback.

USATT:  So after beating Peter Li and Han Xiao on the Men’s side early on and then reaching the Finals of the North American Championships in Cary did you feel you were back to your old self or was it a new self that you were building up?

Jimmy Butler: No, I am nowhere near back to my "old" self.  It would not be possible to get back to a World top 70 level of play in such a short period of time.  This is a new journey to me.  I am learning as I go.  There are not many examples to learn from with athletes that stop nearly 9 years, then attempt a return.

Beating top American players gives me confidence in my progress I'm making.  However, the real test for all of us Americans is to beat the Chinese living here.  Go and beat Li Kewei, Shi Ming Yu, Xiang Jing Zhang, Tao Wenzhang, Bob Chen, Liang Yonghui, Kai Zhang.

Winning American titles and making teams is nice and it brings helpful publicity and attention that can help Americans attract opportunity to help nourish them further.  However, we are a division 3 team at the World Championships, and to rise to the 2nd division, it is necessary to compete against the Chinese talent here.

It is important that a competitive vehicle is created in this country to get Americans playing against the Chinese here regularly. 

USATT: In March, you qualified for the US World Team.  Share what it was like returning to the World Championships after 18 year break!

Jimmy Butler: Making the team was very emotional for me.  It symbolized to myself that I had returned from my chronic hardships, and it was a great milestone in the progress I was making in the practice hall. I would prefer to be playing at a much higher level at the next World Team Championships.  Being around the best players in the world is a humbling experience.

USATT:  During the World Championships, you took it upon yourself to provide daily video updates on the team.  What led you to do this for USA Table Tennis?

Jimmy Butler: Video is something I have been learning and spending a lot of time on for the past year.  Technology today allows access to our sport like never before.

USATT:  Jimmy in addition to participation internationally for the US in 2014, you have been a frequent flyer to clubs all across the country.  Can you share some of your domestic travails and what you have learned during those weekend sorties?

Jimmy Butler: Living in southern but centrally located Houston makes travel for me anywhere in the United States relatively easy.  I can pretty much go anywhere to the east coast or west coast in less than 4 hours by plane.

There are many beautiful full-time clubs that have sprouted up across the country.  I think the Bay area has gotten the most publicity, so I will mention some of the great clubs I frequently go to. 

Westchester in New York is incredible, with a great owner in Will Shortz, and a great manager in Robert Roberts.  The Austin TTC is a beautiful facility with a great staff running it.  Houston has the HTTC and the brand new Texas Table Tennis Center. 

Texas Wesleyan University is one of the great facilities in the country, and is one of the keys for my competitive success.  They have attracted a number of top players, with their newest addition Bruno Ventura Dos Anjos from Brazil, who is an incredible competitor and a 2600 level.

Jasna Rather and her staff have done a great job there not only with the University program, but in holding the Texas Wesleyan Open once every two months, which provides players like me with great tournament competition on a regular basis, combined with Houston, and Austin.

USATT: Ok let’s talk about Vegas this year.  What were your expectations going into the tournament?  Who were you keeping an eye on? And what did you think of your draw once it was posted?

Jimmy Butler: My expectations going in were to win it deep down, but I prepared myself emotionally to accept defeat.  I lost in the quarters two years ago, and the round of 16 last year.

I was most concerned with Timothy Wang, Kanak Jha, Siliang Wang, and Mark Hazinski.  I felt that one of those guys or myself would win it.  I didn't have any idea what shape Siliang Wang was in, but the little video I could find on him showed he is technically smooth and capable of doing damage.

When I saw the draw, I felt it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad either.  I had a ridiculously low rating (2477) going in which was not accurate and a symbol of our grossly outdated, unsophisticated, and easily manipulated ratings system.  I could have technically played the top seed in the round of 16.  That would not be fun, but at the same time it would not be fun for the top seed either.

USATT: Before we get to the men's singles, why don't you describe the over 40 singles event in playing against one of your practice partners in the finals as well as the sandpaper event?  You know you along with Lily both won 3 events in Vegas!

Jimmy Butler: I played the sandpaper because I enjoy it and it started and ended Tuesday which didn't conflict with my Men's Singles preparation.  I played the Over 40s because it gave me match play and prepared me to the conditions for the Men's Singles.

I played against my practice partners Vik Subonj in the Semi, and Niraj Oak in the final.  This was very good for me mentally, because we are so familiar with each other.  I felt playing them would help me gauge my feeling and progress I was making in getting use to the Las Vegas conditions.  Vegas is 2000 ft above sea level.  It's very fast and a different game then at sea level.

USATT: Okay going into men's singles according to the draw it look like you have an early match with 4th seed Ernest Ebuen, Jr.. Were you thinking about that match up?

Jimmy Butler: Not so much because I know that he doesn't train regularly.  In the U.S. there are only a certain amount of people that train full-time, and I generally am most concerned with those guys.

USATT: So you start off with Guo Hui Lu and win 7,-12,10,9,6. Tell us about the match and how you felt afterwards.

Jimmy Butler: I felt terrible that much, and I didn't gain any confidence from it.  I had no rhythm, and I was having trouble putting the ball on the table.  It was my first singles match, because Over 40 hadn't started yet.  I was not adapted to the high altitude yet, and it showed in that much.

USATT: So when the next match you will face Ernest go. But wait, he gets upset by Newman Cheng in the wildest scoring match of -7,1,-0,-5,6,7,5. Did this change your preparation or mindset knowing that you would be playing a junior player instead of a seasoned veteran?

Jimmy Butler: I had never heard of Newman Cheng.  I watched a YouTube video of him playing to prepare for him.  I was most concerned about myself and my ability to get use to the altitude.  I had my normal pre-match jitters.  

USATT: You won the match 2,8,-7,7,13.  How concerned are you in the last game that it might go six? How did the match unfold?

Jimmy Butler: I am always concerned in letting a match go further when I have 3 games and am looking to close it out.  I can't say I felt great in this match, but I played better than the previous round, which was progress.  Cheng is a quick kid with the ability to finish with his forehand.  I was happy to escape the last deuce game.

USATT: Okay next up was Chance Friend in the quarterfinals.  What were your thoughts going into the match knowing that you have played him a couple of times and he's training full-time in Germany?

Jimmy Butler: I was very concerned about Chance Friend because I beat him 3-2 and 11-9 the last time we played.  However, this was the quarter-finals and Siliang Wang was now out, so I liked the situation at the same time.

Chance dominated me the first two games, and had an incredible amount of nets and edges in his 2nd game win.  Things were not going my way. I was in trouble, and was a wounded animal starting to get desperate.  Fortunately I was able to raise my game up, and made some wise tactical adjustments that ended up neutralizing Chance's forehand attacks.

It would  turn out that this was my best played match of the tournament.  I can see why Chance beat Siliang Wang.  People will just see the draw sheet and assume Siliang Wang was in bad shape, but in reality Chance was playing well.  I watched the video of our match on YouTube, and I played very consistent and solid to comeback and win the last 4 games.

USATT: So now you're in the semi-finals. Where you surprised that Mark Hazinski upset Timothy Wang in that quarterfinal match? What was your Game plan going into the match?

Jimmy Butler: I was not surprised that Hazinski upset Timothy Wang...in fact when I saw on the draw that they would probably meet in the Quarter-finals I thought to myself that Timothy would have problems in that match.  Mark Hazinski was starting to show good results in our region of Texas.  He was beating me, and he was playing even with Bruno (2600 level TX Wesleyan player from Brazil).  Mark is very talented, and when in shape he's as good as any of us.

When I faced Mark I was very unconfident.  He beat me easily the previous two times.  I completely changed my tactics against him hoping it would work.  I ended up winning the match, but I must say Mark played poorly, never got into a rhythm, and I felt fortunate to escape.  It wasn't his day.

USATT: In the match with there seem to be quite a bit of streakiness. Was it the tactics in the match, physical stamina issues, or just having played him before?

Jimmy Butler: The streakiness I believe was us going in and out of rhythm.  Mark makes people feel uncomfortable when playing him because he's powerful and dangerous on both sides.  He changes his tempo, and will play off the bounce as well as at the height of the bounce.  I don't believe stamina was an issue at all.  It was our first match of the day.

USATT: How did you like the USA Table Tennis moved all the quarterfinal match is one at a time?

Jimmy Butler: USA Table Tennis made a great decision by staggering out the rounds.  I always have said that I am a fan when I'm not playing and enjoy watching the other matches going on also.  Hazinski vs Wang was a great match.  In years past all the matches were thrown out there at the same time and  everything was done in the twinkling of an eye.  This year was so much better.  For the future the arena should be a horse shoe or open style set up, and I think a featured court or two should also be worked into the red carpet area outside of the arena.  There is so much room for improvement, but this year was better than last.

Also I plead with USATT to have some small displays announcing the Men's and Women's singles match times and opponents each day!  I literally was asked every 20 feet I walked what time my next match was and who I was playing, so the draw sheets are too difficult for people to find and navigate through.

USATT: So now you're in the men's finals again after 17 year bre ak hiatus. How are you able to control your mind going into the match in did you have any pregame thoughts going into particular opponent?

What was the match game plan?

Jimmy Butler: My big concern was getting some food into my stomach.  When I'm anxious I lose my appetite.  Also the food options near the hall closed down.  Not good!

I ordered Chinese Delivery.  Thank goodness for Chinese food!  By the time I ate and figured that out it was almost match time.  I went into the match knowing very little about Chodri.  It turns out I played him about two years earlier in the 2013 Team Trials, but I had forgotten that completely.  Only when I heard him mention it in an interview when I got home did I realize that.  

I simply ran out of time between the semi's and finals to prepare much, and wanted to just play the match and be done with it.  I was on my fifth day in a row playing, I was tired, and I wanted the stress over with.  Mentally I knew I was 3-4 in National Finals.  I lost 3 finals to Sean O'Neill, and one to Chen Yinghua.  I knew that making the finals was nice, but I was still so far from winning the title.  I had very little nervousness once the match started.  I had been in this situation many times before.

USATT: Was it easier and reassuring that your parents were at the tournament along with brother Scott or did you just put that out of your mind going to the finals?

Jimmy Butler: I wouldn't call it reassuring.  I'm very stressed out when I'm trying to win a tournament so they know to stay away from me.  lol  My brother plays so he is easy to hang around and I really enjoyed his support during my matches.  I could hear them as a cheering section at times when I was playing and that felt good to have energy from the stands in my corner.

USATT: Walk us through the match game by game.

Jimmy Butler: The first game he missed a lot and I won without doing much.  The 2nd game I missed a lot and he won too easily.  After that I would have to watch the replay in detail to analyze it.

I remember the 5th game got intense emotionally.  It was 9-9, 10-10, 11-11, 12-12.  I really wanted that game badly and I was quite vocal and took some risks to win the game.  After that he went on a big run when it was 6-6 in the 6th game.  I lost 10 of the next 12 points, and I trailed 1-5 in the 7th.

Things were not looking in my favor in that 7th game trailing 1-5, but I didn't show any negativity or bad body language when down.  I was focused on making sure he earned each and every point until it was over.  I've played so many matches in practice, and when you are playing someone near your level that is on a 10-2 run against you, a common trend is that you will soon go on a favorable run yourself.  Fortunately for me I went on a 10-3 run right in the nick of time to win 11-8 in the 7th.

USATT: So after the match there was a bit of a look of disbelief on your face. Was it that you had won the match or was it just relief of stress from playing in a long tournament?

Jimmy Butler: The disbelief was that I had just won the National Championships!  It had been 21 years since that happened, and I didn't know if it would ever happen again.  It had been a dream of mine to win it again.

I think in America we have such a rich tradition with our National Championships dating back to 1932.  It is every American Table Tennis athlete's dream to win the National Championships.  Playing the National Championships in Las Vegas is a unique experience. I was born and raised playing table tennis in Las Vegas since I was 7 years old.

One of the best feelings I had when I un-retired was my return to the 2012 Nationals in Las Vegas.  It brought back wonderful memories.

USATT: Speaking of the memories how you feel being part of your dad's induction into the Hall of Fame on Thursday night?

Jimmy Butler: I was thrilled to see my Dad inducted into the USATT HOF.  He is a selfless man, always helping others without asking for any praise or reward.  I found some footage of my father coaching my brother and I, and working at tournaments throughout the years.  I put it all together and we made a video for him at the HOF banquet. 

The video made me cry, my brother cry, and my sister in England watched it and said she cried.  She showed it to two of her friends in England who know nothing about any of us and she said they cried.  That best describes the impact my Dad has on other people.

USATT: Okay final question. What's next for Jim Butler in 2015?

Jimmy Butler: Next is a much better backhands, and better fitness.  It is great to be back into Table Tennis, and I am going to enjoy each and every moment.   Also I would like to say that is a great joy to be living in America with Stellan and Angie Bengtsson while playing again.  I use to wake up each mourning in the early 1990's talking Table Tennis with the Bengtssons in Sweden.  Now I wake up in Las Vegas at the Nationals and talk Table Tennis with World Champion Stellan Bengtsson in 2014.  Quite a treat for me, and life is full of surprises.