Point of the Match!
42 competitors gathered Saturday at the Health Club by Hilton in New Orleans, La with skills ranging from first time tournament player to the reigning national champion. Despite the size of the field, the level of play was extremely high with 5 of the top 50 players in the United States vying for $1,500 in prizes. The event would not be possible without the support from the Confucius Institute at Xavier University. The Confucius Institute teaches Chinese language and culture in the United States and was excited to partner with the New Orleans Table Tennis Club to promote this great sport.
Play started at 10AM. With 5 players rated over 2500 and only 4 semifinal spots, round robin play was fierce. The first challenge of the day was Peter Nguyen (New Orleans) against Tong Zhang (Mississippi College). Zhang's quick feet and powerful forehands were not enough to overcome Nguyen's blocking and quick counter attacks. Nguyen pulled out a 3-1 victory in only his second tournament in the U.S. But Nguyen's next match against top seed Jim Butler was a different story entirely. Butler applying a whole new level of pressure smashing backhand after backhand caused Nguyen to be visibly frustrated or perhaps strategically saving energy for future matches. Either way, Butler quickly moved on to his next prelim match against Tong Zhang. Once again Zhang's forehand made defense difficult and he took the first game. Butler made a few small adjustments and got comfortable, once again driving the pace to a speed we have never seen in a New Orleans tournament.
On the other side of the draw results were predictable with Yi Chi Zhang and Cheng Li of Mississippi College glossing over the competition. One surprise was Cheng Li's early withdrawl due to illness, leaving only Yi Chi Zhang to represent Mississippi College in the semifinals. With Cheng Li's departure, Butler had a free pass into the finals while fans settled in to watch Yi Chi Zhang's semifinal against Peter Nguyen. Yi Chi Zhang's stoic demeanor contrasted Nguyen's emotional style and the match had its ups and downs with Peter taking the first game and Yi Chi taking the second. Nguyen's touch and change of spin caused Yi Chi's attack to become erratic and Nguyen took the next two games enthusiastic preparing to play Butler for the second time that day.
The first few points looked like it might be a repeat of the earlier showdown with Butler smacking backhands without reservation. Nguyen, however made a few key blocks gaining confidence and taking the first game to deuce. The next few points were perhaps the best of the tournament. One 20 shot rally sent Butler crashing into the barriers. Nguyen was heating up but Butler remained cool and confident and it paid off. Butler finished off the first game 13-11 and continued blasting away until Nguyen's defense and counter attack started to fail towards the end of the second game leaving Butler to enjoy an easy three game victory in front of an awe-struck audience. Jim Butler has elevated his game the last year or two with his sights set on making his third Olympic appearance in 2016 in Rio. The Director of the Confucius Institute awarded Butler his prize and played a few points against the champion as other divisions finished up and the thrilling competition at Xavier University Confucius Institute Cup came to a close. Congratulations to our top finishers and thanks to all that attended.