Tahl Leibovitz Interview

By Rahul Acharya | Sept. 20, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

Tahl Leibovitz (NY, USA)

40 year-old Tahl Leibovitz hardly needs an introduction. Almost every U.S. table tennis player knows his inspiring life story and his rise from homelessness to greatness. His list of accolades are almost too many to mention, but I'm sure Tahl's journey is not yet complete. 

It is an honor for me to interview 2015 Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee, Tahl Leibovitz. I hope you enjoy getting to know him better!

Quick facts about Tahl Leibovitz:
Highest USATT rating 2531
U.S. National Para Team Member (1995 - 2016)
5-time U.S. Paralympian (2016, 2012, 2008, 2004, 1996)
7-time U.S. Para National Champion
8-time Para Pan Am Games Gold Medalist
10-time U.S. Open Para Gold Medalist
2015 USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee
1998 Para World Championships Bronze Medalist
1996 Paralympic Gold and Bronze Medalist

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Paralympic Gold Medalist Tahl Leibovitz
Photo: Glen Randmer
With 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee Tahl Leibovitz at Westchester TTC

1. 2015 has one heck of a year for you! You had a strong finish to your Collegiate table tennis career, won the Gold at the recent Para Pan Am Games in Toronto, and were recently announced as an inductee into the USATT Table Tennis Hall of Fame. How does it feel?
2015 has been a really awesome year for me. I am not sure it could get any better. I got to play in the Collegiate National Championships for New York University with my good friend and training partner, Michael Landers. Training was tough because I was taking 16 credits, plus working in a clinic 30 hours a week to get clinical hours in order to take the state exam, writing tons of papers and process recordings for patients, and coaching. I was working anywhere from 120-125 hours a week!  It was a super grind. 

I then graduated from NYU with Honors with a MSW in Clinical Social Work. Then I went to Spain for the Para Open and won a Bronze Medal in Class 9 Singles and a Gold Medal in the Class 9-10 Team event. After that I was in Romania, where I played very well and won a Gold Medal in Class 9 Singles and Silver in the Class 9-10 Team event. After that I headed to the U.S. Open, won the Para Open Class 9-10 Singles in a very tough final match. I was 1-1 in games and down 8-4 in a best of 5, against a player from California who was just recently classified as a Class 10. I also took third in the Men’s Over Men’s 30 Singles and Men’s over 40 Singles events. 

U.S. Open was a preparation for the Para Pan Am Games in Canada. What really helped me at the U.S. Open was playing in a 41-point Handicapped tournament where players have to spot other players points depending on their rating. I was the top seed in the tournament. What’s really crazy was that I ended up winning the event. I had to spot some players 33 points! It was a great event because I needed to use 100 percent concentration on every point. I think that event helped me at the Para Pan Am Games.

I then went to the Para Pan Am Games. I was part of an awesome team and had some of the best coaching in the world. The team of Stellan, Angie, Keith, and Ross was outstanding. I felt very good going into the final. However, I almost lost. I was up 2-0 in games in a best of five and down 2-5 in the fifth. I came back and won the match. It was pretty awesome.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I found out I got inducted into the Hall of Fame. So I think for me 2015 being “great’ is an understatement. I am looking forward to competing at the U.S. National Championships and also being a participant at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

2. Tell us about how you got started with table tennis.
When I was around 14 years old, I started playing table tennis at the South Queens Boys and Girls Club. The first year I played with sandpaper. I remember changing to sponge and how much I disliked the change at first.

I started training with a group of 12 players. I was probably the worst player in the group. Out of all of us, only myself and another player kept playing. The other player is David Fernandez, who would eventually go on to win the Central American Games. The lesson is... in table tennis there are certain obstacles at each level, and to get to the top-level you really have to hang in there and push through.

3. What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: Clipper Classic (switching to an offensive minus blade soon)
Forehand rubber: Calibra LT Sound 2.0
Backhand rubber: Calibra Sound 2.0

4. How often do you currently play and train?
I pretty much officially stopped training in 2006 after the IPC Para World Championships. That was the year I started school. I did train hard in 2009 for the Para German Open for a couple of months and did some training in 2008 for the Paralympics. Before I started school, I was playing at least 35-40 hours a week. Once I was in school, I was playing 6-10 hours a week, and some weeks I could not play at all because of midterms and finals. When I was playing a lot of hours, I was a lot more stable and consistent. Now that I am out of school, I am going to try and start training again full-time. To play good stable table tennis, a player needs to practice a lot of hours.

5. You've accomplished so much in table tennis already. Do you still have any goals? 
I plan on training for the 2016 Paralympic Games and participating in the 2016 Olympic trials. There is a big difference between the able-bodied game and the Paralympic game. Both games use totally different tactics. Although I can compete against the top players in the United States and Canada, it is very unlikely I will make the Olympic Team. I can beat 1-2 players, maybe even 3. But to beat 6-7 and do it multiple times, that’s very tough. However, I am among the best Para players in the world and I do have a realistic chance to compete for a Gold Medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games. To win another Paralympic Gold Medal, would be awesome.

Let's talk about some hypothetical situations...

6. If you could go back in time and get a "do-over" for any one match from any tournament that you have ever played, which one would that be? Why?
In 2006, at the IPC Para World Championships Open event, I was playing very well. I had beaten the number one Para player in the world in the Quarterfinals. I later played against Stanislaw Fraczyk of Austria and was up 7-4 in the final game. Fraczyk is a tough player. He has wins against Waldner, Ding Song, and many good world-class players. He has also won the Austrian National Championships a few times. I lost the match 11-8. That was a very tough loss. I rushed it. I should have taken my time. 

7. If you could get anyone in the world, from the past or the present, to coach you during the most important match of your life, who would it be? Why?
Angie Bengsston has been one of my main coaches for the past few years. I always enjoy working with her and had some really great results because of her coaching. For me the most important aspect of coaching is the relationship between the player and the coach. So to choose one coach, I would probably choose my wife as the coach because she was never able to see me playing in a very important match. It would be a lot of fun. 

Great answers! Moving on...

8. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
Mikael Appelgren was my favorite player growing up. I liked his game so much that I would practice with my left hand and copy his game. I liked when he backed out and played long rallies. I also thought it was awesome when Schalger won the world championships in 2003. That was an amazing comeback.

9. Couple of rapid-fire questions:
Talent or hardwork? Both 
Both are equally important. I think you have to have some talent to be world class in table tennis.  Stellan Bengtsson once told me that talent could mean many things. He said doing service practice for 90 minutes every day is a talent. I agree with that. I also think that being physical is important and some people are more talented physically than others. However, without hard work it does not matter how much talent you have. Talent without hard work is pretty much useless.

Skills or Confidence? Confidence
Skills are important. Confidence is really important. I always believe I can compete with anyone I play. I have never played a match where I thought I could not compete. In table tennis, serving with confidence is probably the most important.  

21-point games or 11-point games? 15-point games
I think 15-point games could be better. I like the 21-point game better than the 11-point game. In the 11-point game, some matches are won by luck. I also think its more exciting to make matches longer instead of shorter. The longer a match is, the more exciting it is. 


Poly ball or Celluloid ball? Celluloid
I like the 38 mm celluloid ball the best. I don’t like the poly ball as much as the celluloid ball, but I play much better with the poly ball. The quality of the poly ball is still not so good.

More drills or more matches? Matches
The best way to improve is to play tournament.Tournaments will give you instant feedback. Many people work hard to improve their strokes, but are unable to put their strokes into the match. I think playing matches is really important. For training, it should be 60 percent drills and 40% matches. The drills should incorporate match scenarios. Many players are either concerned with doing what they want to do in a match, or concerned with stopping the opponent from what they want to do. It’s a combination of both. You could practice something for 6 months and find in a match that your opponent will not let you do what you practiced. It is important not to repeat the same mistakes more than once. Its good to train against many different styles.

To cho, or not to cho? It depends
It depends on whom you are playing and on how you are feeling. Sometimes you need to motivate yourself in a match. Sometimes if you cho, it could bother your opponent. Sometimes you don’t want to say anything at all.

10. Do you have any advice on how to choose table tennis equipment?
Stiga has sponsored me for about 15 years and Paddle palace for probably 10 years. In fact, I get many emails asking about equipment so I will talk a little bit about what works for me and what I look for in equipment from weight, to blade thickness and so on.

Many world-class players told me that if you cannot control the short game and also block with the racket, it is too fast for you. A faster racket may be better against a certain style of player and a slower one may be better against another style of player. The key is to find the balance in-between, something that will work well against everyone. 

Blade thickness and weight are important for me. The Clipper blade that I use has a thickness of 6.7.  It is good for playing middle distance and also for smashing. The Clipper blade plays very well with Stiga rubber. Some blades are listed a certain thickness but, you have to check them to make sure.  Most world-class players use a blade thickness of around 5.8. The thinner the blade, the easier it should be to play closer to the table. You also don’t want to have a blade too thin. For me, I think 5.9-6.0 could work well. 

I am switching to an offensive minus blade. I think an offensive minus blade will help me play better. I am going to try the Stiga Evolution and if that does not work, I will try the Rosewood V. If a blade is listed at say 88 grams and is offensive minus and you find one at 95 grams, the racket will most likely be offensive or maybe even offensive plus. The heavier the blade, the faster it is. If you have two blades of the same model and one is heavier, the heavier one will be faster.

I also have a lot of problems in my wrist and elbow due to severe tendinitis. If I use a blade that is too light, it will hurt my elbow and if I use one too heavy, it bother my wrist. Since I am using softer rubber, I use a blade that weighs around 94 grams. With rubbers glued on the blade I try and keep the weight between 175 and 178 total. Most world-class players use blades that weigh more than 90 grams and their entire weight for the racket is around 185 grams. I think it’s most important to find a blade that has a very good balance. 

I also need to use softer rubber because of the problems in my wrist. I do recommend using harder rubber on the forehand and medium rubber on the backhand. But it also depends on your style. If you are more of a backhand oriented player, you might want to use a harder rubber on your backhand. In the end equipment can be more of a personal preference, but I recommend using due diligence to find the correct blade and rubbers for your style and once you figure it out, you should probably not switch.

11. Who is the one person who has had the biggest positive influence in your life?
I will first say that my wife is a great supporter and an amazing individual as well as a one of the main reasons for my success as a table tennis athlete. If I had to pick one person outside my family who had the biggest positive influence in my life, it would be Sean O'Neill. Sean has been a coach, a mentor, and a good friend for more than 10 years.

12. What do you like to do when you are not playing table tennis?
I like to read a lot. I am also the lead singer for an alternative rock band in NYC. I enjoy going to museums. I also like to watch tennis and enjoy practicing martial arts. I was thinking of trying to learn archery!

13. Anything else that you would like to add?
Thank you for taking the time to put together this interview. 

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Thanks for your time, Tahl and good luck with the 2016 Paralympic Games and 2016 Olympic Trials. Go Team USA!