If you started playing circa 1976, the God of Table Tennis was Hungarian, and his name was Istvan Jonyer. Players all over the world tried copying those smooth, straight-armed loops from both wings, shots that made Jonyer the 1975 World Men's Singles Champion, as well as two-time World Doubles and one-time World Team Champion. He was leading Hungary to victory over the Chinese in 1979 (with Tibor Klampar and Gabor Gergely) ten years before Waldner (with Persson, Appelgren, and Lindh) did so for Sweden.
Jonyer may have also caused more injuries than any other player. Sometimes in matches he would throw this backhand sidespin loop at opponents where he'd bring his racket way to his right and sweep it to the left. I was one of many who hurt his shoulder copying this. When Jonyer was asked about this, he said he never practiced the shot, that he'd tear up his shoulder if he did! He just learned to do it sometimes in games. Many thousands of copiers wished they'd known that before they'd torn up theirs!
Jonyer is possibly the biggest draw at the tournament - it's between him and 1991 World Men's Singles Champion Jorgen Persson. (1971 Champion Stellan Bengtsson is also present, but not playing due to eye problems.) And so, at 4:30PM on Monday night a huge crowd gathered around table 42 to see something few had seen in decades - Jonyer in action, in 65-69 Men's Singles. I was one of many. Alas, the previous round went late, and so it wasn't until 5:28PM that the match began.
He was up against Marco Chao of Oakland, and conventional shakehand inverted player. Later he would tell us that 30 years ago he had been a 2100 penhold player, but he hadn't played a tournament since, plus he'd switched to shakehands. It was hard to judge his level, but my best guess is 2000. But against a dominating but now erratic style like Jonyer's, it's hard to tell.
During the two-minute warm-up I could see the old strokes were still there, or at least a close copy. Near the end, while hitting forehand-to-forehand, he suddenly unleashed a vintage straight-arm forehand rip down the line. At that moment, I was transported back to 1975 (yeah, a year before I started), and could see him as he was back then.
But this is 43 years later, he's out of practice, and has put on a lot of weight. Once the match began, his shots were smooth, dominating, but inconsistent. Often he'd get caught unable to get into position to end the point off pop-ups. Other times he'd simply miss easy shots - but even the misses were smooth and world-class looking, other than the lack of mobility problem. You could see the disgust in his eyes when he missed shots that he'd make 99.9% before. He wanted to win, but more than that, he wanted to play well.
Down 1-5 in the first, he turned it on, led 10-9, but missed some easy shots and lost 12-10. And yet you could tell he dominated the points with relentless backhand topspins and seemingly unstoppable forehands - they just missed too often, or he'd get caught out of position. Marco used a very smart tactic of mixing in long serves to the backhand and short serves to the forehand. While Jonyer often dominated against the long serves, he had to hang back for them, and so he struggled with the short serves to the forehand - he was literally aced at least four times against those serves where he simply couldn't get in fast enough. That was hard to believe considering the Jonyer in his peak years had one of the best forehand flips in the world - especially at the 1979 worlds where he used the shot to dominate against China.
In the second game, Jonyer led 10-8, but again missed winning shots, and was down 10-11 and 11-12 - but won, 14-12. In the third, he seemingly couldn't play, fell behind 3-7 - and then played four completely dominating points to reach 7-7. Only to lose 11-8. In the fourth, he continued to dominate the points but miss too often. Down 7-10, he took a one-minute timeout, something that didn't exist back in his day, and then lost the 11-8. So match to the very nervous (as he later said) Marco Chao, 10,-12,8,8.
Jonyer had two more matches. He beat Yoshikazu Kainuma of Japan, a pips-out penholder, 5,-8,8,7, then lost to Gerd Hilgert of Germany, a shakehander with short pips who aggressively moved Jonyer around, 11,3,6. He finished third in the group, and since only the top two advance, he is out of the singles.
But he still has 65-69 Men's Doubles, with fellow Hungarian Attila Szeri. Jonyer won more doubles titles than singles titles, and you don't have to move as much in doubles - so who knows? A Table Tennis God may rise again.