On Thursday, the 71-year-old Hall of Fame legend and Las Vegas hometown favorite won three grueling matches to advance to the round of 16 of the 70 and over division at the World Veterans Championships (WVC) at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
In the opening match, Sakai rallied from 0-2 in games and survived four match points in the fourth game to beat cagy Russian Alexander Kasatkin 11-5 in the final game. Next up was Gerd Pleyer of Germany who went up 2-1 in games on the strength of a blistering forehand before Sakai stiffened to win 12-10 in the final game.
And then in the nightcap Sakai overcame another slow start in dropping the first game against Tiing Sik Ling of Malaysia before running off the next three games for the victory. The last game didn’t come easy as Sakai squandered a 10-7 lead and then another match point before sealing the win with a thunderous forehand winner for a 13-11 win.
“I want to go five days,” announced Sakai, who after each match exchanged high fives and congratulations from a loyal and passionate following of fans.
In his long and distinguished career Sakai has never won a WVC singles medal and he will keep his bid alive on Saturday after a day off from singles play on Friday.
“I want to win it here in Las Vegas, “ said Sakai, who with wife Donna also a Hall of Famer has called the desert playground home since 2002.
All of this comes after Sakai took a nasty and scary fall off a darkened stage Sunday during the WVC opening ceremony to begin the 19th edition of the biennial event that is the largest table tennis tournament in the world.
An ambulance was summoned and he was taken to the hospital where he was treated for two dislocated fingers on his non-playing left hand and a strained back.
“After falling down I am just so happy to have another chance to play,” said Sakai. “Really nothing can really happen now. Mentally I am really fired up. I am ready to win so badly.”
Matters looked very bleak against the southpaw Kasatkin, who bedeviled Sakai with his spins and elicited a rash of unforced errors off the American’s forehand.
“I was thinking at that time,’ I wish I hadn’t fallen off the stage’. My back was really hurting,” said Sakai.
But, Sakai dug deep into his reservoir of mental toughness and turned away four match points in the fourth game. Finally he evened the match by taking the game 16-14.
“I said to myself ‘ I had worked so hard to get ready and I didn’t want to lose and wait another two years for another chance’, “ said Sakai, who took home the bronze medal in the 60-64 age division doubles in the last WVC in 2016.
A slight change in tactics to keep the ball in play and make the Russian have to hit one more shot than he wanted, help Sakai break a 4-4 tie in the final game and win 7 of the last 8 points to win 11-5. Alongside the court were a host of enthusiastic and nervous onlookers as Sakai drew a horde of spectators. A line of USA Hall of Fame players had the front row, while top US players Barney Reed Jr and Jimmy Butler joined in with pump ups and vocal support.
"Dave Sakai is the man who everyone wants to see succeed, because he deserves it and because he fights for it and puts everything on the line," says USATT Media and Communications Director Matt Hetherington, who has followed Sakai's progress throughout the week, "To see him out there really firing up and knowing how much heart he has put into this dream - not just his own dream, but the dream to have this event here in Vegas, it's really something special."
There was more drama in the next match against Pleyer, who grabbed a 5-1 lead in the final game. Sakai again displayed how tough he is to put away, and living up to his nickname “Mr. Big” rallied to edge the German in the last game.
“I am holding up good,” Sakai said of his physical condition after finishing his last match nearly seven hours after his hit his first ball on Thursday. “To win it for the first time in Vegas would be huge.”