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Table Tennis in the Superbowl!
Yes, it was - did you see the 30-second Xfinity ipad ad? It ran twice, with the short table tennis sequence at the start as an example of things you could watch on the ipad. Was this the single largest "showing" of table tennis in history?
World Championships of Ping Pong, I mean International Classic Ping Pong Championship
The "World Championships of Ping Pong," which are today and tomorrow (Feb. 7-8) in Las Vegas, was the original name. However, the ITTF objected to their using the term "World Championships," since they run the World Table Tennis Championships. President Adham Sharara wrote a letter threatening action if they didn't change it, and saying that players who competed in it "will not be allowed to take part in any ITTF events indefinitely." The organizers hastily renamed it the "International Classic Ping Pong Championship. Sharara wrote a second letter saying, essentially, that all was well. (Both letters are in the same link given here twice.)
Did I mention it's an all-sandpaper event, with $100,000 in prize money!!!
Ode to the Backhand
I've been thinking about the most memorable backhand play I've seen. This is not a listing of the "best" backhands, but the ones that really stick out in my memory.
First, can anyone who saw it ever forget Jan-Ove Waldner's lesson on backhand play in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 1987 World Championships, where he absolutely devastated Chen Longcan and Teng Yi of China? Going into the event, Waldner's relatively flat backhand was considered his weakness, but after he cracked about a zillion winners, that thinking might have changed.
Also around that time, the Russian Mazunov brothers (Andrei and Dmitij) seemed on the verge of revolutionizing the game with their backhand looping play. You often see players step around their backhands to loop forehands, rotating their body clockwise as they do so. The Mazunov's often did the opposite, stepping around the forehand to loop backhands, rotating their body counter-clockwise. It was reminiscent of an earlier age, when Victor Barna won five World Men's Singles titles in the hardbat age, often covering the entire table with his backhand as he too would step around the forehand to play backhand, also rotating his body around. (Here's a clip of Victor Barna ding this against Marty Reisman.)
One of the most memorable games ever at the USA Nationals was the big backhand battle between Gao Jun and Jasna Reed. I'm a little hazy on the details, but if I remember correctly it was in the Women's Singles Final, best of five to 21, and Gao had easily won the first two games. Early in the third game, the two started playing straight backhand to backhand, where both are at their strongest. Normally they'd be moving the ball around, but instead both seemed to reach an unwritten agreement to duel it out, backhand to backhand, and settle who had the better backhand, once and for all. And so the scene was set for some of the most vicious backhand rallies ever seen. Jasna's backhand, both looping and hitting, is an unstoppable force; Gao's pips-out penhold blocking backhand is an immoveable object. All I can say is Wow! While I think some of the rallies are still going on, it finally ended, as it should be, at deuce, with Gao winning, I believe 22-20.
The single greatest shot I've ever seen was made by the English Cadet Champion, circa 1987. He was visiting the U.S., and was training with the U.S. Junior Team at the Resident Training Program at Colorado Springs. I was watching as he played a practice match with Chi-Ming Chui, a pips-out penholder. The English kid was only 14 or 15, but he pulled off the shot of the century. He popped up a ball that went high and short, and Chi-Ming went to the side of the table, right by the net, and absolutely creamed the ball. The English kid saw this, and turned his back to the table, as if to avoid getting hit. Then he jumped up, and without looking, did a wild over-the-head backhand swing - and counter-smashed Chi-Ming's smash on the rise! The English kid didn't even see the shot, and was just going through the somewhat-joking motion of a wild swing. He didn't even know his shot had hit until we told him. If only we had that on video....
We'll end with three memorable Cheng Yinghua moments. The first was at the 1985 U.S. Open, when Cheng was still on the Chinese National Team. After Wen Chia Wu of Taiwan upset Cheng's partner, World Champion Jiang Jialiang, it was up to Cheng to take charge, and take charge he did. He devastated the field with his two-winged looping and blocking. However, it was his sudden backhand loops down the line that were most memorable. Over and over, often while returning serves, Cheng would suddenly just rip a backhand loop down the line to the forehand, and over and over we'd see the opponent absolutely frozen, not even moving as the ball went for an ace. Cheng won both singles and doubles.
Three years later, in 1988, Cheng was hired by USA Table Tennis as a practice partner/coach for its Resident Training Program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (I was there from 1985-1989, at various times as manager, director, and assistant coach.) The first time he played Canada's Johnny Huang (another former Chinese team member and about #10 in the world) was eye-opening. Huang was a shakehand hitter with short pips on both sides, and seemed able to hit anything. Against Cheng, Huang seemingly could smash everything, mostly into the backhand. Didn't matter; no matter how hard and how often he smashed, Cheng just backed up a bit and looped everything back. Most memorable were how he took Huang's best smashes and just backhand looped them back from about ten feet back, like it was just another drill. Cheng won easily.
And then there was that rally. Only a few saw it, I was one of the privileged few. It was at the 2000 North American Teams in Baltimore, when Cheng was already into his 40s and past his peak. He played Fan Yiyong, another former Chinese team member now living in the U.S. Like Cheng, Fan's best shot was his backhand loop. And the two went at it. However, Fan was much younger, and often Cheng was forced to block. And then came The Backhand Rally. One of them backhand looped crosscourt. The other backhand counterlooped off the bounce. The did the same. What ensued was a series of off-the-bounced backhand counterlooping the world (or at least me) had never seen before. It was probably about ten shots in all, with each shot a highlight reel shot. It showed that Cheng could still do it, and of course Fan could as well. It was sort of a changing of the guard, with Fan just eking out the match, 12, -26, 20.
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