After an unseasonably warm weekend that melted most of the snow in the area. The training center welcomed us after an interesting flight on a true "puddle jumper". This 15 seater was the first flight I have ever been on where the pilot was also the flight attendant! It shaped up that these trials, held at the University of Michigan, Flint, would be a hot bed. From my arrival (sans luggage) I could see everyone was looking for something important to happen. They would not be dissapointed.
While my uniform, racket and clothes took a vacation in Miami, I was busy circulating among athletes and officials to get their feelings of the coming event. This was not to be held as a rouind-robin as had been done in the past. Instead, a multi level single elimination draw was being used. This meant that all players were involved in the first round with the finalist both making the team. The next day consisted of all but those finalists with only the winner making the team and the last crucial day saw all but the top three compete with the final spot on the team going to the winner of the third tournament.
Well,,,,,, this was what was supposed to happen. Unfortunately only SIX women chose to compete for the team. with four of them making it, a round robin was used. On the men's side, it was a little better. There were 11 competitors, supposed to be 12 but could easily have been 9! It seems that between the time of the US Championships and the trials (remember when they used to be held back to back?) USATT Board of Directors and/or the National Team committee changed the playing field.
This year to play for the US at the World Championships, you had to sign a contract in which you agreed to actually PRACTICE! In the US this is an unheard of concept. Not just practice, but practice as a team and with the rest of the team. How cruel could USATT be! Not only that, but you actually had to be elligible to play for the team. Imagine that. These guys at USATT just don't seem to get the idea. Additionally, due in part to the extra expense of the trials and the loss of a major financial sponsor, the stipend for US team members was cut in half.
All of these things effectively cut down on participation. Most of the players in attendance were hungry. Some of the top players, though, had not practiced or competed at a high level since the championships in December. On noting this the day before the trials began, I voiced opinions, later bourne out, that some of these players would have a hard time making it through the trials. It was rumored that some players had to be almost coerced into trying out. This is a sad statement. The top 3 male players there were; Chen Yinghua (MD), Jim Butler (GA), and Huazhang Xu (MD). These are the top 3 rated men in the US.
All 3 were beaten the first day! Major upsets saw David Zhuang (NY) and Razvan Cretu (LA) advance through to the first two spots on the team. The next day, it snowed. We had lavish dining fare. The first two days, it was the Brian Pace v Chi Sun Chui show. At 9:00 both mornings, they drew each other. The second day, they were the only match at that time. After splitting the two matches, they said that they would just flip a coin if they played again. "I love the guy, but I sure am tired of playing him!", said Brian.
The second day, Chen seamed more focused. Xu and Jimmy were still not quite there with both of them having to survive 5 game matches before realizing the importance of the day. Jimmy did not even warm up before his match with Chi Sun and Xu underestimated Barney Reed, going 19 in the fifth before winning. Chen polished off Darko Rop in the semis and Butler and Xu had a battle royal on the other side. This was truly the best comeback I have ever seen.
With the match tied 2-2, Xu started the fifth determined and did not miss. At 16-4 Xu serving, we had counted Jimmy out. Nobody told Jimmy. Methodically he started banging in winners. Xu was confident and played well, but Jim zoned out and just went for it. 18-7 Butler had no chance. 18-12 Xu started to feel preasure. at 19-16, Xu now played as if he was the one behind! Unbelievably, Jim advanced with a 21-19 win. Chen, watched, smiled and proceeded to crush Jim in the finals. Thus he becomes the third member of the team.
The final day saw desperate struggles. 18 yr old Barney Reed (MI), was pumped up after his loss to Xu the day before. He has been training hard and his left-handedness cannot be overlooked. He drew Butler (US #2) who had to win to make the team for the 4th time in a row. Barney was loose and Jim was tense. 5 games, several expletives and arguements later, Barney advanced to play Eric Owens (TX) US under 22 champion and ranked #5. Eric decided that he did not need to warm up against Barney and paid the price. On the other side, Xu had breezed into the finals fighting like a madman.
It appeared that we were in for another 5 game war between Reed and Xu. It was the premiere TV match. It lived up to its billing the first 2 games with Barney holding 2 game points in each only to lose both at duece. Disheartened, Reed lost the mental edge needed to win. Xu had hit so many edges and nets that Barney lost confidence. It showed at the start of the 3rd when he missed 2of his own serves, Xu hit 2 more edges and 3 more net winners to go up 7-0.
Barney never was in the game. the score became ridiculously lopsided for Xu and Barney went into exhibition play. Seeing this, Xu, who had fought so hard all day, turned it off. Suddennly he could not play and his level dropped to about 700. Barney is confused. He has already conceded, how did he win that game? "Something is not right", he says to his coach. "This should be over, I should not have won that." As it turns out, Xu does not have the time nor the desire to play for the US at the Worlds. His display in the Reed match was quite unfortunate. The athletes that Xu had beaten on his way here were prepared to protest.
Give great credit to Barney Reed Jr. for not taking advantage of this situation. By stepping out and not letting Xu give him a tainted match, he "did the right thing". Xu winning 3-1 looked dissapointed. I have heard that Reed was picked for the team since Xu is not going to participate. Congratulations! I have also heard that Eric Owens was selected as the coaches choice for 5th man on the team. This gives us three developing players going to the worlds. May they represent us well.
As for the women, Lily (I am going 4 with everybody) Yip (NJ) leads our group. The others to make it are Virginia Sung (NY), Tawny Bahn (CA), and Simone Yang (WA). Good luck to them! Both teams will have a hard road to advance the US table tennis cause in England in April.