Boy, were there some strange sights at the 1996 US Open! For one, there was theRV that was playing itselfin Ping-Pong outside the main doors, then there were the outdoor wheelchair poolside games . This by a beautiful marina and harbor. The playing site itself was magnificent, with 74 tables in the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center. Of course, the tournament director and partner won there event, who would be silly enough to beat them!
In the old days (not so long ago) championship finals matches between players at the 2600 level were the norm and spectator enthusiasm was high. Now, just a few years later the level of play has exploded to necessitate the addition of an under 2550 event to allow what would have been a top player then, to get in some good matches now instead of losing in the 1st round or even the QUALIFIERS of the Open!
This is an extraordinary progression in the sport. In that same time period, tournament matches used to be handed out to the players in front of the control desk, one by one. You never had any idea when you were playing where you were playing and in many cases, who. Individual matches were called out and you had to stand at the control desk to get your match (sometimes for hours) and if you were not there....well too bad.
Players at the top of our tournaments now are world class, 2700 and 2800 level players have a tough time getting past the first round. Spectators have come to know and expect top level play and will not settle for less. So too, our tournaments now feature time scheduling and table assignments designed to let the player simply walk in, go to their table and play. Players now see this as the standard for US tournaments and will accept no less.
Last year the US Open in Anaheim ran like clockwork with a precise schedule and superior play. A year later, the U.S. Open in Ft. Lauderdale featured almost 100 more players, additional events for them to enter, and was run on less tables. This year the event featured more countries participating and was part of the ITTF Pro Tour. To top it off the tournament finished a day earlier than last year!
With more events, more players, less tables and less time, the control desk was truly tested to make this work. It worked. At one time the matches were going out a little slowly, but they did go out. However, the standard in the US is now perfection. Things were not perfect, A good example of the incredible expectations players have come to possess are reflected in the player who came up frantic to play his match on Saturday.
At the desk he was demanding his match card and why wasn't it ready? Frantically the staff rushed to help and 6 people jumped to work tracking and trying to find what was wrong. Quietly I asked the player when the match was supposed to be played. "Why at 10:00" he said. Looking at my watch and seeing it was 9:40 I asked if he knew he was too early. "Yes", he said "but I am ready to play! I am having lunch at noon."
In fairness to the players, officials, and spectators, careful organization and planning are goals we must meet. These are what we have to live up to, and it is a goal to meet. 2600 just won't cut it anymore!
This leg of the ITTF Pro Tour featured strong play on both the men's and women's sides. The women's semis featured the #1 seed Canadian Geng L. vs Kim Lee from Korea and Eun Sil Lee Korea vs. surprise Barbara Chiu from Canada.
On one side we had Eun Sil Lee playing a surprise opponent. It was to be Vriesekoop. But ("Vriesekoop's not really coming is she? She's in a training camp in France") Boileau played beautifully to upset Bettina. "She played very well but luck was also with her", said the Dutch player. Game styles mean so much.
Barbara had reached the semis with an incredible upset of the Romanian Ciosu (World #27). Previously Chiu, who plays long pips penhold block/hit style, had never made much impact in the US. Her Canadian rating of 2300 seemed reasonable. Didn't Amy and Lily always beat her? Well, that was then. Today it was Barbara. Beating Niraj Oak in the 2400s right after he had beaten Derek May and Randy Cohen. Ciosu fared worse! Barbara in the semis playing hard fast low quick shots that were strong enough to get her there, but not the least bit of a problem for Lee. The long pips only proved a problem to their owner. Lee advances.
On the other side Geng, ("I could have beat her, she is not playing so well today", mused Lilly Yip) on the other hand used placement and speed to dominate the Korean Kim Lee. But it was not supposed to be Lee. It was supposed to be the former world champion from Luxembourg Xia Liang Ni. Lee found the range and knocked her off in 4 games, but that was all she could do. The stronger Geng dominated her, 3 straight not really close.
First up was #1 seed Johnny Huang (world #13) vs. unseeded Korean Oh (world #120). Oh had just dispatched a tough Chinese chopper in the previous round, while Johnny had yet to have a serious test. These were the premier TV matches and at 5:05PM the players were on the courts and ready to play. Johnny plays as if he uses the classic Chinese penhold grip with short pips. In actuality, he is a shakehander and is a counter hitter and spinner. Oh on the other hand, is a European style shakehand looper. Oh is tall, about 6'3 with long arms.
In the beginning Johnny started by taking control of the table. Using quickness and placement it was 3-8 before Oh got into a good point. Johnny kept him off balance with strong serving and corner to corner precision, constantly forcing the tall Korean's footwork. 11-4, then 6-14, then 17-8, Johnny's speed speed and more speed prevented Oh from joining the game. 21-11. As Johnny went to his coach between games I wondered what advice you give a player who is winning this big?
Evidently it was not such good advice. In the second game the Korean started to run around his backhand and place strong inside out shots into Johnny's backhand. Every time he did this he seemed successful. This put Johnny on the defensive and gave control of the table to Oh. Huang now tried making low short dead balls that were hard to tee off on. While this worked it took the momentum away from him and basically left Oh to figure out how the best way to score points. At 14-15 Oh ahead, there was a long rally featuring sidespin counter looping off of the table as the rally got wider and wider it became apparent that this was a critical point. Oh losing the point now was pumped and playing on emotion.
Johnny is now relying almost totally on his service and Oh misses two topspin serves into the backhand. Oh takes over at 17-18 and Johnny goes back to what worked in the first game, wide corner placements. However, now they are not wide enough. Oh playing with the lead wins in deuce as Johnny is now plying a soft blocking game and letting Oh open. 23-21
Oh opens the third game pressuring Johnny's backhand. Now probing for weak points. Johnny takes over up 3-2 but blows 2 of his own serve to hand the lead back at 6-4. Oh is now mixing dead ball loops into his attacks and 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, 6-12 Johnny is now getting sloppy on his own serve. At 7-12 he decides to start pushing and goes flat footed. at 10-15 it's Oh's turn to slump. With the score 17-13 Oh has lost the momentum but still mangoes to get to 20-15. Johnny is determined now and fighting hard. 16, 17, 18, 19, but NO it's Oh!
The crowd has now swelled to about 1200 and is truly into the match. They are very table tennis aware and can sense the changes. Now there is a match. Johnny who blew Oh out in the first game now has respect and Oh having won 2 in a row has confidence. He is now ripping and blasting even as Johnny is making extraordinary blocks and counters. The level of play rises as both players are pushed from the table by the other and to gain time they step back to catch the ball and spin in their own shot and placement. At 12-13 Johnny up is shaking his head. He has figured out that he cannot win by power.
He puts 9 consecutive shots to Oh's backhand forcing the issue and then loses the point. Now Johnny is constantly in Oh's backhand as he drives the pace up to a frantic level counting on superior speed. at 17-19 it appears this will work but then he loses another long back hand counter and goes now to the forehand. Oh's awesome play evens it at 19-19. Oh mis-hits to 19-20, but Johnny then plays a pitty pat game of drop shot pushes and Oh deuces. The match is decided on yet another backhand counter exchange as Oh winning all three also gains the upset!
Men's semi 2
Now comes what every right handed player wishes for-a lefty versus a lefty. Now what not everyone realizes is that it is just as difficult for a left handed player to play against a left hander as it is for the right handed player. Everything is backwards to them as well. The two involved here were Florea and Liu. Florea is another big tall shakehand looper with tremendous power. From Romania and playing in Europe he has vast international experience. Liu on the other hand now plays for Argentina. Originally from China he never made their team and has had little exposure. However, last week in Brazil he made the finals so....
Liu plays an all around offensive defensive game. He uses long pip on the backhand (shakehand) and smooth fast rubber on the front. Being left handed and long pip with a 2700 attack is a confusing combination. Florea acted disdainful and the confused and then frustrated throughout the match. Liu worked like a man possessed.
Hard as he tried Liu was not present until 7-3 Florea. He was trying soft chops that did not work. Now he comes firing off Florea's serve and they have a great topspin to topspin off the table counter rally which Liu wins. The game is afoot! At 12-6 Liu wins his first point chopping. By 13-17 Liu is in the match. At 15-18 Florea chops!
Liu is attacking consistently now and gets to 19-16. Inexplicably he reverts and gives the table up to the Romanian. Florea runs out the match 21-16 on a HUGE backhand cross court pick hit/drive kill.
Liu is consuming massive quantities of fluid and has only his sister in his corner. Florea has not broken a sweat and is being coached by the Romanian coach. Liu comes out on Florea's serve in game 2 determined and starts out with serious chops. At 1-1 he places a spectacular backhand sidespin chop winner in an unbelievable angle. At 2-3 Liu is gaining confidence and has Florea playing a blocking game. Liu attacking fails to do better than 3-6. He cannot keep this up. Florea starts attacking deep corners and Liu has expended great energy attacking but Florea plays some sloppy shots and goes flat footed. Liu goes to the high toss at 8-7. (Is that tea I see in Liu's cup or is it a Nitakku ball being served?)
An incredible point is played at 10-8 and now the match is wide open. Florea facing away from the stands at 10-10 is looking directly at his coach who conveniently has trouble with muscle control. He cannot help but signal which serves to use etc. For this he draws the yellow card from the umpire. Florea is now rushing and is truly playing flat footed now. Liu starts to take control chopping and Florea on his heals uses no power to go through him. Ah, long pips even at 2900 a player loses concentration.
At 19-16 Florea bets his farm on a kill shot and it comes back. Although Florea gets to 19, this has already won the game for Liu. Liu is now pouring sweat and working as hard as is possible while Florea still appears not to have put out any effort. Florea is still playing flat footed but sneaks a lead on Liu's serve at 1-2. Liu begins to assert himself with powerful sidespin loops. at 2-3 Florea show some pride with a backhand kill but is still not on his toes. Because of this Liu begins to win off the table defensive rallys. At 7-4 Florea starts swatting at balls instead of stroking. Maybe he is just not giving Liu any respect. At 5-10 Florea looks totally confused, maybe if he could only see his coach....147, then 16-7 Florea is frustrated and slapping wildly at balls, this game is over. There is only one player in this one. 21-11 Liu 2 games to 1.
Liu now wringing with sweat, has run out of fluids. He appeals to his sister but the bottle is empty. She runs frantically to refill it but by the time she gets back the match is starting. This will cost Liu. Liu is a classic small ball of energy running on high octane fuel. He cannot afford this oversight. Florea on the other hand is disgusted but has yet to break a real sweat. Certainly that last game took no energy, on top of this his coach is there with refreshment and words of encouragement. Liu an Argentinean Chinese here by himself, looks pleadingly after his departed sister as he is called to the table.
The start of the 3rd looks like it is Liu for sure. Florea looks beaten is rocking back on his heals, confused. At 5-3 he does the "tie the shoe" routine to no avail. At 4-6 Florea has no 3rd ball attack. Looping falling away his ball has no zip. At 9-6 there seems no doubt it will be Liu. But, Florea gets lucky on 2 consecutive points and then wins the next to make it 9-9. Now Liu digs deep and makes an awesome attack that leaves Florea staring in disbelief. After some sloppy play from both players, Florea is back in the match at 14-13.at 16-16 there is a great off the table now left now right exchange that seems to take it out of Liu.
Now Florea starts to try his backhand cross court kill. It is truly an awesome stroke that screams by the opponent. As Florea wins the game to take it to 2-2, Liu exhausted, for the first time exists the barriers and sits in his chair trying to recuperate and breathing heavily.
Florea is now pumped up. He looks fresh and contemptuous as if to say to Liu, "you don't belong on the table with me!" Liu starts the 5th with brilliant defense. Florea is disdainfully jabbing at balls. Hard as he is working, Liu can only manage 4-4 and looks tired for the first time at the table. They exchange edges to 5-5 and Liu musters an attack. Florea shows no respect and Liu shows fatigue now. He attacks 11 straight balls in one rally and loses the point. Now its 7-7. Liu is putting out maximum effort and only staying even.
At 8-7 Florea begins now to truly play. Conditioning becomes the factor. He runs it to 10-7. Florea is intense now as if he's decided this is the moment. At 12-7 Liu has no gas left. Liu gives a final desperate effort and attacks 8 more huge shots in a row on the next rally. Just as before he loses the point. Digging deep he finds something and decides to invade the north, bringing it to 14-11. Florea suckers him into a placement that he crushes. Liu gets no closer and with no juice left he is game but unable. 21-16 Florea into finals.
Geng vs. Lee. This is a bangers dream. If you want fast hard exciting close to the table play you've come to the right pair! Geng, the veteran and Lee the 20 year old. Geng is amazing. A small baby to take care of, a business she runs with her husband and out here in the finals. Lee is all Korean table tennis, it is her total focus now. Korean National Champion she is a comer.
Bang Bang Bang Bang! it could be a western! Which is the marshal and which is the outlaw? 10 feet is about right and they are bouncing on their toes from the start. With about 900 folks watching, Lee comes out and dominates the first game on sheer quickness and placement. Despite losing points on faulty service, she rolls over Geng, who looks rusty, 21-9!
Lee serving in the second game tests Geng's footwork which is too slow for the side to side placement. There is no mystery here. Hit it fast, hit it low and place it tough. Bang Bang Bounce Bounce, they look like 2 of those bobbing head dolls you put in the rear window of your car. Geng must practice this shot. suddenly she hits an edge down the forehand line. (throughout the match, she hits 12 of them!)Lee seems to lose concentration or confidence and starts refusing to attack. She hands Geng the second game as a gift of international friendship perhaps? 1-1 Now
Lee looks confident in the 3rd but Geng's body now starts to run on memory. It remembers that she is the #7 player in the world and will her to use it. Geng begins to pound the forehand line mercilessly. At 2-7 where did Lee go? Geng Hitting one stroke winners consistently now. This she can do, doesn't take a 20 year old body to win on single shots. At 10-4 Lee is staring at her racket, and bang 5-10. Now they start to play longer rallys. Lee looks steady and Geng looks tired. Lee evens it at 13-13 and they trade to the end where Lee takes it 21-18. This could have bee three straight.
In the 4th Geng looks Confident. She is bouncing on her toes again like a fighter come out for the kill in the 7th round. Is it enough? 1,2,3,4 and then Lee serves another Fault. 5-0 Lee bangs in a confident winner to 5-1 will this wake her up? 6,7,8,9 nope Geng is playing all by herself. Lee is somewhere in Seoul at the Duty Free shops or out at the beach. 2-10, 2-11, maybe a whitewash rule would help...21-5 now its 2-2.
Geng looks young again. The last game has invigorated her. Now she is the teenager! She is confident and strong and Lee is just now putting her bags down from the shopping trip. With her 11th edge, Geng goes to 5-10 up. Lee's spirit, watching herself be pummeled decides its time to play some ping pong and reenters her body. She loses the next point, to go to 5-11, but is fighting now. Geng seems deflated even though she wins the point. She is no longer bouncing but stepping from side to side now. Like an Eveready bunny with Mallory batteries, she begins to come unwound. Step Step miss instead of bounce bounce bang. Lee ties the game at 14-14. At 16-15 the best point of the match is played and Geng wakes back up.
Lee though, is back. Now, Now a fight breaks out, no a war! Neither will concede. Geng on pride experience, and artistry, Lee on desire and youthful determination. 19-19 Geng attacks a perfect third ball for a winner - wait she missed the ball! Its the Korean Lee who shouts in victory. 21-19 Geng stays for a long time after the match trying to find out what went wrong, by herself, sitting by the court, stunned.
Much different from the semis or women's matches, The Finals features to tall lanky shakehand loopers. One left handed, one right handed. Florea and Oh look like mirror images in some distorted mirror.
Unlike the semis, Florea appears to be interested in this match. He looks strong. Oh starts serving and they test each other. at 32-2 Florea brings to the table what he could not use against Liu in the semis. It what makes him a true world class player. Against the long pips it was a negative. Against Oh it is a nuclear weapon.
Like Wimbledon and the crushing serve of Samprass and Krajicek, Florea has one of the worlds best set of table tennis serves. Unlike tennis, it is not power but spin and placement, touch and finesse that win here. Oh looked nervous as Florea started serving. And well he should for he had no clue how to play the serves. I mean absolutely no clue.
In the first game Oh fails to win a single point off of Florea's serve! 15 points is a heck of a spot to give your kid sister let alone a world class player. 21-9 Florea.
On the second point of the 2nd game Oh wins his 1st point on Florea's serve. The fact that Florea missed did not matter he had won a point. Oh now starts to crank up his serve. Like a baseball strategy the lefty was hiding the ball from the righty and vice versa. Florea begins to misread Oh's serve. They trade service until 17-18. Then Oh serves out to deuce. Again it's who controls the serve as Oh wins it 23-21
Now don't get me wrong there were lots of spectacular shots going on these are 2 2900 level players here. Everything was set up though by who misread the serve the least. What followed was desperation defense to crushing third ball attacks. Florea was particularly found of blasting a 7 million mile per hour backhand kill into Oh's wide forehand. Oh was not particularly fond of walking over and picking the ball up, but he got great practice.
The 3rd game Oh proved the second game was unique. He was still totally unable to read Florea's serves. Florea proceeded to have a field day drilling balls into Oh's belly and crushing balls as they floated near eye level. This was great good fun for Florea. I don't think Oh cared for it very much though. as Florea won his 10th straight service series he won the game 21-14. Think how good Florea could be if HE could read serve!
The 4th game Florea was a Sherman tank 5-0 as slap winner Oh was powerless and just waiting for a chance to serve. At 6-4 Oh made a Herculean effort an for the first time controlled Florea's service. He got the serve back up 8-7. At 9-11 Florea serving, an extraordinary topspin to topspin off the table rally took place showcasing both of these talents. Florea was loose now he evens the score at 11-11 and then starts to run. At 11-14 Oh must be strong. Florea is ripping balls on his serve Oh must dominate his own. He hands the serve back at 16-14 and is in the match. How incredible is Oh, to give such an advantage and still be in the match! at 19-16 Florea serving though you know it is over.
Oh will not get the serve again 21-16 it's Florea!