Last week, on the day after the U.S. announced a willingness to sell arms to China, a squad of Chinese sharpshooters invaded Princeton's Jadwin Gym for the purpose of sharing their explosive technique with their Yankee friends. The occasion was the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championships, and for the first time ever, the entrants—959 of them from 18 nations—included a team of renowned guided-missile experts from the People's Republic of China. A mere coincidence?
Perhaps, but for a nation that has a cabinet-level minister in charge of mixing pong and politics, the timing seemed almost too perfect. Almost too perfect as well would be the Chinese team's visit in Manhattan with former President Richard Nixon this week. It just happened to be set for the 10th anniversary of the advent of Ping-Pong diplomacy.
In fact, the very man who used the sport to help engineer that historic breakthrough in East-West relations, Liu Shiqing of the China Sports Service, also swung the deal that brought the Chinese to Princeton. Though Liu avowed that the Chinese motive for accepting the U.S. Table Tennis Association's invitation was simply to promote goodwill and the game, there were some unexpected and wholly welcome new twists to their visit.
In the past, like a band of hit-and-run marauders, the Chinese were content to pillage the world championships and then disappear behind the Great Wall, emerging only for a few select tournaments. In 1972, as they toured the U.S. with their trusty Double Happiness paddles, they discreetly lost—less tactful observers said dumped—some exhibition games to an American team ranked 28th in the world. Then it was strictly "friendship first, competition second."
June 28, 1981
Not so last week. That was apparent when the Chinese, who draw their talent from a bottomless reservoir of 12 million registered players—versus 6,000 in the U.S.—eschewed their practice of sending a second-line unit abroad to gain experience. Instead, befitting the significance of their first appearance in a U.S. tournament, they suited up the varsity—three men, two women—each one a reigning world champion.
Friendship wasn't forgotten, though. Indeed, the Chinese came bearing bountiful gifts, such as an offer to set up summer training camps in the People's Republic for promising young American players. And how about an exchange program in which visiting Chinese players and coaches would share their expertise with the U.S. squad in return for a tour of the People's Republic by, say, one of those classy American basketball teams?
Was there some mysterious ulterior design to this sudden Chinese open-door policy? Longtime China pong watchers like Tim Boggan, editor of Table Tennis Topics, couldn't help but caution that "you can never be sure about the Chinese. Just as I'm certain they sometimes dump matches when it suits their ends, I think their coming here goes beyond goodwill. They never do anything without some grand purpose in mind."
Liu, speaking through an interpreter, allowed as much when he alluded to the "great Chinese dilemma." In short, they may be too good for their own good.
That notion evolved in the 1970s while the Chinese were pursuing a one-for-all game plan in the biennial world championships. Stressing collective achievement over individual honors, they won the 1971 team title but lost the men's singles. In 1973, when fluke upsets denied them both the men's and women's team crowns, they turned around and swept the individuals. Eventually, after the Chinese once again won the team championships but lost the individuals in the next two world tournaments, players from other countries began to complain about tainted "gift games."
"There was no way you could beat them," says Danny Seemiller, the top U.S. player. "If you won, people would say, 'Oh yeah, friendship first, right?' When you lost, they'd say, 'Of course, you were supposed to.' "
While admitting nothing, the Chinese were stunned into a sweeping reappraisal of their approach to the game when their men's team was beaten by Hungary at the 1979 world championships in Pyongyang, North Korea. Having grown a mite too complacent in their isolation, the Chinese fell victim to the Hungarians' dreaded loop drive, a murderously heavy topspin shot that kicks off the table with bulletlike speed. The defeat spurred the Chinese to devise a new strategy.
Technically they had to refine the skills that would neutralize the loop drive being perfected by a growing number of their foes. And they had to adjust to the realization that, competitively speaking, too much friendship can be a bad thing.
Dr. Liu Chui Fan, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois and the USTTA's China expert, explains, "As the royalty of table tennis, the Chinese have always had a proprietary interest in the game. As a result, they felt that if they won too often and too decisively, they would retard the development of the sport. On the other hand, if in the interest of friendship they were too accommodating, they demeaned the skills of their opponents. Either way, the game suffered."
Two months ago, at the 1981 world championships in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, the Chinese solved part one of their dilemma by reestablishing themselves as the fastest wrists in the world. Using super-smooth anti-spin rubber on their bats, they answered the loop with quick, short-hop blocks that rocketed the ball back at opponents. They also employed the "three-ball attack"—serve, return, putaway—to avoid the extended rallies in which the loop drive is most effective. In addition, they developed some mean loopers of their own. The results were stunning. The Chinese became the first to win all seven titles at a world tournament.
As their sweep suggests, part two of their new strategy is no more Mr. Nice Guys. "Instead of playing down to the level of their competition." says Dr. Liu, "the Chinese have decided to raise it by playing to win and sharing their expertise whenever possible." Hence their appearance at the U.S. Open bearing gifts.
They also have a new look. "They could pass for Chinese Americans," says Seemiller. "The Chinese team used to be so stone-faced, so robotlike and distant, always marching around together. Now they smile. They mingle. They show emotion. They sweat and towel off just like the rest of us. Hey, they're human!"
Boggan's son Eric, 17, the other mainstay of the U.S. team, agrees. Referring to Cai Zhenhua and Xie Saike, both 19, he said, "They're teen-agers, too. They've got the same kind of nerve ends as I do, right?"
Maybe, but it didn't seem that way at the Open. When the Chinese deplaned in New York City after 48 hours in transit, they had but one request—to practice. And so they did, in a cramped boys' club in Chinatown, for three days before the tournament. The fruits of such devotion were apparent as they breezed through the early rounds at Princeton.
Seemiller and Boggan, who played well enough at this year's world championships to advance the U.S. men's team's ranking to the top 16, ran into stiff competition in the first round from ninth-rated South Korea, one of five nations at the Open ranked among the first 20 in the world. Trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five team match that proved to be the most compelling face-off of the week, the Americans rallied in a doubles thriller. Seemiller, compact, steady and given to balletic leaps, and Boggan, streaky and prone to flashes of temper, survived five match points to win the decisive game 30-28. They each then won equally tingling singles matches to prevail 3-2.
From there, the Americans made it to the finals and a confrontation with the Chinese. Seemiller, going against Xie, a relentless attacker who grasps the paddle penholder fashion, lost 21-17, 21-15. Boggan, facing Cai, a stocky performer who prefers the handshake grip and likes to finish diving saves with a neat cartwheel, went down 21-11, 21-17. "Their ball speed is fantastic, maybe 25% faster than ours," said Seemiller. "They're just super players."
By the end of the tournament, no one was disputing that appraisal, save, perhaps, the South Koreans. Feeling pretty super themselves, they won both the men's and women's doubles titles. Otherwise, it was another All-China exhibition. Tong Ling beat Zhang Deying 21-16, 21-19, 21-18 for the women's singles championship, and Xie won the men's crown over Li Zhenshi 21-16, 15-21, 21-18, 21-18. Although the Chinese came bearing gifts, there were no gift games this time.