Eric Boggan, the best American table-tennis player in 25 years, lets his voice ring through the Sportzentrum in Bayreuth, West Germany until the 500 spectators rooting against him are quiet. Then, eyes burning, he utters a tight-lipped translation: "Fight!"
Boggan has just zipped a backhand drive past the home team's best player, Milan Orlowski. But on the next point Orlowski, a Czechoslovakian and a former European champion, fires up the fans with a topspin forehand that finds the open crosscourt corner. Sending a murderous stare toward Boggan, Orlowski yells over the crowd's applause. "Ja!" (Yes!)
Boggan is the top player for Spvgg Steinhagen; Orlowski plays for Bayreuth's TTBG Steiner Optic. Both teams belong to Germany's Bundesliga, the highest-caliber professional table-tennis league in the world. Orlowski, though past his prime at 32, is thickly muscled and ruggedly handsome. By contrast, the 21-year-old Boggan is a gangly 6'2", slack-jawed and floppy-socked, with a disconcerting array of facial contortions. He also has an annoying habit of stamping his foot loudly when he hits a shot.
Indeed, as Orlowski goes up 10-5 in the third and deciding game, Boggan appears to be on the verge of the kind of tantrum that has made him the No. 1 bad boy of the sport. "Come on," he berates himself between points. "You have talent, you practice hard, but you play like dogmeat."
This last self-excoriation seems to trigger something positive in Boggan, for he immediately starts to play with the ferocity of a pit bull. Blocking Orlowski's heavy topspin with what Swedish players call his "windshield wiper" style—he stands close to the table, using the same side of his paddle for both forehand and backhand shots—Boggan catches Orlowski at 15-all. Several deceptive spins and precise placements later he wins the game 21-16 to close out the competition for Steinhagen.
Boggan is elated. With victory comes the end of a two-day ordeal of tension, moodiness, complaints of unsavory food and maladies ranging from a sore thigh muscle to dry skin. "You know," he shouts in the winners' noisy dressing room, abandoning for a moment his improving German for the benefit of a visitor, "back home we have a set of coasters with pictures of players on them. That guy [Orlowski] was on one of the coasters. It's like I was Mike Boddicker whiffing Reggie Jackson." Prancing out to a postmatch meal, he announces, "I'm a party animal now."
However, less than an hour later Boggan has pushed away a half-eaten salad and barely sipped a beer. In a tired voice he says he's having trouble breathing. "I'm so sensitive; I go way up and then way down," says Boggan, perplexed by his own mood swings. "I guess it's because I'm young for my age and there is so much pressure. I have no talent for anything but table tennis. I have to win. To me, losing is like God blowing his nose on me."
An obsession with being the best he can be is the reason Boggan is playing in Germany. Since turning 18, he has competed professionally in Europe eight months of each year. His record against the best—he has beaten half of the top 30 players in the world over the last three years—earned him a world ranking as high as No. 18 in 1983, the best for an American since 10-time U.S. Open champion Dick Miles was rated No. 7 in 1959. A few subpar tournament performances have dropped his current ranking to No. 28. The next-best American, Danny Seemiller of Pittsburgh, is No. 66. At the last world championships, in Tokyo in 1983, Boggan reached the round of 16 before losing to the defending and eventual champion, Guo Yuehua of China. No U.S. player had gone as far in the tournament since Miles reached the semifinals in 1959. Next week Boggan will be in Goteborg, Sweden for the world championships.
Boggan built the foundation of his game in the same facility in which a lot of other Americans play table tennis—a cramped basement. Most of the leading foreign players, by contrast, grooved their games in sophisticated training programs loaded with stiff competition. China is so laden with table-tennis talent that Yuehua won't even be in Goteborg to defend his title.
Boggan began batting a ball around the basement table at his family home in Merrick, N.Y. when he was four. At six, Boggan, his brother Scott—who beat him in the finals of the 1981 U.S. Closed Championships—and their parents began traveling to motels and dank gymnasiums all over the country so the three males could play in tournaments. While other U.S. junior players quit the game for more popular sports, the Boggan brothers' interest never waned. Both—Scott is two years older—graduated from Calhoun High in Merrick a year early so they could enter more tournaments. "I always liked it that this was one thing I was better in than the other kids," says Eric. He had tremendous drive and a tremendous temper, which isn't surprising, because he has Tim Boggan for a father.
President of the United States Table Tennis Association, Tim is perhaps the leading character and dominant personality in American table tennis. "It's a sport full of high-strung, nervous people," says Miles. "People who look like they're ready to blow at any moment."
Tim would seem to be a fitting leader of such a group. He exudes impatience, sports a salt-and-pepper beard that's usually disheveled and wears thick, black-framed glasses that are usually askew. A veteran of the Manhattan table-tennis parlors that had their heyday in the 1940s and '50s, Tim at 54 is still one of the top 100 players in the country. But watching him in action can be frightening to the uninitiated. A netted return of serve can cause him to cry, "Ohhhhh goddammit, Tim! Play the game!" His outbursts are so strong and sudden that they often cause a second or two of near silence at noisy tournament sites until everyone figures out "it's just Tim again."
Tim's other passion is the written word. He has taught English at Long Island University for 23 years. In 1970 he took over the editorship of the monthly Table Tennis Topics (now called Spin) and in that capacity became the chief chronicler of the sport until 1983, when he left the tabloid. In an early issue Boggan wrote that he wanted his two sons—to whom he has always been Tim—"to care passionately about table tennis, at least until I myself have to give it up...my being, I hope, will be their being. It is, if you like, if you can bear for a moment the heavy cross of my Catholic boyhood, the consequence of Lucifer's fall, Adam's sin, that the sins of any father are visited upon his children."
Boggan got his wish. He gave his sons great reflexes, strategic minds and competitiveness. But he really hit the nail with the part about the sins of any father. Just like their old man, both kids have always been paddle-breaking, foul-mouthed hellions, especially Eric. "He was like the Peter Townshend of the table-tennis world," says Tim. "He broke a paddle after every performance."
In the early years, most of Eric's tantrums featured the standard kicking and screaming, with an occasional paddle-stomping. During a brooding adolescence, however, Eric came to hate having to endure his father's boisterous and impassioned rooting. When Tim would yell "Bravo, Eric!" after the youngster won a point, or when he held up what the family calls The Fist—a clenched right hand thrust out like a boxer finishing an uppercut, which means "Fight!"—Eric would respond by screaming, "Tim, you know I hate your guts!" or "I wish you would just get out of here, Tim!" Even—yes, Dr. Freud—"Tim, I'm going to kill you!"
These patricidal eruptions were almost enough to make U.S. table-tennis aficionados glad their sport got so little exposure. To be fair, Eric's match behavior has become less embarrassing in the last couple of years. He has learned to direct his shouting at himself, and Tim has made a mighty effort to tone down his fervent cheering.
Eric has trouble explaining what possessed him to abuse his father in front of so many people. "At the time," he says, "I didn't have many friends. I was moody, and I needed someone to take it out on. Also, when I screamed at him it cleared my head and I played better. Still, before a match I would ask him to please not root for me so loud because it bothered me. I now realize he was trying to help me."
But Sally Boggan, Tim's wife of 26 years, believes something deeper was going on. "In a way it's unfortunate that Tim has remained so vitally involved with the boys," she says. "Even if he says he doesn't care if they win, they know what their winning means to him. It's an extra burden for them to see him there, being so emotional."
Whatever the cause of Eric's raging, Tim thinks it's healthy. "I like intensity of any persuasion," he says. "I hate lethargy. Most people just don't have any intensity, which is why they don't understand Eric or Scott or me. Keats said, 'The excellency of every art is its intensity.' Scott and Eric are artists."
As an illustration, Tim explains that at the 1976 U.S. Open Championships in Philadelphia, he became so enraged at the puniness of the two trophies his sons had won that, in front of the promoter, he threw them down a stairwell and broke them. "I didn't want to tell Scott and Eric what I had done to their trophies, so I secretly went to get them fixed," he says. "But on the way I thought, why should I fix them? Let my kids say, 'My father was so mad, he cared so much, that he broke our trophies.' Let it be my heritage to them. And you know, over all these years, those are the only two trophies they've kept."
For all his interest in his sons' table-tennis careers, Tim never tried to change Eric's unorthodox grip and backhand. Lacking the strength as a 4-year-old to hit a conventional backhand, the boy braced his index finger across the outer edge of the paddle and hit the stroke with his palm facing his opponent. His backhand is short and powerful, but in world-class competition it's effective only when employed as a block or counterdrive launched from close to the table. Eric relies on his reflexes and touch to short-hop his opponents' offensive shots until he forces an error or finds the open court.
The extra dimension in Eric's game is his unpredictable use of two hitting surfaces. Nearly all the top players have the same kind of rubber on both sides of their paddles, but not Eric. One side is covered with a sticky, resilient rubber that produces forcing balls with speed and spin. Eric hits most shots with this surface. The opposite side has "antispin" rubber—dead stuff with almost no grip—that makes it easier to handle the treacherous spins that often force setup returns. Once a rally begins, Eric can hit with either rubber by flipping the paddle between shots. By switching back and forth he can keep his opponents off balance and out of an attacking groove.
"Playing Eric is like hitting against a forkball pitcher—you're always guessing," says Del Sweeris, a top-rated U.S. player and coach. "His motion is the same, but when he uses the 'antispin' the bottom drops out."
The only other world-class player with a similar style is Seemiller. Now 30, Seemiller was the country's top-ranked player from 1973 through 1983. But at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last December, Boggan beat Seemiller to establish himself as the top American both at home and abroad. "Now when we make eye contact," says Eric, "I can see Danny knows I'm the best. I'm the hungrier gladiator now."
Living in an increasingly self-sufficient fashion in Europe over the last four years has helped make Boggan a less neurotic gladiator. Last August, after two seasons in a Swedish league and another in a league in Bad Hamm, West Germany, Boggan moved to Steinhagen, a quiet town of 5,700 people about 60 miles from Hannover. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment on a forested foothill. Lured by the pleasures of the autobahn, Boggan recently sank a chunk of his DM 60,000 ($17,750) salary into a BMW 323i, but it's his only luxury. When not training he lives casually, dressing in sweat pants and old sweaters with a NO NUKES pin attached, listening to rock music and cooking his own meals when he isn't dining in pubs.
"Everything here meshes," he says of his surroundings. "You do things right. It might just be a walk. Even if it's a movie, you concentrate better. It's not like America, where there is so much to do you get bored." He's even dating someone for the first time. "She's 26. Her name is Uschi, and we met in Berlin," says Boggan. "It's not serious, but we talk a lot."
Of course, Boggan's emotions still seethe during matches. Following a recent loss he startled his teammates by fiercely pounding his temples. "I gave myself a headache," he says. "I know that people here look at me like I'm a little strange. I'm not expressionless like the German players. But I really feel accepted. You know what I would like? A nickname. Something like der absolute Publikumsliebling."
"The absolute public darling," he says, and laughs.