USA Table Tennis

David Sakai

David Sakai

Although Dave began playing at a Waterbury, CT Y with a sandpaper racket, he quickly learned the game, progressed rapidly, and at the 1964 U.S. Open, showing excellent ball control, won the U-15’s over Glenn Cowan in the semi’s and Mark Radom in the final. He also beat Dell Sweeris in the semi’s of the Under 17’s, before losing in the final to Ralph “Pete” Childs. Then at the ’65 U.S. Open he was again runner-up in the 17’s to Childs, thus solidifying his position as the #2 U.S. Junior.

We don’t see Dave at tournaments for a while, but I know he’s playing at Bobby Gusikoff’s ‘cause I keep losing money to him there. Dave enjoyed this 73rd St. NYC Club and thought highly of its proprietor. “Bobby was like Frank Sinatra to me,” he said.

This, however, didn’t stop him from going out to California with Bernie Bukiet that summer of ’67—indeed within a week of his arrival he and Bernie, along with Seattle’s Bobby Fields, all partners in crime, were playing in an L.A. County Closed, which the USTTA later demanded the organizers pay an Open sanction fee for.

At the Sept., 1967 CNE in Toronto, 20-year-old Dave lost deuce in the 5th to Defending Champion Danny Pecora. Then in Nov., another hurtful loss. Sakai’s USOTC Team—with Vic Landau, Errol Resek, and me—undefeated until their last tie, came 2nd to Jack Howard’s California Team.

In 1968 Dave was runner-up in the Long Island Open—beat Reisman and Gusikoff, lost in the final to Sweeris. After that he goes on an extended vacation from the Game—marries, has two daughters.

In 1973 Dave returns to the Sport, and rolls right along, often at 30-year arch-rival Lim Ming Chui’s expense, to 6 straight New England Championships.

The 1976 Philadelphia U.S. Open was unique in that a number of players boycotted and picketed the tournament, including Dave, then Vice-President of a newly formed Players Association. Their point was to emphasize that, if the Sport was ever to grow, there had to be a start at professional players playing for substantial sums of money. The organizers of this Philadelphia Open, they believed, did not have such an aim in mind. However, all felt that the Caesars Palace Closed six months later—thanks to Neil Smyth and Bill Hodge—was right-minded in that many more thousands of dollars in prize money was offered the players.

In addition to their role in the Players Association, Dave and Dan Seemiller were trying to promote a World Championships to be played in 1979 in Hartford, CT’s new Civic Center. To that end they gave exhibitions at national corporations based in Hartford, such as the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Co. In Aug., 1976, the USTTA E.C. appointed Dave as their Sponsorship Agent, and, later, ITTF President Roy Evans flew in for discussions, but, nope, no World’s.  

In 1979 Dave was on the U.S. Pan-Am Team to Puerto Rico and also became the USTTA Coaching Committee Chair. In Aug., 1980 he was the playing Captain/Coach of the U.S. Team to the Seoul Open. A misprint in the Seoul Program said “Rock” Seemiller not Rick Seemiller, and thereafter he was Dave’s Rock—winning, well, what matches he could. Here’s one of Dave’s Captain’s recommendations a quarter of a century ago:

“Above all, players and coaches must be given far more international training abroad. It’s fine to spend money bringing over foreign world class players—even those who want little more than a vacation—but if we ever expect to have world class players of our own we have to send our at present untrained best to where their games can be improved.” 

In 1980, at an International Tournament in Barbados, Dave was disqualified….Uh-huh, from the Limbo competition—he’d bent his knees and neck going under the bar, a serious no-no. In this tournament he lost to the winner Liang Geliang and to the Barbados Champ Robert Earle, but came away with some prizes, including a bottle of rum.

In 1981 Dave decided he’d better have more variety in his, well, not quite rummy life. In a later interview with Larry Hodges, Dave says he began working for Moore Business Forms and became such an award-winning salesman that he decided to start up his own Senoda Co. and sell printing. In short, he became a successful businessman.

Dave continued to be on the table tennis scene though. In 1982 he Captained a USA Men’s Team at the U.S. Open; and in 1984 he won the first U.S. Closed Over 30 from Bobby Fields.

At the ‘87 Miami Beach Open, Dave paired with George Brathwaite to win the first of his 6 U.S. Open Over 40 Doubles Championships. Then later in Dec., again with The Chief, he won the first of his 12 U.S. Closed Over 40 Doubles titles. That’s nineteen National U.S. Open or Closed Championships Dave has won in just the one Over 40 Doubles event—must be a record, eh? Of course in addition to George he did have other good partners—Danny Seemiller and Chen Yingua.

At the 1990 U.S. Open, Dave and Donna had fun playing against Liang Geliang/Shao Peizhen in the final of the Over 40 Mixed; and Dave found new experience playing in the 40’s against World Champion Dragutin Surbek

Twenty-seven years ago, at the ’77 U.S. Open, Dave and Donna were getting along so well that they won the U.S. Open A Mixed Doubles. Now in 1991 they won the first of their 3 straight Over 40 U.S. Closed Mixed Championships. During that early ‘90’s time Donna was Operations Director for both the U.S. Closed and Open, and also Secretary of the USTTA. Larry Hodges called them the Senior “Road Warriors,” the “King and Queen of the U.S. Senior Circuit.”

In the 1992 U.S. Open American All-Star Senior Men’s event, Dave was playing Bohdan Dawidowicz who’d beaten him in an All-Star Senior the year before. Each knew how they wanted to play the other. After 15 minutes of the 1st game, Dave led…1-0. When the expedited match, which Dave won, finally ended, the umpire from Qatar asked if he could be in a photo with the two of them because he was sure this had to be an historic match.

One of my favorite Sakai stories takes place at the 1994 Meiklejohn. In the semi’s of the Under 4200 Doubles, a match I didn’t see, but, like everyone else heard about, and which, via interviews, I’ve put together here as objectively as subjectively possible, Dave is partnered by his usually sweet-tempered wife Donna, and Dave’s longtime antagonist Lim Ming Chui is partnered by the generally unflappable Leon Ruderman. In the 3rd and final game, Lim and Leon have a big lead (18-10 according to one source), which they proceed to blow.

At 18-16, Dave says, he loops a ball in his usual fashion, but it reacts so crazily that he quickly looks at his racket, and, sure enough, points with his finger to a wet spot there, and pleads for understanding. A near gentlemanly discussion follows. “Leon,” Dave finally says, “you’ve played this game for 50 years. You know the ball must be wet, otherwise I couldn’t miss it so badly.” Ming of course is not moved by this argument—he’s seen Dave miss many a ball, would like him to miss more, especially since earlier in the day Dave has beaten Chui in the Over 40’s.

But Dave won’t beat Ming this game. No sir, this game, this match, is over, or so Chui thinks, and he’s ready to round the table and shake hands, for, as he tells me afterwards, the score is not 18-16, but 20-19 match point his team’s favor when Dave fingers him.

If this disrupting match is indeed over, no one will be more relieved than the volatile Pat Cox, who on the adjacent table is in the process of losing the first game of the Under 2200 final to Suguru Araki who, as we all know, is fond of showing his own samurai sense of purpose as he bounds here and there about the court.

But, no, this game is not over, for, since Dave is begging Leon to reconsider, and nice-guy Leon is urging Ming to give Dave back the point, Ming reluctantly but magnanimously agrees. Deuce…23-all the score is now to Chui’s best recollection. At this point Ming flies a ball long off the table, and says his racket has a wet spot! He wants the same consideration he’d earlier given Sakai. A discussion erupts—causing Cox and Araki to again momentarily halt their match. Dave says, “How can the ball go ceilingward if you’ve a wet spot?” Ming says, “Why not? I can make it do that.” Donna, who’s picked up the ball, swats it at Chui. More discussion is followed by a decidedly amicable resolution—a coin flip will decide the previous point, and an umpire will be called out for the remainder of the match. Chui wins the flip, and Chris Castro comes out to umpire the now 20-20 match, which is how he’s scoring it. A scowling Cox and Araki are into their 2nd game.

Order sooner or later prevails? Leon says, “Donna, you’re serving to me.” Donna serves, Leon returns the ball to Dave, Dave sends it back to Ming, and Ming chops it into the net. “Wrong order!” Chui calls quickly. Play stops—on Cox and Araki’s table again too. More heated discussion as to whether the point should count. Umpire Castro says the point stands. So, o.k., Ruderman, down match point, to serve.…To who?…It’s immaterial. He quickly whiffs his own serve—yep, swings and misses the ball completely. Match to the Sakais. Cox, rather than take a swing of his own at Chui, who he’s still exasperated by—the more so because Ming’s still out there on court, shaking his head, mumbling and grumbling—abruptly gives up, retires, says to Araki, “You win,” and leaves the table, leaves the building, before he does anything he’ll regret, or his loving wife will. Left alone at court, Araki, in his best Mishima fashion, feels he’s been dishonored—though it’s not clear whether more by Cox or Chui, whose bag he later picks up and throws at him.

In reaching his fun 50’s, Dave, in addition to his half dozen U.S. Open or Closed Singles titles, again excels at Doubles. He’s played 50 Doubles at the majors exclusively with Brathwaite —and as of now they’ve won 8 U.S. Open or Closed titles in that one event. Add the 6 Over 40 Doubles Championships they’ve won, and Dick and George playing together have won 14 U.S. Open/Closed Over 40’s/50’s doubles titles—some accomplishment for any partnership.

How much desire Dave has to play. At a tournament in 2001 his foot caught on the court floor and he tore his Achilles tendon, so that for a long time he played with his foot stiff and sore—and still today has trouble pushing off it.

At the June, 2002 Meiklejohn tournament, Dave is playing Lily Yip in the Over 40’s. Lily’s up 2-0, but Dave rallies to 10-all in the 5th. Then he chops her serve into the net, and now lifts a high, soft ball to her forehand. “Sometimes,” he says after his disappointing loss, “I find myself waiting for something to happen—and you just can’t do that.”

True. But who could believe that Dave ever indulged himself, dreamily, passively, waiting for this to happen—his Induction into the Hall tonight. How often has he been known as the “Hardest Working Circuit Player”—often playing in as many as 30 tournaments a season. After reaching the age of 37, when many a top player of his rank has retired, Dave, continuing to play with a passion, has flourished. From 1984 through 2003, for 20 straight years, never has a single year gone by that Dave hasn’t been in a U.S. Open or Closed final—and for 17 of those 20 years, year after year, he’s held a major U.S. title. Definitely he’s worked long and hard for the honor we bestow upon him tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, “Mr. Big”—Dave Sakai.