USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis Volume 13: 1984

CHAPTER FOUR 

            1984: Americans Abroad—Part II: Danny Seemiller Wins Third Western Japan Open. 1984: Gary Calkins’ Experiences in Japan. 1984: Eric Boggan, Engelbert Huging, and Japan’s Norio Takashima among those playing in an Invitational in Rio de Janeiro—Huging Interviews Takashima. 

            Here’s Butterfly’s Dick Yamaoka (SPIN, Apr., 1984, cover+) to tell us about the 1984 Western Japan Open: 

            “The tournament was held at the City Gymnasium of Yanai, Japan, Feb. 18-19. Over 1,600 entries participated during the two-day play.

            Yanai, a small city of 30,000, is obviously a table tennis town. The city’s Mayor, Mr. Shiraji, was the Honorary Tournament Director and he was in the hall throughout the competition. However, the real reason table tennis is so popular in Yanai is because it is the birthplace of Mr. Hikosuke Tamasu, President of the Tamasu Company of Tokyo (Butterfly).

            It was the 47th Western Japan Open and Mr. Tamasu has participated in all of them as either a player or as an official. It was Mr. Tamasu’s decision to invite Danny Seemiller to the tournament five years ago to give a boost to the competition. Since then the tournament has grown steadily and considerably. This year there were entries from four foreign countries. Besides the USA, players came from Brazil, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei, a new member of the ITTF.

            This year the Western Open received a considerable amount of attention. It was the very first tournament held in Japan in which the new two-color racket rule and new service rules were enforced. It was also the first tournament in Japan that the Chinese Taipei team participated in since becoming an ITTF member. Newspapers gave good coverage producing excellent publicity for the event.

            A press conference for the foreign players was held the day prior to the competition, but we arrived two days before. A small town nearby wanted Danny Seemiller to visit, so we went there…and were greeted by 40 children 7-12 years old. Danny obliged them with a coaching clinic, then when he played with each of them he quickly became their hero. They all got his autograph and I could feel the excitement among them. They said they wanted him to win the tournament, and Danny commented to me: ‘You know, I just can’t let them down. I have to win.’ I think their support definitely helped him.

            In order for so many matches to be played, all of them had to be the best of three. All doubles were played the first day. Danny’s partner was former World Champion Hasegawa and they breezed through to the final. There they met Miyazaki and Murakami, both penholder flippers. Miyazaki is one of the best players in Japan, having reached the quarterfinals in Japan’s National Championships just two months before this Western Open. He and his partner flip their paddles very well. Danny, of course, is very familiar with flipping, but it was a little different for Hasegawa because paddle-flipping became popular after he had retired.

            Still, he is a great player who can read the plays and change strategy at will. Though he knows in his mind how to cope with flippers, his body reactions do not quite follow his intention. Before the match Danny told Hasegawa to serve long when he saw a receiver using the anti side. This worked fine in the beginning, but the Japanese twosome became aware of the strategy and began flipping the racket at the last moment to return the serves. The Miyazaki/Murakami team played magnificently and won the match.

            The level of play was the highest it had ever been. In Men’s Singles, there were two who’d been quarterfinalists in the Japan National’s, four players from Chinese Taipei, and two juniors from Korea. The latter two played like experienced National players rather than developing juniors.

            Ordinarily it would be only in the last few matches that Danny would be challenged. Not this year. In the fourth round he played Hamanaka, a chopper. Since Danny plays well against chop, you would think it would be an easy match for him. Wrong. In addition to steady defense, Hamanaka attacks well. When Danny lifted a ball softly, Hamanaka was there to kill it. He has a fast high-toss serve in which he can change spin and placement, and when the ball came back a little high he killed it with amazing consistency. You know that Seemiller does not like high-toss serves and Hamanaka’s style appeared to be perfect against him. Danny tried to overpower Hamanaka in the first game but lost at deuce.

            At the start of the second game, Hamanaka was playing flawlessly and established an 8-1 lead. It appeared as though Seemiller would be knocked out of the tournament. But then Danny changed his strategy. He started to handle each shot with care, rolled low and short to the sharp angles, and when the shot was difficult he made sure he got the ball on the table instead of hitting it harder. Most of the time Danny kept Hamanaka constantly moving, thus keeping him from making effective shots. When Hamanaka hit, Danny managed to return the ball calmly and surely. Hamanaka won but four points the rest of the game. Danny continued with the same strategy and won the third easily. This was the first crisis he overcame in the tournament.

            Danny’s next match was no easier. Taipei’s Chu Chung Young has a good backhand block and a powerful forehand attack. He always stayed close to the table and when he had the opportunity to hit, he hit hard. He appeared to hit the ball with all his strength and Danny could not block effectively. From the start, he had to fight hard to win in two close games.

            In the quarterfinals, Seemiller had to play Yamamoto, a penholder. He is a tall, lean player who has excellent footwork. Danny’s favorite strategy against an offensive player is to serve a ball medium-short, just long enough to tempt him to hit, but short enough so as to not be hit really hard. When the ball is hit, Danny blocks it back quickly to develop a rally in his favor. Danny uses this strategy for the return of service also. It didn’t work so well against this opponent.

            Seemiller’s medium-short serves were not short enough and they were attacked. When Yamamoto served, he often killed Danny’s supposed-to-be-medium-short pushes. He attacked Danny’s forehand with heavy topspin. His game plan was crystal clear. He wanted to attack first and he wanted to exchange topspin rallies. To stay in the point, Danny withdrew from the table a little which reduced the effectiveness of his blocking. Danny’s blocks were reaching his opponent a fraction of a second too late and Yamamoto was able to attack them. By playing his opponent’s game, Danny lost the first at 19.

            You know Danny is a thinking player. His game plan is based on how not to let his opponents play their own style. He changes spin and places the ball all over the table short and long. This is his strong point but at the same time it can be his weakness. His carefulness sometimes makes his play passive and this was exactly what happened in the first game.

            In the second game, he concentrated on taking the offense first. He made adjustments and his medium-short shots really became medium-short. He never left the table, blocked quicker with sharper angles, and kept his opponent off balance. He won the second game 21-8 and the third just as easily.

            Playing one’s own game, and not letting your opponent play his game, sounds the same, but it is certainly not. Danny confirmed the difference in this match and it was the one he had to win to win the tournament. Sure, he might have won this match playing the same way as his competitor, but he could not win the remaining matches that way. It was a classic example of winning against yourself in order to win the match.

            In the semifinal, Seemiller played Miyazaki, a powerful player. But Danny played a near perfect match against him. Danny always stayed close to the table, blocked with sharp angles, forced Miyazaki to move a lot, and attacked his backhand whenever possible. Miyazaki tried to exchange topspin rallies, but Danny broke the play by dropping short with his anti. Miyazaki was forced to come into the table a great distance just to reach the short shots. To keep up with the pace change Miyazaki had to stay closer to the table but he couldn’t cope with a fast exchange game as well. Danny won the match in two games, although the contest was closer than the (12, 18) scores would indicate.

            In the other semifinal, Yoo Nam Kyu of Korea defeated Nagase who had beaten Hasegawa in the quarter’s. Nagase was a quarterfinalist in the Japan National’s and is a penhold flipper.

            That set up the final between Danny and 15-year-old Yoo, a lefty penholder. Don’t let his age fool you. He is the strongest 15-year-old I have ever seen. [Yoo Nam Kyu will go on in 1988 to be the first Olympic Men’s Singles Table Tennis Champion and, as I write, he was the Coach of the South Korea Men’s Team at the 2012 World Championships.] They say he practices seven hours a day and his play proved that statement.

            Yoo is shorter than Danny. He serves and returns serve batter than Danny. He hits more, moves faster, and his backhand attack is also better. However, Danny has a better block, a combination racket, and much more experience. In order to win, Danny had to use his block effectively.

            When Yoo hit a short ball it was nearly impossible to block because of the sharp angle and short reaction time. Danny’s game plan was to return service by pushing long to both corners and be right at the table prepared for the return shot. Yoo would move and hit hard. Danny was to block it back quickly to the opposite corner and take the offense on the next ball. When attacking, Danny was to go to the forehand corner first, making Yoo move as far to his forehand as possible. Then Dan would return it to Yoo’s backhand and continue the attack there.

            Seemiller has serve in the first game and he opens with a short one. Yoo returns it to Danny’s backhand and Danny pushes deep to Yoo’s backhand corner. Yoo moved fast and hit it hard down the line (since Yoo’s a lefty too, that’s the forehand line). It just missed the table. That shot made Danny a cautious player again and he failed to go with his original strategy. He was placing the ball so it would not be hit hard. Dan’s return were all short, which was a relatively safe tactic because Yoo himself is short. With the score 18-17 in favor of Danny, Yoo had service, and he opted for high-tosses.

            Unless attacking, you should know that a high-toss must be pushed back softly (with touch), at least if it’s long. But Yoo’s serves were short and often dead. When Danny returned this particular serve short, Yoo killed it—18-all. Then came another high-toss and successful kill. Yoo won four straight points and the first game with this strategy.

            Time for Danny to go with the basic plan. He pushed Yoo’s serves long and was ready for the return shot. Danny quickly jumped off to an 8-0 lead and won the game at 12. In this game he didn’t use a short push at all. In the deciding game, he used short and long balls effectively and won the match and title handily.

            Danny won the tournament by winning eight matches, but his victory did not come easily. I have never seen him challenged so hard and so often as he was in this tournament. He was in serious trouble many times and each time he came out of it, helped by enthusiastic support from the spectators. His help came from a group of youngsters who cheered for him throughout the tournament. When he won a match, he jumped in the air a couple of times. Then he would wave his hand to the crowd as if he were thanking them for their support. He had to win the tournament for them also.

            After the match, a crowd gathered around him, most of them asking for his autograph. I used the word ‘most’ because there was a group who came not for his autograph but to express their appreciation. Some of them asked me how to say ‘omedetoh’ in English. ‘Congratulations,’ I said. They went to Danny with outstretched hands and said, ‘Kon-gra-ur-rashon.’ Danny recognized them instantly. They were the youngsters whom he met three days ago and who pulled for him feverishly during the tournament.

            ‘Thank you,’ Danny said as he smilingly shook hands with each of them. That was the happiest, most satisfied Danny I have ever seen.

            If you ask any of the spectators to name a player who symbolically represents the Western Japan Open, the immediate answer would be Danny Seemiller. Since he first came to Yanai in 1979, Danny has become very popular with the residents. There is good reason for this too. He has played 12 events (singles and doubles) in six tournaments and he reached the finals every time. He won the singles three times and the doubles four times. Like the Canadian National Exhibition, the Western Japan Open has become Danny’s tournament. His performance this year makes it certain that he will return to Yanai to defend his title in 1985.

            Outstanding Women’s Results: Singles: Final: Choi Yoon Hee (Republic of Korea) d. Lin Li Zu (Chinese Taipei), 20, 13. Best Semi’s: Choi d. Yamashita (Japan), 20, -17, 21. Best Quarter’s: Lin d. Nohira (Japan). Women’s Doubles: Choi/Lee (ROK) d. Imanishi/Wada (Japan), 24-22 in the 3rd, then d. Lin/Chang (Chinese/Taipei).         

SPIN (Apr., 1984, 9) Interviews Danny Seemiller

SPIN: How do tournaments in Japan differ from the U.S.?

DANNY: The Japanese limit their events. The Western Japan Open had only seven events—the big five, plus Senior’s (Over 35) and Junior’s.

            SPIN: With over 1600 entries at this Open they don’t have much choice but to limit the events, right?

            DANNY: True, but that’s why they can accommodate so many players. Of course with the big draw they’re forced to play two out of three and run the matches non-stop. Using 56 tables makes it work.

            SPIN: Does two out of three and constant play bother you?

            DANNY: Not really, because I’ve gotten used to it. You just have to be ready to play tough from the beginning and it’s very important to conserve your energy because they’re so many rounds to play. And there’s no conning the control desk out of 10 or 15 minutes rest. You have to play when called.

            SPIN: Was the tournament time-scheduled?

            DANNY: Yes, and their system is unique. Every match has a number. At the control desk there’s a huge board where the numbers are posted. By looking at the board it’s possible to tell exactly when your match is coming up. This is my sixth time playing in these Championships, and I have never seen a more efficient system.

            SPIN: Dick Yamaoka’s cover story relates the difficulties you had winning this time, especially against Hamanaka the chopper. Why was he so tough?

            DANNY: Well, he’s a real defensive player.

            SPIN: Meaning what?

            DANNY: Meaning defense is only part of his game. He can play strong offense and he’s got great serves. Many choppers, especially in America, concentrate only on retrieving the ball. If they would also incorporate a loop or hit in their game, plus a third-ball attack, they would be much more formidable opponents. After all, a 1900 looper can challenge a 2100 chopper if the chopper always lets the looper open.

            SPIN: Back to Hamanaka. What did he do in the first game to succeed?

            DANNY: I mainly lost because I couldn’t receive his wicked backhand high toss. Then I started the second game nervously and was quickly down 8-1. At that point I went for my towel and tried to get my head together. I told myself two things: one, stop the nervous play, there’s no need for it; and, two, it’s still a long way to 21 so he’ll have to earn the victory. I battled back to 10-5 and then ran 10 straight on him. I knew he was finished.

            SPIN: Hamanka was just the beginning of your troubles, right?

            DANNY: Yes, but there’s nothing unusual about that. This was a strong draw and the players were gunning for me. I’m in that position often, so I think it makes me tougher.

            SPIN: You got a lot of vocal support. Did that really make a difference?

            DANNY: Definitely. But some of my opponents also got support. In my quarterfinal match against Yamamoto, who is sponsored by the Wakayama Sogin Bank, there were about 100 bank employees cheering him on every point he won. But my group of kids did the same thing and it made me feel good.

            SPIN: Still, you seem to get caught in precarious situations. And yet you continually get out of trouble. How do you do that so often?

            DANNY: I’m not always sure exactly how I do it. It’s really a combination of several factors. I’ve got a lot of experience; I normally don’t get nervous, and I’m too busy thinking about strategy instead of the score. (That’s one reason, by the way, that good players appreciate umpires.)

            SPIN: Why do you say you ‘normally’ don’t get nervous?

            DANNY: Well, everyone gets nervous from time to time. You have to recognize that, but you can’t let it bother you. You must stay in control even when you’re nervous. Perhaps that’s why I’m so successful at the end of the matches.

            SPIN: Yamaoka talks about strategy a lot in his article. Can you give SPIN’s readers some specific examples from your point of view? Like against Miyazaki?

            DANNY: Miyazaki (Japan #7) recently beat Takashima in the Japanese National’s. He has excellent power, but is a little slow with his footwork. My main strategy against him was to start him wide to the forehand and then block short with the anti to his backhand. This strategy worked perfectly and I won easily.

            SPIN: What about in the final against the young left-handed Korean, Yoo Nam Kyu?

            DANNY: I’m usually a bit nervous against other lefties because they can attack my wide forehand easier than righties. But my rooting section dispelled some of that nervousness when they encouraged me with a ‘Danny cheer’ at the onset of the first game. I used short-ball tactics and tried to force my loop every time. I always led by two until 18-17. At this stage I was receiving serve and played four consecutive weak returns, which he scored off of to take the first game.

            SPIN: Did you decide to change your tactics as you switched ends?

            DANNY: Completely. No more short balls, only long ones, and I would block quickly to his wide forehand. It worked perfectly for me as I had him continually off balance. From an 8-0 start, I went to 10-1.

            SPIN: Same tactics for the third?

            DANNY: Basically, I wanted to play defensive blocking when receiving and force my loop when serving. Third game score was 7-all, then 19-7 for me. I was really happy at this point because I KNEW it was over. The crowd was cheering so I gave them a victory dance. Everybody laughed. Meanwhile, the Korean had been toweling off and he seemed a bit bewildered by my show of emotion.

            SPIN: We Americans are very familiar with such an enthusiastic outburst from you. Do you think it’s justified?

            DANNY: Why not? As I told my coach, Dick Yamaoka, you never know when or if you will win a major tournament again, so I show emotion when I feel good about my play. The Japanese spectators certainly seemed to appreciate it.

            SPIN: It’s probably safe to say that Americans do too. Congratulations on your fine performance and thanks for discussing your strategy and experience in Japan. 

Hungary’s Berczik to the Butterfly Dohjo

            Croatia’s Zdenko Uzorinac tells us that the famous Hungarian Coach and former European Men’s Singles Champion Zoltan Berczik “has gone to Tokyo (accompanied by his family) to be a Visiting Lecturer at the new Butterfly Dohjo Training Center. Perhaps later he will be a leading representative of Butterfly in Europe.

            As everyone knows, ‘Zoli’ was a successful coach for many years, and under his tutelage the celebrated trio of Jonyer, Klampar, and Gergely won the Men’s Team title at the ’79 Pyongyang, North Korea World Championships. Earlier, under Berczik’s coaching, Jonyer had captured the ’75 World’s Men’s Singles title at Calcutta….” 

Danny Seemiller at the Dohjo

            Here’s a Seemiller quote apropos here (Timmy’s, Apr., 1984, 6): 

            “One reason I think I played well at the Western Japan Open is because I’d just spent two weeks in rather Spartan isolation at the new Butterfly Training Hall or Dohjo in Tokyo, Various university teams would come there and I’d get to play practice games with them. Since I was living at the dorm there, I didn’t really stray away from the place and had a lot of free time to check out tapes of myself playing. Since of course the ingeniously placed cameras are a fixture of any practice session at the Dohjo, I could easily study, say, my footwork and work to improve it.

            Also, they have a marvelous film library there and you can screen tapes of the world’s best players and carefully check out their weaknesses. Jiang Jialiang, Saito, Appelgren—they aren’t perfect, and obviously if you see when they’re at a disadvantage, it might help you one day to defeat them.” 

Gary Calkins’ Experiences in Japan

            Gary Calkins recaptures for Timmy’s (May, 1984, 9) some of the weekly experiences he had from May, 1978-July, 1982 while on “a tour of duty as a computer technician at the naval base in Misawa City, Japan (400 miles north of Tokyo)”: 

             “… Mr. Koyama of the Japanese Air Force acquainted me with both the Misawa City Table Tennis Club and the Towada City Table Tennis League. Play in the Towada City League consisted of two 24-player round robin groups—Group A for players rated over 1800, and Group B for players rated under 1800. After eight weeks, the round robin matches would be completed and the first four finishers in each group would receive trophies. In my four years of playing in the under 1800 group, I finished 10th, 8th, 2nd, and 2nd.

            The man in charge of the Towada City League was Mr. Isao Kohno, father of 1977 World Champion Mitsuru Kohno. From day one he took me under his wing, always treated me as if I were one of his sons. I visited his home several times, and more than two dozen times I was asked to visit the combination ‘Kohno’s Sporting Goods Store’/’Table Tennis Practice Center’ in Towada City, which was operated by Mitsuru Kohno’s brother, Masaru.

            There were two tables on the second floor and one table on the third floor, together with a Stiga robot, a video camera with monitor, and a training room with miscellaneous exercise equipment. On any given evening I could visit Mr. Kohno’s store to play/practice with at least four players whose rating would be 1800-2200.

            One of my visits to Mr. Isao Kohno’s house turned out to be quite significant for me, for that’s when I first met World Champion Mitsuru Kohno. After eating supper he invited me to visit the Aomori City Commercial High School where he taught Business classes and coached both the boys and girls table tennis teams. I did visit the school with him. In fact, I went there a lot.

            During my 10 visits to Mr. Kohno’s high school (on Saturdays only) I would usually arrive around 8:00 a.m., at which time I would be met by Mr. Kiyoshi Miyakawa, an English teacher there. I would attend each of his English classes, would be seated in the front-center of the classroom. Each student would then have to ask me one question in English which I would answer in English. Occasionally I would surprise them with questions in English and/or Japanese. At 11:30 a.m. most classes would adjourn for the day, and those students involved in sports would begin their activities at 12:00 noon.

            I probably benefited as much from watching Mr. Kohno’s coaching techniques as from my practice sessions. The value of his coaching is evidenced by the fact that both his boys and girls teams took first place in the 1982 All-Japan High School Team Championships, and by rumors I’ve heard that he may be the Japanese Men’s Coach at the 1983 World’s.

            For the past several years Mr. Kohno has served as the principal table tennis television commentator for the major Japanese Championships, during which time he was granted a type of paid ‘sabbatical vacation.’ Like all the Japanese I’ve met, Mr. Kohno proved to be quite courteous, considerate, and a true sportsman.

            Now I would always visit the high school table tennis building, which at that time had a 20-foot-high ceiling, an all-surface-dark-green interior, fluorescent lighting, Stiga robots, video equipment, and 12 Butterfly tables. Whenever I entered this facility, all table tennis play would stop, the players would gather round me, and they would carry my equipment bag, street shoes, jacket, racket, whatever to the playing area. A table near the center of the facility would be cleared for my personal use and I could practice or play games against any player I chose. I actually found it easy to beat Mr. World Champion Kohno (as long as gave me my usual 15-point spot).

            In addition to being with the Kohnos, I’ve had a number of other enjoyable table tennis experiences during the four years I was stationed in northern Japan. Twice I was able to visit the Tamasu (Butterfly) Table Tennis Company, located in the northwestern section of Tokyo. I was given the grand tour of the facilities by the charming Miss Etsuko Iwamoto (remember her from the Long Island U.S. Open?), and I especially enjoyed meeting former World Champions Itoh and Hasegawa. On the fourth floor of the Butterfly building was a laboratory facility which contained a collection of approximately 100 video tapes of table tennis matches played throughout the world in the past 10 years. During both of my visits there I was allowed to view dozens of matches for hours on end.

            I was able to get 10 additional days of vacation each year via my participation in the Western Pacific Regional Navy Table Tennis Championships, held each year in Sasebo, Japan, which was a four-hour Shinkansen (Bullet Train) ride south of Tokyo. Taking first place in Men’s Singles each year assured my participation the following year, and each year a new group of three men and two women from my navy base would accompany me to Sasebo.

            The most enjoyable part of my tournament trip was the few days we were allowed to spend in Tokyo after each tournament. I was always the unofficial guide of each group since I had visited Tokyo over a dozen times (and I would visit there at least a dozen times more if I get the opportunity). Tokyo is very clean, safe, and friendly. (I never failed to meet at least two single, attractive Japanese women during each of my visits there.) The same could be said for my visits to Hong Kong, Manila, Seoul, and Taipei.

            All in all, in every country I visited in the Far East, the fact that I played table tennis enabled me to make several additional friends, even if I couldn’t speak the native language. And I’m certain that through table tennis I’ll be able to acquire several more friends during my future visits to such places as Macao, Thailand, Red China, Indonesia, Singapore, and Australia. They’re not kidding when they say, ‘Join the Navy and see the world.’” 

Huging Interviews Takashima

            Concerning the 1984 Spring Invitational in Rio de Janeiro, I can’t provide you with a write-up, but here are the results: Final: He Zhiwen d. Hui Jun, 2-1. Semi’s: He Zhiwen d. Takashima, 2-0; Hui Jun d. Ono, 2-0. Places 5-8: E. Boggan d. Stellwag, 2-0; Secretin d. Aristides. 2-0. 5th-6th Place: Boggan d. Secretin, 2-0. 7th-8th Place: Stellwag d. Aristides, 2-0. Qualifying R.R I.: 1. Hui Jun, 3-0. 2. He Zhiwen, 2-1. 3. Secretin, 1-2. Stellwag, 0-3. Qualifying R.R. II: Takashima, 3-0. 2. Ono, 2-1. 3. Boggan, 1-2. Aristides, 0-3. Preliminary Matches: Group A: 1. Hui Jun, 4-0. 2. Boggan, 3-1 (d. Huging 2-2). Group B: 1. Secretin, 3-0. 2. Aristides, 2-1. Group C: 1. He Zhiwen, 4-0. 2. Takashima, 3-1. Group D: 1. Ono, 3-0. 2. Stellwag, 2-1.

            During the course of this tournament Engelbert Huging (Timmy’s, June, 1984, 9) conducted the following interview with two-time 1978/1979 U.S. Open Champion Norio Takashima (in both of these U.S. Opens he beat Danny Seemiller in the final):

            “It’s 8:00, Huging,” I said to myself. “At 8:30, you have an interview. You can learn a lot.” In this way I motivated myself to get up.

            A little later, I was sitting at the breakfast table waiting for Norio Takashima. Takashima, I began to think, was for almost 10 years a world-class defensive star, and though now in his thirties is still an excellent player—mentally tough, and as fast and smooth as a cat. Watching him, it all looked so easy.

            When the famous Japanese came to my table we were self-consciously over-friendly to each other. Perhaps, I said, we could start the interview first, then take breakfast at some convenient point? He smiled and nodded in agreement.

            I was nervous, so I began our question-answer game with a typical start-off  line, “How old are you, Takashima?”

            “32.”

            “How often did you play for Japan?”

            “Many times.”

            “What did you win?”

            “A lot of tournaments.”

            “What are you doing here in an international tournament in Rio?”

            “I’m playing for King University of Osaka—they’d gotten an invitation.”

            “What’s your profession?”

            “My job’s in Physical Education at King University.”

            Hoping to get more out of him—he was nervous too? Unsure of his broken English (that was being rendered into idiom here), I ventured a two-part question that was of great interest to me. “First,’ I said, “what’s the future for the defensive player? And, second, what’s the future for the attacking player?”

            “Two points are important for the defensive player,” said Takashima. “First, he must play nearer to the table. Because, since the distance to the other side of the table would now be shorter as the defender moved in, the variation in chop, the change of spin, would be more effective. And, second, he must learn to attack much more. The defensive player must now try to play with two different backsides—long pimples are not good for both changing the chop AND attacking. A defensive player must develop himself into an all-around player. For me, an all-around player is someone who has more than one answer to any one ball. With pure, unvarying defensive play you can beat only a few attacking players.”

            “Yes, I agree with you,” I said. “And the future for the attacking player?”

            “His future,” said Takashima, “is in playing serve and smash, or serve and fast topspin, like the Chinese.”

            Table tennis for the attacker, is really so simple, but so difficult, I thought.

            Then we talked about training in Japan.

            “Why do the Japanese play so much forehand?” I asked him. “Everything’s forehand, forehand—predictably forehand.”

            “In the past,” said Takashima, “our coaches taught their pupils only to play forehand. Unlike the Chinese and the Europeans, they all have a bad backhand—they have to play every ball with the forehand. That’s bad. In the last year, though, the coaches have changed their opinion. Young players now learn from the beginning to play forehand and backhand.”

            “How much did you train and practice in your time?’ This was a standard question, but an interesting one.

            “When I was at my best…once a week I ran 30 kilometers and did 500 push-ups in a row; also, I played 8 hours table tennis a day, though later I came to think that 8 hours was too much.”

            I’d hoped he would say, “You get narrow-minded, don’t think creatively but in mechanical, rote fashion by playing so much.” But he didn’t. I felt after playing a certain number of hours a player would get tired then wouldn’t be able to practice so well. I felt that if a player wanted to become good (for Takashima “good” meant being among the top four players in the world) he should practice six hours a day—with a 10-minute break after each hour.

            “And how did you fill all those hours?” I asked Takashima.

            “A defensive player must have strong, fast-moving legs,” he said. “That’s the reason I practiced a lot against smashes. I measured off a 20-meters-long ‘box’ and tried to get back smash after smash out of the corner. Also, many times I played one hour of attack only, one hour of defense only.”

            I wanted to know what in his opinion young players should learn first.

            “Concentration and mental strength are the most important things. The play itself is secondary.”

            “How do you learn concentration and mental strength?”

            “Before playing table tennis the player should always run or jog—but only 10 kilometers. Also, he must learn to practice at a regular time.”

            “Is it good to run so much?”

            “Defensive players need to strengthen their legs. For offensive players running’s not that important. But everybody needs mental strength, concentration, endurance.”

            “Do the Chinese practice the way you’ve just described?” I asked Takashima.

            “No,” he said. “They play more table tennis.”

            I asked one of the Chinese here in Rio whether he practiced 4-5 hours a day. He was astonished and answered that he played 8-10 hours a day. The Chinese, however, who often start their players at age 5, learn and teach mental strength in other ways. Once I saw a Chinese player start the beginnings of 2,000 serves with one ball. That means he had to serve 2,000 times, had to walk to the ball 2,000 times, had to bend over 2,000 times.

            At the end of our interview Takashima talked freely of Japanese and Chinese defense techniques. But as I was thinking there are so few defensive players left, I also realized the more how good Takashima must have been. He drew sketches on my note paper—“Just a private little lesson for you,” he said—and explained the difference in the drawings until I understood.

            Then he got up and said Goodbye. Of course he hadn’t had any breakfast.