Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Practical Advice on Rackets

Several months ago, I showed up at one of the Schaumburg Table Tennis Club's bi-monthly tournaments. I do this on occasion because I sometimes serve as the tournament referee, but this time was a little different because I had brought with me a MiniRAE Lite VOC detector - the standard device currently used in table tennis competitions to detect illegal chemicals in rackets. The players were a little surprised to see this serious device used at a local competition, and a couple illegal rackets were found, but otherwise it was just another tournament.

I've used the MiniRAE device in about a dozen tournaments now. It's not perfect but it's far better than the methods we used in the past, and overall I'm pretty happy with it. The readings are consistent; for the last three years, every time it's been checked for calibration, I believe it's been spot on. The only failings of the device that I've seen have been the result of user error.

I don't normally carry this thing around to small tournaments. Very few players use high VOC chemicals, and today's rubbers are pretty good without speed glue. But as a player I want to know that my opponents are following the rules - including the equipment rules - so for an honest player, having racket tests is a good thing.

Tournament officials check rackets for other things besides VOCs; in particular thickness and flatness, verifying that the rubber is authorized, making sure the rubber is properly glued and not damaged, etc.

From my experience, the two biggest reasons a racket will be ruled illegal are because of excessive thickness and excessive chemical (VOC) levels. Sometimes this is because a player is trying to cheat by adding chemicals to their rubber. But other times, it's because an honest player made a mistake at some point in preparing his or her racket. I don't think any official wants to throw out an honest player's racket, but the VOC and thickness limits set a firm line that can't be crossed. If a player takes some care in racket choice and assembly, there shouldn't be any problems. You don't need to be obsessive, you just need to know what to watch for.
  • Use water based glue. Don't use rubber cement. I still hear older players advise people to use rubber cement for its ease of use and low cost. I've heard of players gluing with rubber cement in training, and then when it's tournament time they reglue the same sheet of rubber with water based glue. This is pointless because all the chemicals from the rubber cement remain in the rubber and wood.

    Not only does rubber cement contain illegal VOCs, it can also reduce the play quality of modern rubbers. If you insist on using rubber cement, you may as well use the classic rubbers that were popular in the 80's and 90's because the new rubbers don't work well with rubber cement. The newest high performance rubbers are more sensitive to their environment and rubber cement will often cause them to react poorly; shrinkage is one of the typical indications of damaged rubber. If you can afford today's $60 rubber, you can afford water based glue.
  • Use as much glue as necessary to secure the rubber to your blade, but don't build up a massive layer of glue. If your rubber is 4.00 millimeters thick, and you use 0.05 millimeters of glue, that side will be illegal because it's too thick. Now, a responsible manufacturer probably won't sell you rubber that's 4.00 millimeters thick; their "max" offering ought to be thinner than that to provide allowance for glue thickness. But pushing the limit is not to your advantage here.
  • Don't play in a tournament using brand new rubber right out of the package. The rubber manufacturing process involves VOCs, but manufacturers are expected to air out the rubbers before packaging and selling them, so in theory using brand new rubber should be okay. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers are diligently airing out every sheet of rubber like they are supposed to. In my own tests, I've opened a few dozen packages of rubber and tested them with the MiniRAE immediately. Only one failed the VOC test, and the one that failed was from a manufacturer that's not known for its quality control. All of the other rubbers I checked, coming from what I consider to be responsible rubber factories, had no problems passing the VOC test. Even so, there is no guarantee that the particular sheet of rubber that you bought is free of VOCs, and it's best to play it safe by letting your rubber air out a bit before using it.
  • Pay attention to what else is in your bag. If you have a clean racket and put it in an old racket case that has absorbed chemicals, those chemicals will be transferred to your racket. If your backpack or duffel bag also has other things in it such as chemical sprays or liquids, those things can contaminate your racket.
  • Don't use damaged rubber in a tournament. No cracks, no bubbles, no missing pips.
  • Use voluntary racket test services. If you wait until match time to find out that your racket is illegal, it may too late. If you have any doubt whatsoever, ask the tournament referee, as he or she has the final authority as to whether your racket is legal or not; it doesn't matter what a previous official at a different tournament told you. If possible, have your racket tested before you warm up, and have your second racket tested as well. If you're a serious player you need a minimum of two rackets, because you'll be using your second racket to practice with while your primary racket is being held at the call area.

Here are two more pieces of advice regarding racket assembly, which probably won't make your racket any more or less legal, but will help maintain it better.
  • Don't glue wet. The main component of water based glue is water, so when you're putting glue on your blade, you're spreading water onto it. Then if you immediately put your rubber on the blade with wet glue in between, you're sealing a layer of water into your blade because foam rubber is waterproof. Of course, pouring water onto wood results in softened or rotten wood. So make sure the glue is completely dry before you stick the rubber onto your blade. This leads to the second bit . . .
  • Seal your blade. This is not strictly necessary, but I recommend it for the same reason as above. Again, as you're spreading water based glue onto a piece of wood, imagine how the glue will dry. Ideally the water in the glue will evaporate into the air, but bare wood tends to absorb water more quickly than air does, again resulting in soft or rotten wood. So it's best to protect the wood by sealing it. You can tell if your blade is sealed by how quickly glue dries on it - apply glue to both the rubber and the blade, and if the glue dries faster on the wood than on the rubber, that means the wood absorbed liquid and is not sealed.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The New Poly Ball is Coming . . . Maybe

In March 2012, the ITTF Board of Directors voted to pass the following resolution, proposed by the Executive Committee and the Athletes' Commission:

"That the new Poly balls (non-celluloid material) be used at ITTF events as of 1 July 2014. The Executive Committee may allow the use of the Poly balls, in exceptional cases, in the period between the 2014 World Championships and 1 July 2014."

Half of a celluloid ball, formed by pressing a disc into a
hemisphere. It will be trimmed, glued with another half,
and polished. Image taken from the Nittaku ball video.

Celluloid is one of the first industrial plastics, dating to the 1800s. "Poly" refers to other kinds of plastics such as polyethylene. The rules of table tennis permit the use of any kind of plastic ball, so there's no rule change required for the adoption of a new ball material. This resolution just designates a particular type of ball for a few dozen elite events.

From one perspective this is not much of a change. The direct scope only extends to ITTF events: World Title Competitions and ITTF Sanctioned tournaments, which includes the ITTF World Tour, ITTF Junior Circuit, and continental events. The ITTF already specifies a particular ball for these tournaments. For example, all World Tour events must use the DHS ball, while Junior Circuit events must use the Butterfly ball. So this resolution is in a similar vein in that it designates a ball to use, but in this case it's by material type, not brand.

But even though this resolution is directed at specific elite events, the game played by the pros is also played by aspiring pros; likewise, aspiring pros play with dedicated amateurs and weekend hacks. Even novice players want to play the same game as the professionals. A change in equipment at the top has broad effects.

Each celluloid ball is checked by hand and sent through
a gauntlet of mechanical testing devices before it gets
its final grade. Image taken from the Nittaku ball video.
At the time of this writing, every ball approved by the ITTF is made of celluloid. In the manufacturing process, celluloid is largely composed of nitrocellulose, a highly flammable material. Celluloid is not the easiest material to work with, and most historical uses of celluloid transitioned to newer plastic materials long ago, with the major exceptions being as decorative components in things like pens and musical instruments . . . and table tennis balls. If and when we stop using celluloid in table tennis, we'll be one of the last entities to do so.

Poly balls were briefly used in competitive table tennis a few decades ago, so in that sense it's not new. Poly table tennis balls are also readily available as recreational toys, but not built to the standards required for official competition. The forthcoming poly balls are expected to meet ITTF requirements and behave more like celluloid balls than older versions.

Some players and coaches have been able to acquire prototype poly balls for testing purposes. Reviews of those prototypes have been mixed. However until a brand of ball is fully tested by the ITTF in the approval process, nobody can legitimately claim that they have seen a final production set of approved balls. And nobody can truly say they know how the new ball will behave.

Personally, I would like the playing properties of the poly ball to be similar to the celluloid ball in feel, but improved in technical aspects such as roundness, durability, and regularity of hardness and bounce. I am hopeful that the use of modern materials and manufacturing processes can help lead to those improvements. However with the change in material there will probably be differences seen during play, and the more differences there are, the more time players will need to adjust to the changes.

Domestic competition does not fall under ITTF jurisdiction, and USATT tournaments could conceivably continue to use celluloid balls indefinitely, as long as there is an available supply of balls. Anyways, until there is actually an approved ball, and until that ball is available for purchase, we will continue to use celluloid balls by default.

How players, tournament directors, and USATT deal with the poly ball will depend on when it arrives, and how it performs. The fate of the poly and the celluloid ball may ultimately be decided by market forces and manufacturer decisions.

The 2013 USATT Annual Assembly will be held in Las Vegas at 7pm on Wednesday, December 18th, and all USATT members are welcome to attend. The complete program has not been determined, but I will be available to field questions about the ball or anything else.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

2013-2014 NCTTA League

The NCTTA season begins this Sunday as seven college teams from Georgia and Tennessee compete in Atlanta. Several more South divisions meet the following weekends, and then the rest of the country after that with multiple competitions every weekend. The vast majority of play will be team competition, though there will also be some lone-gun singles players.

Unfortunately, the US is not known for its world-class table tennis. But it is known for its world-class universities, and sports are a part of most universities to some degree. In the US, college sports are critical for many sports, with football and basketball the clearest examples of this. Is it possible for our sport to use the university network to improve our sport? To some, not only is it possible, it is necessary.

A league of 200 teams is fairly large, but in many ways the NCTTA league is still small. The nationwide staff (all volunteers) is trained one by one. Budget is a constant concern. School teams struggle to be seen as real sports in the eyes of their athletic departments. Even so, in a country that is considered a table tennis backwater, we might have one of the best collegiate leagues in the world.

In the ITTF team rankings, the Brazilian Men's team is ranked #14, while the US Men's team is ranked #48. With that in mind, consider this Brazilian article, which can be found in its original Portuguese here. English translation by Jorge Vanegas.

  Brazilian College Champion in USA Declines Professional Career
José Barbosa prefers to continue on the road to business, he is in his last semester.
By Francisco Junior
To pursue the dream of being a professional athlete and to represent Brazil, or to continue with another career? In the mind of José Barbosa, College Table Tennis Team Champion in the United States, there is no doubt. The Brazilian studies business (focusing in administration, marketing and management) at Texas Wesleyan University and represents its team in collegiate competition. Though he is stuck in a tough situation, he has already decided not to pursue a career in sports.

"To be a part of the National Team is not in my plans any more. I was on the Under 15 and Under 18 teams from 2004 to 2008." He also said, "
I represented Brazil at the Universiade (College World Championships) held in China in 2011. For that reason, for me the sport was always a door opener," he commented.

This semester, 23 year old José Barbosa prepared himself in order to finish on a high note in USA Table Tennis. In the finals of the NCTTA (National College Table Tennis Association) championships, the Brazilian won the final match against Mississippi College, and therefore Texas Wesleyan won the Championship title.

"I came to the United States in 2010 because I received a table tennis scholarship at Lindenwood University. After one semester, due to my strong performance in team competition, I was invited to Texas Wesleyan University and helped win three team titles (2011, 12 and 13)," José said.

At the last edition of the NCTTA Championships, more than 300 athletes from 35 North American colleges competed. A total of six Brazilians participated. Besides José Barbosa and Claudia Ikeizumi from Texas Wesleyan, there were four others from Lindenwood University wielding their racquets.

José Barbosa asserts: "You cannot compare Brazilian table tennis with American"

In the analysis of José, table tennis played in Brazil "does not pass the entrance exam to enter the world of college table tennis in the U.S." mainly in terms of organization and structure. He recalled that even the food is provided by the tournament itself in the competition gym.

"The matches are broadcast live every day of the tournament with live commentators. The infrastructure is fantastic. We always have as many practice tables as competition tables (20 were in the last tournament). That never happens in Brazil, even in tournaments organized by the International Federation (ITTF, in English)" he compared.

A fan of the German Dimitrij Ovtcharov, José Barbosa relates that he lived with Cazuo Matsumoto in France in 2009, and points to his ex-roommate, the best Brazilian by world ranking (45th place), as a high point for the country at the time.

"I admire Cazuo Matsumoto for everything he has done in recent years. I know how hard he has struggled and how deserving he is of all that is happening," concluded the native of Jundiaí province in Sao Paolo, who cannot resist the longing to return to Brazil whenever there is a holiday, in order to renew his energy by receiving the warmth of family and friends.

We may not be the major leagues, but it's a positive when a player from another country says we're doing something right.

The strongest table tennis countries generally have professional or semi-pro leagues on a foundation of extensive recreational leagues. Leagues aren't a big part of the picture in the US. You can decide if there's a conclusion to be drawn from that.

NCTTA competition takes place in both the fall and the spring. If you're connected to a college in some way - staff, student, parent, etc. - I hope you can help us grow by participating or helping form a team. Playing on a college team might be the most fun you can have in the sport. And whether or not you're not a college student, we welcome volunteers in many capacities.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Professional Player's Auxiliary Skills

A professional player needs to be able to do more than just play table tennis. Learning to serve, receive, and rally are obviously important, but they're not the only ingredients necessary for long term success. Here are some things that I believe all professional or aspiring players should learn.
  • Physical maintenance: Diet, fitness, hydration, sleep, etc. These things matter. Even for someone who's young and seemingly indestructible, these things affect performance. A manager or coach can help guide a player with these things, but a player ought to be able to regulate things himself.
  • Racket assembly: Conceivably, a player could go through his entire career without assembling a racket, if his parents do it during his developing years and then a coach does it in the heart of his career. But what if something comes up and you need to do it yourself half an hour before match time - will you be unable to do it? Or maybe you'll be able to do it, but the resulting racket will perform differently from what you normally use. Different ways of gluing rackets will result in varying performance.
  • Ball selection: I've seen world top ten players who accept the opportunity to select a match ball, and then process a few dozen balls doing things that I think have very little chance of isolating the superior ball.
  • Sportsmanship: Table tennis players are relatively good with this, but there are exceptions. A player who lacks sportsmanship will have a harder time joining a team, working with coaches, and securing endorsements. Personally, I will root against a poor sport every time.
  • Know the rules: A basic understanding of the rules is not enough. This would be like a CPA having only a basic understanding of the tax code yet expecting to be successful. A serious player should have a serious understanding of the rules, including the yearly rule changes which generally take effect every September. And including the rules of the draw; no, the player seeded #2 is not guaranteed to face the player seeded #3 in the semis.
  • Appeals: This is a subset of rules knowledge, but I'm emphasizing it because players don't seem to understand it. Unless you're playing in a team contest, the coach or captain cannot make an appeal to the referee; only the player can. This is an explicit rule. Therefore every player needs to know what can be appealed, and how to communicate with officials.
  • Speak English: I've been watching the US Open of tennis and, like in table tennis, a tennis player will occasionally need to speak with the umpire to get clarification about a ruling. Unlike in table tennis, all of the tennis players seem to know enough English to do so. They don't walk to the umpire's chair and start gesticulating with their hands or speaking in their native tongue (unless the umpire also speaks it).

    Most of us saw the weird stuff that happened during the women's singles final of the 2012 Olympics. Ding Ning was penalized for one thing, then another, and didn't seem to completely understand what was going on. Would there have been those problems if the Chinese players knew English?
This last issue goes beyond the individual player's best interests. At the professional level, the sports business is an entertainment business. Part of the success of a sport lies in the character of its participants, especially those who are most successful. A sport usually laments when it goes through a period when the best players lack charisma and don't give interesting interviews. But in table tennis we envy sports with this problem, because our best players can't give interviews at all, unless the interview is in Mandarin Chinese. It's hard to be an international star if you can't communicate with your international fans.

The Chinese players are the best in the world. They are so good that I believe they can afford to spend a little less time in the gym, and a little more time in the classroom. The result may not necessarily be more world titles, but rather, more world success. Can you imagine what it would look like if, after winning the gold medal match at the Olympics or Worlds, the winner could give an interview in English with no translator?

In my opinion, it would look like a big step forward.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

July 2nd, 2013, was the date that the US Open returned to Las Vegas. The last time the US Open had taken place in Las Vegas was 2009. Singles titles that year were won by our own Gao Jun and Slovakia's Thomas Keinath.

July 3rd, 2013, was the date that the ITTF World Tour returned to the USA. The last World Tour event (then called the Pro Tour) held in the US was in 2005 in Fort Lauderdale. Oh Sang Eun and Li Jia Wei were the champions on that occasion.

With the return to Las Vegas - within driving distance of of our biggest table tennis state, California - and the return of the World Tour, the pre-tournament level of excitement was high. The combined entry count among both pros and amateurs was just shy of 1000, higher than it had been in decades.

Held during the Independence Day holiday week, the city was full of people, particularly families on summer vacation. As a small sport, we're not often in the spotlight, and we're not likely to be in the spotlight in a busy place like Las Vegas where there are always things going on. Even in our host LVH hotel there was a basketball tournament taking place, and down the street there happened to be another touring sports competition in town, the mixed martial arts event UFC 162.

But for most table tennis fans, the US Open was the only event in town. 120 degree heat was not a deterrent - we were here to enjoy the great indoors.

A table tennis arena in the making
As a World Tour stop, the ITTF took a more active part in the organization of this event than other US Opens. This was readily apparent in some ways: the presence of ITTF sponsor logos in the main courts, the use of the official ball (white DHS, compared to orange Nittaku in the non-World Tour matches), and the presence and direction from Didier Leroy, one of four professional Competition Managers employed by the ITTF. Didier is not just a great organizer and manager, he's also a soothing presence for the players, providing continuity from one tournament to the next.

Only the most observant would have noticed the presence of a few other people who don't normally come to the Open, such as Anders Thunstrom, Managing Director of TMS International; and Andreas Hain, the Executive Director of Joola who was also filling in to coach his sponsored player Petrissa Solja. There were no specific meetings planned, but the number of ITTF volunteers there was also quite high, as there happened to be 10 ITTF committee members present in other capacities, most of them volunteering as match umpires. Also visiting was Bruce Burton, the current North American Continental President who also heads the ITTF Advanced Referee Project, and who surprised me when he said this was his first time attending a US Open.

It was amusing to me when kibitzers complained about the officiating. There were 26 Blue Badge umpires on duty - the highest level of ITTF International Umpire, the same ones who serve at tournaments around the world including the World Championships and Olympics. There are only about 200 Blue Badge umpires in the world. In particular, as members of the ITTF Umpires and Referees Committee, Umpires Rebecca Bergfeldt and Norman Tang (as well as Deputy Referee Michael Zwipp) help direct and shape policies for ITTF match officials, and when they're officiating a match themselves - whether it's at the US Open or the Olympics - they lead by example and help define the world standard. They didn't come to Las Vegas and decide to be stricter than usual.

The two names that almost everyone noticed were those of tour professionals and top men's seeds Jens Lundqvist and Zoran Primorac. Lundqvist may not be a legend like Waldner and Persson, but he's been the top ranked Swede for years and was certainly a factor in this tournament. Primorac, now in his 40's, clearly works hard and is still in great physical shape. Like his former doubles partner Lupulesku, he also seems to genuinely love the sport.

Chop blocker Shigeko Nakamura pushed #2 Gina Pota to 6 games
I know i'm not a typical table tennis fan because i pay as much attention to the women's game as the men's game. So of course i noticed that Elizabeta Samara was back as the top seed. The US fans last saw her in the 2009 Open, when she was here with doubles partner Daniela Dodean, and male teammates Andrei Filimon, Adrian Crisan, and Constantin Cioti. Crisan and his soft hands were absent this year, reportedly due to injury. Dodean's absence was also excusable as she had a prior engagement; she married Portuguese player Joao Monteiro on the 7th. But Samara and Filimon made the trip, and their presence was felt in the playing hall.

Were these European pros here because the Open was in Las Vegas, or because it was a World Tour stop? Or were both prerequisites?

July is in the middle of a typical table tennis player's off season. League play (where they draw their salary) takes place in the fall and spring, and the major tournaments like the Worlds and Olympics are important competitions to prepare for. To go to a World Tour stop in the middle of the summer takes an additional off-season period of preparation - that is, if a player expects to turn in a good performance.

But things are different when Las Vegas is the destination. When i asked a couple of professional players if they were enjoying themselves, the reply was "We ALWAYS have fun in Las Vegas," accompanied with a puzzled look that emphasized how stupid my question was. I don't know how much this comment would apply for Samara, because when i asked her in 2009 i learned that she was under 21 at the time; i suspect her experience in Vegas this year was a bit more exciting than last time. Another top player was rumored to have utilized the services of one of the many chapels in town.

I'm not one to partake in Vegas-style partying, so for me personally, the most productive experiences i had were when working with the aforementioned Didier Leroy, as i learned a lot about how the World Tour worked these days; and Michael Zwipp, who (along with myself) served as a Deputy Referee.

World Tour regulations require names on shirts,

          but do they require names to be visible?

Prior to the competition, i and 7 others had the privilege of learning from Michael in this year's only ITTF International Referee School. Over the course of three days, Michael and USATT trainer Wendell Dillon provided instruction and guidance in both the techniques and the art of refereeing. As the referee of the 2012 Olympics, Michael is one of the best; and of course Wendell is the guru in the US, and was the referee at the Atlanta Olympics; they both happen to be excellent educators. Thankfully Michael was able to stay for the tournament, and being able to work with him during the competition was also an educational opportunity for me. And the things i learned were not just related to officiating, for example i was surprised to learn how little female table tennis players were paid in Europe. The flow of information wasn't just one-way; in the same conversation, i think he was surprised how much money table tennis coaches are paid in the US.

He also said, in observing tournament management in the US, "I'm surprised how much work is done by so few people." (I'm going by memory so those probably aren't his exact words.) This comment really rang true, knowing how much work is done by some people in our association, and also knowing how many people in our association seem to care about table tennis and want things to improve, but don't help do the work required to make things better. When i joined Greg Cox, Mike Cavanaugh, and Kenny Tien in trying to lay down the sponsor advertising decals in the arenas, i'm not sure who among us thought of this as a task we were supposed to be doing.

The post-tournament meeting for Team Japan
The contrast to this is seen in the Japanese organization with their players, coaches, and officials. Almost all of them seem willing to do whatever is necessary to make things right for their association, for their team, and for the sport. I spent over half an hour at 8am one morning working with one Japanese player who was struggling with shirt legality, time she could have spent practicing. Yet there were no complaints, no excuses, and she was smiling when she went out on court for her match. Even though their delegation was composed of a mix of players from a dozen different teams - none of them were national team members - they still worked together as one.

Women's Champion Megumi Abe
The Japanese name at the forefront this year was Tokyo Art's Masato Shiono. Though he had played in previous US Opens, this time he was coming off a career-high success as the winner of the Japan Open - it was so rare for a player to go through the qualifying stage to win a major tournament, and these days it's also rare for a male chopper to win a big tournament. In the seedings for the US Open we used his prior month's ranking of 188, but his current ranking was 85, which would have made him the #3 seed in the tournament. Though he and his fans had high hopes, he exited the tournament in the quarters, losing to Primorac.

But the Japanese still came out with a singles title, as Megumi Abe won the women's final over Samara. Seeded #11, it would be hard to call this a fluke win for her as she had the toughest possible draw - she had to go through #1 Elizabeta Samara, #2 Georgina Pota, #3 Petrissa Solja, and #5 Ariel Hsing. She lost a total of 3 games in those four matches! Like the other Japanese players in this competition, Megumi is a semi-pro in Japan, playing for Sanritsu in the Japanese corporate league, but having limited opportunities to compete in international competition. For example she didn't even compete in the Japan Open a couple weeks ago.

Canada's Eugene Wang repeated as the men's champion. He knocked out Lundqvist 4-0 in the semis, while Primorac was defeated in his semifinal by Chinese wild card Yang Ce. In truth, the semis and finals weren't as exciting as the previous day's quarters and 8ths, and this seems to happen at a lot of tournaments. The simultaneous deuce-in-the-7th matches in the men's quarters were very exciting, and it seemed like the players on court enjoyed them almost as much as the spectators.

Start both videos at the same time to experience dual-deuce-in-the-7th quarterfinals.

I don't know when the Open will be in Vegas again, or when the Open will be a World Tour stop again. Hosting a World Tour event requires a facility with certain minimum requirements that have always been difficult for us to find: lighting at a level of 1000 lux, and a wooden sports floor underneath the rubber table tennis floor mats. We were lucky this year, with this particular hall having new lighting and a different event in Las Vegas allowing us to rent their portable wooden floor.

And, in addition to the requirements within the playing conditions, there are more demands on the organizers. If you ask me today if i want to host another World Tour event next year, i will quickly say no - it's too much work. And this is a common theme: even if everyone wants something to happen, if we don't have enough people willing to make the effort necessary to make it happen, it won't.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Working in Paris

Midway through the tournament someone asked me, "Are you having fun?"

Knowing that i have a bad habit of being a little too honest, i had to pause for a few seconds before answering.

"It's great to see all these top players and coaches in one place," i replied.

I think most would agree that the Worlds is second in prestige only to the Olympics. The Olympics is a larger event in overall scope and size, but that's a 26-sport event.

The Worlds is a single-sport event with over 800 athletes involved. In contrast, most World Tour events limit the entry count to about 200 (depending on the tier). A tournament like the forthcoming US Open might have almost 1000 players, but i don't think all of those players will expect two umpires at each match, or meal service throughout the tournament, or over 10,000 screaming fans.

Yes, it's a big production and an important tournament, and i was there working as an umpire. You can read my official report on the USATT web site: http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Table-Tennis/USATT/Committees/Committee-Reports

An indulgence. I hadn't had langoustines in years.
Paris was pretty much the same as i remembered from the last time i'd been there; it's still beautiful, and there are still too many smokers. They still like sitting at cafes theater-style with the sidewalk and street as their theater. But there were subtle differences: The French people spoke a little more English than before; there was less dog poop on the sidewalks; and there was slightly more franchise fast food than before. A more obvious change was the popular Velib bike sharing system. 

I'm told that the Worlds in Paris is a little different from the Worlds in other years and locations. (With this being my first worlds i can't use personal experience to compare.) People around the world want to visit Paris, so the player and spectator counts are higher than average. This is good news for everyone who isn't working at the tournament; more people means more work. But there is pleasure in being a part of making an event like this happen, and i believe almost everyone was happy to be there. Myself included, along with about 30 fellow USATT members (that i know of) who were on hand in one function or another.
Players patiently waiting for match time
 One thing that impressed me about the organizers was the calmness. When the bus driver was late, he didn't panic and start running down pedestrians. When the arena was being set up with a hundred things on the to-do list, the crew methodically went down the list and did things one at a time. It was as if they (the numerous volunteers) did this for a living; they worked like professionals.

I've been asked several times: How do you become an umpire at the World Championships?
1. Become an International Umpire. This will take a few years or a few dozen years, depending on a variety of circumstances.
2. Apply through your national association. Each association can submit up to two umpire applications to the ITTF. Being a good umpire and being an active umpire will probably help your chances of being submitted by your association.
3. Be selected by the ITTF. You would have to ask the URC (Umpires' and Referees' Committee) what the selection process is.
4. Complete the registration process, get the uniform cleaned, review the rule books, pay the fees, travel to the tournament, etc.

The process is a little different if the Worlds takes place in your home country. About 80 National Umpires from France worked the first two days of the competition. I was told that it typically takes over 10 years for someone to become a National Umpire in France.

The follow up question is usually: How much were you paid?
1. During the tournament, a hotel room (shared with another official) was provided, plus breakfast at the hotel, and lunch and dinner in the cafeteria with the athletes and other staff. Bus from airport to hotel and hotel to playing hall were also taken care of.
2. USATT paid a flat $750 of my plane ticket, independent of how much it actually cost me. The cheapest plane ticket i found for the tournament dates would have been $1500, but i saw that i could cut it down to $1100 if i arrived three days earlier. A cheap hotel would cost me $320 for three nights, so either way i was going to take a net loss of about $750. I opted to travel early and hang out for a few days.
3. Umpires were given $200 (20 euros per day) to handle other expenses.
Oeuf en gelée au jambon (egg and ham in aspic jelly) and pâté -
typical cafeteria food for an athlete?

So in total i was "paid" negative $550. Fellow US umpire Kenny Tien probably paid more. Why a subset of table tennis enthusiasts would repeatedly pay money (and use vacation days from their day jobs) to work at tournaments belongs in another article. But obviously much of the compensation is intangible.

A slightly less frequent question is: What is it like to umpire at the Worlds Championships?

It's different for everyone; i can only speak for myself and say that it's pressure. It's not easy, there's no relaxation, and i can't say i'm enjoying a match despite being closer to the play than any spectator. If a player serves into the net, he'll be kicking himself and he might get a tongue lashing from his coach. But if the umpire makes a simple mistake like that, it's a big problem; it doesn't matter if he or she was perfect up until that point. Even when the umpire does everything right, the players, crowd, and commentators may claim otherwise. An umpire can never win the match, but he can, in a sense, lose. And when my day is over i don't think about doing something touristy or having a drink; it's back to the hotel for me, briefly catching up on other table tennis things i'm working on, and bed. Again, i can only speak for myself; many umpires went out when they had breaks, but those people are tougher than i am.
Samsonov and Chen Weixing - someone brought their own thickness tester
Some umpires have other duties to attend to. There were 70 ITTF meetings at the Worlds, and some umpires are national delegates, committee members, presenters of proposals, etc. As a new member of the equipment committee, i had to fit in meetings along with my umpiring duties.

There was similar contrast among players. Some were very serious and focused on table tennis, even going to the practice area long after they were knocked out of the tournament. Meanwhile, others were taking in the whole Paris Worlds experience as much as they could.

For example, on the second day of the tournament there were 38 women's singles qualification matches scheduled at 8:30am, but i didn't see 76 players with their practice partners and coaches in the playing hall at 7:00am getting ready. Not even half that. But i was pleased to see Team USA there, bright and early and, incredibly, smiling.

Ariel and Erica, the first ones in the hall at 7:00am

The preparation that goes on before a match is extensive, and i'm not talking about the practice that was done at home. The serious players work up a serious sweat long before their match starts. Players are expected to check in for their match 30 minutes ahead of time and give their rackets to the umpires at that time. I'm trying to imagine asking US players to do this at the US Open - is it even possible? But the professional players handle it professionally, handing over their rackets and working it into their pre-match routine. And when their match is delayed and they haven't touched their primary racket for an hour or more, what do they do? They go out to the table when it's time to play, and perform the way they're expected to.

A photographer's wooden stool is the best seat in the house
The European fans - largely French and German - were slightly disappointed when their hometown heroes didn't make it to the finals. I suspect some Chinese fans were secretly disappointed about that too.

Should the women be offended?
Even the semifinals were monopolized by Asian countries, though there was some variety with North Korea and Taiwan taking home doubles trophies. But the hordes of spectators were still happy. You could hear the stampede of pre-teen autograph seekers whenever a member of the Chinese team decided to take a break and attempt to disappear in the cheap seats. "Was that Ma Long?" asks a middle-aged bystander. "No, Fang Bo" replies the French youth, with a look of "DUH!" The French federation is obviously developing a new generation of professional players with great potential. But alongside that, they're also developing new generations of serious table tennis fans, who will grow up with the sport and contribute to it for years and years.

Of course i was happy to be there. It was the World Championships! It was Paris! But like a typical American, of course i was happy to return home to the States. Then i realized that the America's Team Championships tournament was next weekend and i hadn't started preparing for it. And i knew that instead of having four times as many umpires as tables (the standard staffing requirement), i would have four times as many tables as umpires. So it goes.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Making of the College Table Tennis Championships, 2013 Edition

Sure, the table tennis tournament that your club hosted was great and unique. But how many tournaments in the US sport these features?
  • An event that concludes a year's worth of league competition, requiring each player or team to qualify through regular season (divisional) play and regional qualifying tournaments
  • Lunches and an awards banquet provided for the players and coaches - all 250+ of them
  • Every match officiated by an umpire, or as a last resort, managed by an official scorekeeper
  • No matches on concrete floor
  • Every court (18 of them) fully barriered either 23x38 or 30x53 in size, with umpire desks, scoreboards, and towel boxes
  • A discrete practice area with 16 dedicated practice tables
  • Every player is a part of a team, and every team member is wearing a team uniform
  • Matches are streamed live with commentary through most of the competition
  • Press releases written and sent out as the tournament progresses
  • A tournament program with photos of each participating team
The tournament i'm referring to is of course the NCTTA College Table Tennis Championships, but there is another tournament that i must mention as probably being of a similar class: the Mike Dempsey Memorial tournament. Para tournaments are routinely all-inclusive, though the entry fees tend to be significantly higher.

Other tournaments that might come close in playing conditions are the US National Team Trials, and the North America Cup and North American Championships. Though these events have much fewer entry and table counts, and are a different kind of tournament.

Back to the topic at hand. How does this tournament happen year after year, to the joy of table tennis-loving college students around the country?

If i had to name a single reason it would be tournament director/championships committee chair Willy Leparulo.

Willy drives the bus. When a piece is missing he finds it. When something's not going the way it's supposed to, he almost wills it to happen correctly. He's been doing it for years and doesn't seem to get tired of it. He's not perfect - and he'd be the first to admit or even flaunt it to you - but the amount of drive he shows in this role is incredible.

Court One
But will, desire, and dedication are not enough. One person is definitely not enough. It's a two-year process with a lot of little pieces and if i listed all the steps there'd be a nice big wall of text here.

To put things in perspective, i've run two-star, two-day tournaments with ten events using a two-person crew. I think i could run a four-star tournament with a three-person crew if i had some umpires i could call upon. In contrast, the NCTTA Championships probably requires a bare minimum of 60 staff members, but generally about 100 people are used. There's no way i could name all of them, but they're all important. And the preparation time required is at least 20 times what's needed for a four-star tournament, and it might be more like 50 times. Of course this is impossible to measure but it's definitely a huge process and a ton of work.
Sometimes you're forced to play on the back courts
We have conference calls every month. There are documents to write for everyone - athletes, on-site staff, coaches, spectators. Contracts to bid out, evaluate, revise, and sign. Equipment to rent or buy. Staff to recruit and train. (Anyone know of a US city or even state has 30 umpires ready to go?) All sorts of preparation needed so that the tournament setup and competition can run like clockwork with no overhead, no missing steps or planning that we overlooked. And then we need to run the tournament itself.

What do we, the organizers, get out of this?

Of the core staff (tournament director, technical delegate, competition manager, referee, and volunteer coordinator), only the competition manager is paid. And the amount he's paid probably doesn't cover his expenses.

I did receive an event shirt.

A lot of us received headaches, even if we didn't ask for them.

No competition here, this is just the practice area
But we do get the pleasure of putting on what i believe is the best table tennis event in the country. And we keep people playing after they leave the junior ranks. The vast majority of them say they're having fun.

After the tournament i kicked back and . . . wrote the tournament recap for the USATT magazine. Then i started preparing myself for the next tournament i would be working at.

We're just starting the process for the 2015 tournament, and we're in the middle of working on next year's event. In a couple weeks Ed Hogshead and i will be traveling to Monroeville, PA (a suburb of Pittsburgh) to inspect the site of the 2014 Championships. I think it'll be the best ever.