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.

No comments:

Post a Comment