"It's a fix," said 12-year-old Barney Reed on a Friday afternoon in June at the Baltimore Arena. "It's gotta be a fix."
The scene was the quarterfinal round for the men's singles title at the U.S. Open table tennis championship. There at Table 1 crouched Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, the sport's world champion. Down two games to none in the best-of-five match, Waldner faced match point against teammate Peter Karlsson, who was ranked 59th in the world.
To young Reed, an age-group table tennis champion from Harrisburg, Pa., who had twice traveled to Stockholm to train with the best, such a situation-such an upset—meant only one thing: His heroes were playing games.
But it was no fix. Waldner proceeded to turn back four match points before winning the third game, 24-22. He faced two more match points in the fourth game but fought through to win 22-20, then dispatched Karlsson with a 21-16 fifth-game victory. Barney Reed's faith was restored.
The real surprise was not that the 25-year-old Waldner nearly lost the tournament, but that he and so many of the world's other top players were in the Baltimore Arena, a venue more accustomed to rock concerts and indoor soccer—and that they were taking things so seriously.
Traditionally, the U.S. Open has been a low-key affair for the world's best players, a sort of holiday at the end of the long competitive seasons in Europe and Asia. But this year was different. At stake in Baltimore was $85,000 in prize money, with $20,000—the largest purse in the history of table tennis—going to the winner of the men's singles. The result was some inspired competition.
"Everyone tries to win this year," said Waldner after his match with Karlsson. Waldner, who was tired after the Swedish team's recent trips to Nigeria and to the Philippines, was marshaling his strength in Baltimore, limiting himself to just one pretournament golf game and staying in his hotel room in the evenings.
This year's Open was the showcase event of the huge Tournaments of Champions, the largest table tennis event ever held in North America. Players of all ages, all abilities and nationalities bounced around Baltimore for more than a week. Two blocks from the Arena, in the Convention Center, some 2,000 players from 56 countries competed in age divisions ranging from under-10 to over-80.
"Most people only think of the recreational side of table tennis," said Dan Seemiller, the new president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association (USTTA). Seemiller was in town not only to oversee the Tournaments of Champions competition but also to provide color commentary for ESPN's coverage of the Open, which will be telecast later this month. "An event like this helps educate the public about the competitive aspect."
Seemiller, a nationally ranked player, took over as USTTA president on June 1. He is a tireless campaigner for his sport: "We want to go from being perceived as a game to being perceived as a sport. We're in the Olympics now, and we're starting to get some respect in this country. This event will do a lot to help."
Baltimore was an appropriate setting for the tournament, which for the past five years had been held in Miami, because this spring the city's schools became the first in the country to install table tennis as a varsity sport. "It's perfect for schools," said Seemiller. "It's cheap and it's safe."
The USTTA says there are nearly 20 million table tennis players in the country, and last year the organization sanctioned 300 tournaments nationwide. Still, the U.S. has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
In Asia and Europe, table tennis is a major sport. Players like Waldner and his teammate Mikael Appelgren, the 1989 European champion, make very good livings through prize money, club contracts and endorsements. Waldner, who started playing table tennis when he was six, recently signed a five-year contract with Banda, a Swedish manufacturer of table tennis equipment, that guarantees him at least $66,000 a year.
Yet, the powers that rule the sport clearly hunger for more recognition and acceptance. Ichiro Ogimura of Japan, president of the 146-nation International Table Tennis Federation, has dedicated his term of office to improving what he calls the sport's presentation.
"We have a real possibility to be a big show-up sport on television," said Ogimura, himself a two-time world singles champion in the 1950s. Ogimura's vision includes such innovations as yellow-orange balls, net-mounted television cameras and microphones and high-fashion competition clothing.
"We have to study what is the real charm of table tennis," said Ogimura. "It is a good game. A family game. So much better than home computer games."
The enthusiastic crowds who filled the lower sections of the arena each day of the U.S. Open would certainly have agreed. "They know what they're seeing," said Seemiller, looking up at the stands, "and they appreciate it."
What the crowds saw was continued dominance by the major table tennis nations. Overall, the strongest country was China, which won both the men's and women's team titles. The Chinese men beat the West Germans 3-1, while the Chinese women rolled over the Koreans 3-0. Yaping Ding of China won the women's singles title, and with it $5,000.
In the men's singles, though, it was all Sweden—and all on the up-and-up. After his near elimination by Karlsson, Waldner advanced to meet Zhibin Chen of China in the first semifinal match. Waldner again seemed to suffer some lapses in concentration, dropping the first two games, 21-13, to Chen, the No. 33 player in the world. Waldner's swift forehand, however, saved the day and the Swede won the third and fourth games, and took the last seven points in the fifth game to win the match.
In the other semifinal, Appelgren had less trouble with Longcan Chen—Zhibin's countryman but not his relative—who was ranked eighth in the world. Appelgren won, three games to one, to set up an all-Swedish final on Saturday evening. In past years such a U.S. Open match might have been little more than an exhibition. But not this year. "When they put up $20,000, it's no vacation," said Appelgren.
Nonetheless, four hours before their singles showdown, Waldner and Appelgren teamed up in the final of the men's doubles. Seemingly weary from their earlier matches—and perhaps conscious of the match ahead—they lost to Zoran Primorac and Ilije Lupulesku of Yugoslavia.
When they, began warming up across Table 1 that evening, Waldner and Appelgren, both lean, boyish and blond, might have been two brothers preparing for a hot match in the family rec room. But the hushed crowd of 7,400 and the red-blazered officials made it clear that this was—as Seemiller would put it-more a competition than a recreation.
From his serve, it was also equally clear that Waldner was on his game.
"It's always easier to concentrate in the finals," he said later.
Waldner's deadly serve—he seemed to produce the ball suddenly from under his left arm like a magician plucking an egg from his vest pocket—kept Appelgren off balance, and he continually fired forehand shots past the lefthanded Appelgren to win the first game, 21-15.
In the second game, Appelgren's frustration began to mount. When a Waldner return just tipped the net and dropped onto Appelgren's side of the table for a point, Appelgren turned from the table in disgust, letting out a long, loud sentence in Swedish. This was politely—and perhaps loosely—translated by a Swede in the audience as, "He relies on luck; I rely on skill."
Appelgren's hope was to play aggressively, to keep Waldner on the defensive, and for a while he succeeded, winning the second game, 21-15. But Waldner was too fast and too resourceful. He won the third and fourth games, 21-15 and 21-16, and with them the title and the check.
"I was not consistent," said a weary Appelgren. "He played well."
Waldner spent half an hour after the final posing for pictures and signing paddles for scores of fans. Now, he suggested with a smile, he could think about a vacation. Maybe some golf. He was asked how he would spend the $20,000.
"Maybe I try tonight," said Waldner.
Sweden's Waldner (top) and Appelgren clashed in the final.
In the past, stars like Waldner considered the Open a mere respite from the tour's rigors.