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Time was in this country when tournament-bound table tennis players stowed their rackets deep in their luggage, the way grown men might hide away their hot-water bottles. But that was before the sport's nifty caper in Peking. Now paddle addicts not only hand-carry their bats, they flaunt them. And so, at New York's Long Island air terminals a few days ago, as the players arrived for the U.S. Championships, flocks of low-flying bats were conspicuous. Ostensibly, they were being waved in long-distance greetings or practice-stroked through the air. Actually, the players were saying, "Look here, world! Remember us? Our sport did it!"
They came from 33 states, 725 of them, a record for a nationals, paying their own expenses plus entry fees. It mattered little that few of them would take away titles. What mattered was being in it, in the sport. It was a case of pure Ping-Pong pride. Even a general sprucing up had taken place; on the gym floor of Hempstead's Hofstra University, the playing site, sneakers were shades whiter than in former years, and chic little alligators crouched on many new shirts. After all, who could tell when one might be whisked off for duty in the diplomatic service, for even with China solved there still remains the Suez Canal.
Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the sport has changed, and now all things seem possible. A year ago, for example, with the top prize for a rich tournament about $100, not even the game's zealots could have conjured up so wild a notion as a $7,500 affair. Yet in December, at Redondo Beach, Calif., not only did that surprising event take place; it was so successful that the tournament chairman, Steve Shoemaker—previously unknown in table tennis circles but now as beloved as Mao Tse-tung—has announced the second Redondo Beach Western Classic (even the name thrills the players) for November with prize money boosted to $10,000. Two other events are being planned for the summer, potential sponsors are beginning to compete for choice dates, and a tournament circuit on which a champ might thrive no longer seems a pipe dream.
Another surprise has been the shift in attitude of the equipment manufacturers, who, though they were the only people making money out of the sport, were about as interested in it as hens are in omelets. Now, joyously startled by a 30% jump in sales and an even steeper rise in the demand for more sophisticated equipment—sponge bats for $14 apiece, and three-star Halex balls, the kind used in world championships—they are finally forming a manufacturers' association to keep the table tennis juggernaut in motion.
Thus, with Ping-Pong paradise almost in view, it was hardly surprising that the Hofstra nationals drew a record turnout of competitors. Many were new players, some of whom unashamedly wore shirts adorned on the back with crossed paddles—one paddle containing a red star, the other stars and stripes—and over them the words PING-PONG POWER. But oldtimers had been drawn back to the game, too, among them Laszlo Bellak, 61, three-time world singles finalist. Before beating Sandor Glancz, 62, another world star of the '30s, in the finals of the Senior-Esquire event, Laszlo said to him, "Fight, Sandor. I hear first prize in this event is an oxygen tent."
By finals day the play had become so stressful that both men's singles semifinals were marred by alleged hanky-panky. In his match with Jack Howard, Peter Pradit, a frail but powerful 23-year-old Thailander now living in Florida, asked, after losing a series of points, if he could examine the ball. "When his thumb got finished testing it," Howard said later, "the ball was a crushed eggshell." Nonetheless, Howard, 37, seeded 13th, stayed blazing hot with his backhand counterdrive and upset the second-seeded Pradit, 3-1. In the other semifinals John Tannehill, 19, who like Howard had been on the U.S. team that toured China, protested to the umpire that defending champion Dal-Joon Lee, Korean-born but now a U.S. citizen, had used two successive illegal serves, both of which scored crucial points. Protest denied; Lee also advanced to the finals 3-1.
Before the championship match, the crowd got a chance to see Ping-Pong diplomacy in action when, with minimum ceremony, six members from the Chinese Mission to the U.N. filed into the gym. Introduced, they stood and faced the crowd, smiling, some in gray Mao jackets, and acknowledged the prolonged applause by applauding back. All the while, they maintained that special air of jovial dignity that, in a friendly environment, distinguishes the Chinese. They seemed to enjoy the matches, admitted that they, personally, played the game "a bit" and commented approvingly that ''your standard of play seems higher than it was last year."
It was too bad the Chinese guests, and the fans, too, did not see a better men's final, but Jack Howard could not produce the same fireworks that had shot him through the semis. Dal-Joon Lee had something to do with that, for though he cannot match the explosive attack of the sport's Chinese masters, he handcuffed Howard with some fine spin serves and a wicked looping forehand. Howard took his 3-0 trimming well. "I'm only sorry," he said, a forlorn and thwarted missionary, "that I could not give the crowd a better match."
Nothing could have pleased the watchers more, though, than Wendy Hicks' win in the women's final. She was due for something nice to happen. In the 1971 nationals she lost in the finals 26-24 in the fifth and deciding game, the kind of wound that has shaken many a forehand and backhand for life. Then last April in Japan, as a member of the U.S. team, she was included in the invitation to visit China. Perhaps not appreciating, at 18, the magnitude of the trip, she chose instead to keep a date with a girl friend in Honolulu. A bright-eyed, 100-pound wisp, Wendy still enjoys maintaining that given the same circumstances she might make the same choice again. "After all, I had made an appointment. And we did have a ball in Hawaii."
Those were two setbacks, but nothing went wrong for Wendy at Hofstra, where she beat Canada's Violetta Nesukaitis 3-0 in the finals. With a dozen roses in her arms, a $500 check in her pocket, a gleaming trophy left in the hands of an official and her first U.S. singles title on the record, she paced the floor and repeatedly gasped out one word: "Finally, finally, finally...."