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Ever since 1952, when a wispy Japanese named Satoh won the world table tennis championship, Europeans have been singing the wait-till-next-time blues. Yet as next time led to next time the raw materials that Satoh introduced to the sport—the astonishing sponge racket and the all-out, crash-through style—were refined more rapidly by Asians than by Europeans so that, until recently, the gap between them widened rather than narrowed and few major trophies wound up in the West.
With one big exception, that was the situation last week as nearly 500 players from 62 countries met in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia for the 32nd World Table Tennis Championships. The exception was Stellan Bengtsson, a 20-year-old Swede who at the last world championships in Japan in 1971 stunned everyone by winning the singles crown. Moreover, against a field packed with Chinese and Japanese greats, Bengtsson had won on style, the European style, as different from Asian style as West from East. So as play opened at Sarajevo people were looking forward to finding out whether Bengtsson's win was a fluke or, finally, the start of a trend. Could he repeat? Even more interest, however, centered on whether a European men's team could take away the Swaythling Cup from defending China. With table tennis so international in scope and therefore so inextricably bound to nationalism, that cup, awarded as it is to a country rather than an individual, is now the most sought-after prize of all.
Europe's only real challengers to China and to No. 2 world-ranked Japan seemed to be Hungary, Yugoslavia and Sweden. At the 1971 championships all three had gone down to Asians in hard fights. Swaythling Cup play consists of three-man teams playing each other in round-robin singles, two out of three games to a match, five out of a possible nine matches for the title. In '71 Yugoslavia had bowed to Japan 5-4 and Hungary and Sweden to China 5-4 and 5-3, respectively; far different from the customary 5-0 shellackings of previous years. But with world champ Bengtsson reportedly better than ever this year Sweden seemed Europe's best bet.
As play began at Sarajevo the Yugoslavs were upset by the Czechs and with a later loss to Japan they were out. In the other half of the groupings, Hungary lost to Sweden and to China and it too was out. That set things up for the Sweden- China tie, as matches are called, the winner of which, experts felt, would go on to take the Swaythling Cup by beating the comparatively weak-looking Japanese. Thus, once again, it was Asia vs. underdog Europe, style vs. style. The outcome could affect playing techniques for a generation.
Modern table tennis is played with high-speed sponge rackets; with few exceptions world-class players use "inverted" sponge with a flat surface rather than a pimpled surface. Europeans, more so than Asians, employ strokes that particularize the advantages of sponge, speed and spin. Their best shots are the quick block and the super spin loop-drive. Indeed, if Europeans are closing the gap, as they seem to be, they can thank Japanese chemists, who each year come up with formulas that make inverted sponge faster and grippier, factors that increase the effectiveness of the block-and-loop technique.
The left-handed Bengtsson, a handshake-grip player, as almost all Europeans are, is the world's best all-round exponent of this style. Though he is not the world's fastest blocker or the severest spinner, his consistency and reflexes make him a formidable foe. Moreover, his game is custom-made to handle the more audacious and dazzling Asian attack, an attack that hinges on precision timing (footwork is the key) and a violinist's touch. Three years ago the Swedes sent Bengtsson to infiltrate the Japanese training camps, and today his block, which traps kills at the table and catapults them back in a microsecond, snarls the timing of most opponents, and his spins are an effective squelcher of touch. In essence, Bengtsson is a spoiler—but a colorful one.
At Sarajevo, for the Sweden- China tie, the match that was most avidly anticipated by the experts was Bengtsson vs. Li Ching-kuang. Li is the brawny (6', 175 pounds) attacker who two years ago in the China- Japan Cup final crushed the then world champion Shigeo Itoh 21-3, 21-6. No world-class player, much less a world titleholder, had ever before been so humiliated and, accordingly, Li was made the favorite to take that year's singles, the event that follows cup play. But in the round of 32 Li tangled with Bengtsson. With a 16-11 lead in the fifth game, Li looked like a certain winner. A few missed kill shots, however, rattled the newcomer to world play and Bengtsson won 21-19.
Their rematch at Sarajevo was just as close. If Li was not attacking as hard as he had two years ago he made up for it by using a newly invented Chinese serve. Most players toss the ball upward from the palm (the rules require it) only a few inches. Li tossed it four or five feet. With greater momentum at impact his serves were jumping with spin. The match went the limit and Bengtsson the spoiler, with sharp-angled blocks and gritty spins, won it 21-13, 10-21, 21-19. Two other Bengtsson wins, and one each by his teammates Ingemar Vikstrom and Kjell Johansson, gave Sweden the tie 5-4. That should have been it. Or at least it should have led to a direct fight between Sweden and Japan for the cup. Unfortunately a new grouping and playoff system tried at this championship produced a preposterous and—it was so baffling—almost humorous final.
There is no point trying to explain the system; be content to know that Sweden and Japan did meet in the last tie to be played, except that Japan was cast in the role of the spoiler. It could not win the Swaythling Cup, but if it beat Sweden, China would win, a prospect the Japanese players did not seem enthusiastic about. It must be said for the large contingent from Peking that they themselves had no great interest in backing into the title. Most of the time they seemed to be for Sweden. The Swedes won 5-3, the best match being Bengtsson-Tadao Takashima, which the Swede won 21-15 in the third game.
While Bengtsson could rightfully be called the hero of the Swaythling Cup, his luck ran out in the singles championship. In the second round he faced the savage backhand attack of Russia's Stanislav Gomozkov. The Russian kept the champion away from the table and reduced him to a semi-passive attack. The fourth game was decisive. With a 2-1 game lead, Gomozkov was ahead 20-19. Bengtsson saved that match point and another at 21-20, and then won the game 25-23. But the shock of that close call was telling. Like a man who has narrowly missed being hit by a car, Bengtsson began the fifth set in a state of shock. His face was dead white and he faltered on easy shots. The final game was a 21-9 rout.