No, I'm not
bitter about the chicken-feed money in table tennis. Compared with other
sports, it's nothing, but actually it's not too bad. Last year I made $20,000.
Exhibitions, coaching clinics and tournaments. There were expenses, of course.
Travel, especially. But I intend to stay on top a long time, and the money's
getting better every year."
Speaking was Dan
Seemiller, a 23-year-old from Pittsburgh who was at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas
in mid-December to defend his title in the second U.S. Closed Table Tennis
championship. Seemiller had already reached the singles final where he would
meet Dal Joon Lee, a six-time U.S. Open champion. To the winner would go
$1,000, to the runner-up $700. And this on the court where Jimmy Connors and
John Newcombe played for $750,000 in 1975. Seemiller did not resent the
disparity. If envy of million-dollar athletes were a killer virus, table tennis
champions, who are used to meager prize money and lack of recognition, would be
the final, Seemiller said with total confidence, "If Dal Joon takes a game
from me, it'll be a close one, and he'll have to fight hard for it. The three
games I win should be easy."
In fairness it
must be said that at 37 Dal Joon Lee is not nearly the player he was when he
came here from South Korea in 1964. Then all his technical equipment functioned
smoothly: a fine forehand loop drive, an assortment of tricky spin serves and
the fast reflexes the sport requires. On the table he was fiercely competitive,
sometimes bordering on orneriness. Only an average player at the international
level, Lee had a streak of six straight U.S. Opens ended in 1974 when that
tournament once again began to attract top-flight foreign stars. Sweden's Kjell
Johansson won the Open in '74 and '75, Yugoslavia's Dragutin Surbek in '76,
Jochen Leiss of West Germany in '77.
But even without
the influx of big-name internationalists, Dal Joon Lee's superiority in the
U.S. was being challenged by Seemiller in '74. According to Seemiller, Lee kept
dodging him. "If there was a money tournament somewhere, Lee would call up
the sponsor and ask, kind of casual-like, who was entered," says Seemiller.
"If my name wasn't in, Lee would enter. But if I entered later, Lee would
make some excuse, like an exhibition somewhere for more money, and he'd
withdraw. It got to be funny. Both of us would wait until the last minute to
enter tournaments. I was trying to lure him in, he was trying to avoid me. In
one tournament he actually defaulted to me rather than play the match."
Seemiller was reaching his peak just as the world's best were invading the
Open. Last year, to salvage local pride, the U.S. Table Tennis Association
sanctioned the first U.S. Closed, limiting eligibility to Americans and
resident aliens. A domestic variety U.S. champion was thus ensured. Seemiller,
beating Lee in the finals 3-0, became that champion.
Seemiller is an
exciting player to watch, more exciting often than players above him in the
world rankings, where he stands 35th. Not that he is a graceful player. Judged
by traditional standards of good form, Seemiller, in fact, might be called
grotesque. "If I saw him play for the first time," says U.S. Team
Captain Houshang Bozorgzadeh, a former Iranian champion, "I'd tell him,
'There are only two ways to hold a paddle. Go home and learn one of them.' But
when I see his strength, even against world-class players, I sometimes think
Seemiller may be the beginning of a whole new style—the American basement
style—carried to its highest level."
characterization stems from Seemiller's freakish backhand; no top player in
history has ever hit a backhand his way. For a shake-hands-grip player, as
Seemiller is, the normal backhand is stroked much as it is in tennis, with the
back of the hand leading the swing into the ball. On the forehand the palm
leads the swing. But Seemiller strokes palm first off both backhand and
forehand. When switching from forehand to backhand, he rotates his forearm to
the right (he's a lefty) so that he uses the same face of the racket for both
backhand and forehand. There is another complication: on the seemingly non
working side of his bat, Seemiller has "anti-spin" sponge rubber—very
dead stuff with almost no "grip"—which he reserves for one purpose
only, to return spin serves. Once the ball is safely in play, he flips his bat
over and plays forehand and backhand with very fast 2 mm. sponge.
Except for its
surprise value, Seemiller's palm-first backhand is weak against world-class
players, for there is no way he can attack with it. His best shot is a whiplike
forehand drive that he hits with dynamic spin and power. Seemiller concedes he
has no chance against the Chinese. In Hong Kong two months ago, in a
five-nation invitational round robin, he played China's best, Huang Liang and
Kuo Yao-hua. "Huang's devastating service is impossible to play
against," Seemiller later wrote in Table Tennis, the USTTA publication.
"When I served I controlled play, but when Huang served he was totally
dominant—I could hardly ever get a point...."
the Chinese regard Seemiller as a spoiler, capable of taking the first game of
a match because of his tricky style but no threat in an important best-of-five.
Seemiller counters that the Chinese have some cute tricks of their own.
"They produce much better sponge in China," he says. "During a
practice session in Hong Kong I hit a few balls with Kuo's racket. What speed!
What spin! Fantastic! But when I asked if I could buy a few sheets of their
sponge, they were polite but said they had no extras. Since they refuse to
export the best stuff, every match against them is like starting cold