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Eric Boggan, the best American table-tennis player in 25 years, lets his voice ring through the Sportzentrum in Bayreuth, West Germany until the 500 spectators rooting against him are quiet. Then, eyes burning, he utters a tight-lipped translation: "Fight!"
Boggan has just zipped a backhand drive past the home team's best player, Milan Orlowski. But on the next point Orlowski, a Czechoslovakian and a former European champion, fires up the fans with a topspin forehand that finds the open crosscourt corner. Sending a murderous stare toward Boggan, Orlowski yells over the crowd's applause. "Ja!" (Yes!)
Boggan is the top player for Spvgg Steinhagen; Orlowski plays for Bayreuth's TTBG Steiner Optic. Both teams belong to Germany's Bundesliga, the highest-caliber professional table-tennis league in the world. Orlowski, though past his prime at 32, is thickly muscled and ruggedly handsome. By contrast, the 21-year-old Boggan is a gangly 6'2", slack-jawed and floppy-socked, with a disconcerting array of facial contortions. He also has an annoying habit of stamping his foot loudly when he hits a shot.
Indeed, as Orlowski goes up 10-5 in the third and deciding game, Boggan appears to be on the verge of the kind of tantrum that has made him the No. 1 bad boy of the sport. "Come on," he berates himself between points. "You have talent, you practice hard, but you play like dogmeat."
This last self-excoriation seems to trigger something positive in Boggan, for he immediately starts to play with the ferocity of a pit bull. Blocking Orlowski's heavy topspin with what Swedish players call his "windshield wiper" style—he stands close to the table, using the same side of his paddle for both forehand and backhand shots—Boggan catches Orlowski at 15-all. Several deceptive spins and precise placements later he wins the game 21-16 to close out the competition for Steinhagen.
Boggan is elated. With victory comes the end of a two-day ordeal of tension, moodiness, complaints of unsavory food and maladies ranging from a sore thigh muscle to dry skin. "You know," he shouts in the winners' noisy dressing room, abandoning for a moment his improving German for the benefit of a visitor, "back home we have a set of coasters with pictures of players on them. That guy [Orlowski] was on one of the coasters. It's like I was Mike Boddicker whiffing Reggie Jackson." Prancing out to a postmatch meal, he announces, "I'm a party animal now."
However, less than an hour later Boggan has pushed away a half-eaten salad and barely sipped a beer. In a tired voice he says he's having trouble breathing. "I'm so sensitive; I go way up and then way down," says Boggan, perplexed by his own mood swings. "I guess it's because I'm young for my age and there is so much pressure. I have no talent for anything but table tennis. I have to win. To me, losing is like God blowing his nose on me."
An obsession with being the best he can be is the reason Boggan is playing in Germany. Since turning 18, he has competed professionally in Europe eight months of each year. His record against the best—he has beaten half of the top 30 players in the world over the last three years—earned him a world ranking as high as No. 18 in 1983, the best for an American since 10-time U.S. Open champion Dick Miles was rated No. 7 in 1959. A few subpar tournament performances have dropped his current ranking to No. 28. The next-best American, Danny Seemiller of Pittsburgh, is No. 66. At the last world championships, in Tokyo in 1983, Boggan reached the round of 16 before losing to the defending and eventual champion, Guo Yuehua of China. No U.S. player had gone as far in the tournament since Miles reached the semifinals in 1959. Next week Boggan will be in Goteborg, Sweden for the world championships.
Boggan built the foundation of his game in the same facility in which a lot of other Americans play table tennis—a cramped basement. Most of the leading foreign players, by contrast, grooved their games in sophisticated training programs loaded with stiff competition. China is so laden with table-tennis talent that Yuehua won't even be in Goteborg to defend his title.