While admitting nothing, the Chinese were stunned into a sweeping reappraisal of their approach to the game when their men's team was beaten by Hungary at the 1979 world championships in Pyongyang, North Korea. Having grown a mite too complacent in their isolation, the Chinese fell victim to the Hungarians' dreaded loop drive, a murderously heavy topspin shot that kicks off the table with bulletlike speed. The defeat spurred the Chinese to devise a new strategy.
Technically they had to refine the skills that would neutralize the loop drive being perfected by a growing number of their foes. And they had to adjust to the realization that, competitively speaking, too much friendship can be a bad thing.
Dr. Liu Chui Fan, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois and the USTTA's China expert, explains, "As the royalty of table tennis, the Chinese have always had a proprietary interest in the game. As a result, they felt that if they won too often and too decisively, they would retard the development of the sport. On the other hand, if in the interest of friendship they were too accommodating, they demeaned the skills of their opponents. Either way, the game suffered."
Two months ago, at the 1981 world championships in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, the Chinese solved part one of their dilemma by reestablishing themselves as the fastest wrists in the world. Using super-smooth anti-spin rubber on their bats, they answered the loop with quick, short-hop blocks that rocketed the ball back at opponents. They also employed the "three-ball attack"—serve, return, putaway—to avoid the extended rallies in which the loop drive is most effective. In addition, they developed some mean loopers of their own. The results were stunning. The Chinese became the first to win all seven titles at a world tournament.
As their sweep suggests, part two of their new strategy is no more Mr. Nice Guys. "Instead of playing down to the level of their competition." says Dr. Liu, "the Chinese have decided to raise it by playing to win and sharing their expertise whenever possible." Hence their appearance at the U.S. Open bearing gifts.
They also have a new look. "They could pass for Chinese Americans," says Seemiller. "The Chinese team used to be so stone-faced, so robotlike and distant, always marching around together. Now they smile. They mingle. They show emotion. They sweat and towel off just like the rest of us. Hey, they're human!"
Boggan's son Eric, 17, the other mainstay of the U.S. team, agrees. Referring to Cai Zhenhua and Xie Saike, both 19, he said, "They're teen-agers, too. They've got the same kind of nerve ends as I do, right?"
Maybe, but it didn't seem that way at the Open. When the Chinese deplaned in New York City after 48 hours in transit, they had but one request—to practice. And so they did, in a cramped boys' club in Chinatown, for three days before the tournament. The fruits of such devotion were apparent as they breezed through the early rounds at Princeton.
Seemiller and Boggan, who played well enough at this year's world championships to advance the U.S. men's team's ranking to the top 16, ran into stiff competition in the first round from ninth-rated South Korea, one of five nations at the Open ranked among the first 20 in the world. Trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five team match that proved to be the most compelling face-off of the week, the Americans rallied in a doubles thriller. Seemiller, compact, steady and given to balletic leaps, and Boggan, streaky and prone to flashes of temper, survived five match points to win the decisive game 30-28. They each then won equally tingling singles matches to prevail 3-2.
From there, the Americans made it to the finals and a confrontation with the Chinese. Seemiller, going against Xie, a relentless attacker who grasps the paddle penholder fashion, lost 21-17, 21-15. Boggan, facing Cai, a stocky performer who prefers the handshake grip and likes to finish diving saves with a neat cartwheel, went down 21-11, 21-17. "Their ball speed is fantastic, maybe 25% faster than ours," said Seemiller. "They're just super players."