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"It's a fix," said 12-year-old Barney Reed on a Friday afternoon in June at the Baltimore Arena. "It's gotta be a fix."
The scene was the quarterfinal round for the men's singles title at the U.S. Open table tennis championship. There at Table 1 crouched Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, the sport's world champion. Down two games to none in the best-of-five match, Waldner faced match point against teammate Peter Karlsson, who was ranked 59th in the world.
To young Reed, an age-group table tennis champion from Harrisburg, Pa., who had twice traveled to Stockholm to train with the best, such a situation-such an upset—meant only one thing: His heroes were playing games.
But it was no fix. Waldner proceeded to turn back four match points before winning the third game, 24-22. He faced two more match points in the fourth game but fought through to win 22-20, then dispatched Karlsson with a 21-16 fifth-game victory. Barney Reed's faith was restored.
The real surprise was not that the 25-year-old Waldner nearly lost the tournament, but that he and so many of the world's other top players were in the Baltimore Arena, a venue more accustomed to rock concerts and indoor soccer—and that they were taking things so seriously.
Traditionally, the U.S. Open has been a low-key affair for the world's best players, a sort of holiday at the end of the long competitive seasons in Europe and Asia. But this year was different. At stake in Baltimore was $85,000 in prize money, with $20,000—the largest purse in the history of table tennis—going to the winner of the men's singles. The result was some inspired competition.
"Everyone tries to win this year," said Waldner after his match with Karlsson. Waldner, who was tired after the Swedish team's recent trips to Nigeria and to the Philippines, was marshaling his strength in Baltimore, limiting himself to just one pretournament golf game and staying in his hotel room in the evenings.
This year's Open was the showcase event of the huge Tournaments of Champions, the largest table tennis event ever held in North America. Players of all ages, all abilities and nationalities bounced around Baltimore for more than a week. Two blocks from the Arena, in the Convention Center, some 2,000 players from 56 countries competed in age divisions ranging from under-10 to over-80.
"Most people only think of the recreational side of table tennis," said Dan Seemiller, the new president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association (USTTA). Seemiller was in town not only to oversee the Tournaments of Champions competition but also to provide color commentary for ESPN's coverage of the Open, which will be telecast later this month. "An event like this helps educate the public about the competitive aspect."
Seemiller, a nationally ranked player, took over as USTTA president on June 1. He is a tireless campaigner for his sport: "We want to go from being perceived as a game to being perceived as a sport. We're in the Olympics now, and we're starting to get some respect in this country. This event will do a lot to help."