2005 New Jersey Open

The first event of the 2005 STIGA North American Tour got the season off to a rousing start. New Jersey is a hot bed of table tennis activity, with many of the country’s best players, most active clubs and a deep rich history. More history was made here, as the two top seeds in Open Singles were David Zhuang and Thomas Keinath, two players who have met repeatedly in STIGA Tour finals, and even more recently at the West Covina tournament, where Zhuang hung a goose-egg on his rival, 4-0 to win that event.

NATT tournaments tend to be love fests, with old friends and new acquaintances meeting and learning about each other over table tennis matches. The relaxed atmosphere comes from lack of worry, as no one has to worry about is how the tournament is progressing. NATT kept events moving like clockwork. Tournament Director Tom Nguyen was slightly nervous about being captain of his first NATT event, but more than lived up to the challenge. Referee Terri Lee Bell presided over the action as the hall filled with dedicated pongists. Serge and Jack from Table Tennis Pioneers set their booth in the hall, and we were ready to go!

There was plenty to cheer for in the ‘undercard’, those events that make up the bulk of the tournament. Newcomer Eric Svoboda kept insisting that he was ‘about to lose’, but instead won match after match to advance to the U-1700 final, where Herb Hodges finally made his prediction come true, but only by storming back from a 3-1 deficit to win in 7 games! Todd and Cheryl Friend once again brought their brood from Connecticut, and carried home trophies, Chance Friend coming first in the U-1400, second in the U-1550 and the ‘Birthday Girl’ MacKenzie Friend finishing first in the Girl’s Under-10. The big family news went to Mom, who not only captured her first trophy; she made it a Champion-size one in the Under 800.

Another family’s trophy case continued to swell as well, as Adam Hugh swept both the Ying/Lo Boys U-22 and the Boys U-18, relegating Khaleel Asgarali and Oleg Trofimov to second place. Barry Dattel acquitted himself with dignity in the Open Singles, but really shone in taking the Sol Feingold Memorial Over 40 event, defeating John Wetzler in the Final. But Judy Hugh did the real damage and had the whole hall rocking! First was her U-2250 win over the crafty Santos Shih, holding off steady pressure to triumph in five games. Despite her protests that her legs were ailing (“Look! I can barely bend my knee!”) Judy captured the Women’s Singles title, defeating Renata Peluchova, a match that was always a pressure cooker, including the 19-17 septuple deuce fourth game. Judy was down three games to two against the classy veteran, but took both the sixth and seventh games to prevail.

Stalwart Larry Bavly found himself matched with the implacable Alden Fan in the U-2125 Final, but managed to overcome his club mate in six games. Julie Lisova was back, off from a layoff of nearly a year. “She recently ended a romance’, her father explained, ‘and now all she wants to do is play table tennis again.” Play she did! Making the semis of the U-1850 and winning the Ying-Lo Girls U-16 title over Victoria Akselrod. In fact, Julie was in nearly continuous play all day on Sunday.

Khaleel Asgarali was another perpetual motion machine, stomping to a six game win over Marcus Jackson in the U-2375 after falling behind 2-0. Less success for Khaleel when he qualified for the Open Singles Round Robin, where he came fourth in his group. “Do you know” he asked at one point, “that I have played five pips players in a row? Long pips, short pips…where are the topspinners?”

In the finals of the U-2500, to name one place. Ludovic Gombos (pronounce that ‘Gom-boash’) and De Tran put on one of the better matches in recent memory. Gombos is a hell-for-leather competitor, a wired personality who seems to run on sheer nerve. Since his arrival on the US scene from France, his performances have steadily improved. De Tran, by contrast, is a sure and steady hand, centered and poised, determined, but not demonstrative. Straight out of the gate, Gombos was all pressure and brilliance. After taking the hard-fought first game 13-11, he made the most of the emotional surge and quickly (4, 8) had De Tran against the ropes. Tran obviously meant to leave nothing at the table as he dug in for a fourth game win, 11-4. Perhaps Gombos relaxed just a little as he sat on the three game lead. But De was not going to let him finish it off, and games five (7) and six (8) both fell in De Tran’s pocket as the two lefties waged their war on Table 1. Of course it went deuce in the seventh! At that point, Gombos wasted De’s huge comeback effort to stage a 12-10 victory.

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Open Singles

Eight players advanced from the second stage Round Robins to enter Sunday’s Quarterfinals. Quarterfinalists are guaranteed $145, but no one was aiming at that number, it was the $2,000 first place money that appealed to this group.

David Zhuang figured to advance past Barry Dattel, and he did, by scores of 6, 10, 8, 8 in a match up of New Jerseyans. Thomas Keinath of Germany had more of a fight on his hands in his match with Shao Yu. Shao was determined not to vanish at this level, and after two games, (10,-11) was tied with the International. Alas, it was all he could manage as Thomas was all business, 8, 5, and 8. Keinath is amazing, a solid 2700. Youth was on parade in the next match as Keith Alban, spearheading the Florida contingent, squared off with hometown hero Adam Hugh. Keith had been nursing a bit of a sore arm, but it was nowhere to be seen as he took the first game, 12-10. That was going to be his high-water mark, though, as Adam took the next four straight, 10,5,10,3 to secure a match with Keinath in the semis.

The biggest match in the round, however, turned out to be Gombos and Baboor. Chetan is a gentleman, at all times, but found his patience and poise sorely tested by Ludovic’s game. After losing the first game at 8, Baboor restored order to the universe 11-7. But there is fire in Gombos’s belly and 11-9 he grabs game three, a disappointment that causes Baboor to rap the table and draw a yellow card as he heads to his corner. That ire is translated into a tempo increase, and 11-3 Baboor tries to sap Gombos spirit. But what’s this? A major upset! Gombos, willing to throw himself from pillar to post retrieves and counterloops with abandon and defeats a clearly stunned Baboor with fifth and sixth game wins at 7. You can feel the air leave the room as Baboor’s many fans absorb the meaning of what they’ve just seen. There will be no Zhuang/Baboor match today!

Semifinals

Four are left, only two matches to the Title! Richard Mercado rearranges the tables to give our champions more room, and we are set to begin. Thomas Keinath is a world traveler, ITTF ranked #82 , reached the round of 16 at this year’s Slovenian Open, and is paired with the young American, Adam Hugh, playing in front of the home folks. Thomas is a pro, a lethal and business-like presence in the court. There will be no gamesmanship here. Adam fights hard, but it is obvious that every element of Keinath’s game is superior. He can drop shot, he can push with more spin, he can loop the ball you killed, he can serve the same serve twice and give you two different balls. Most of all, it’s that backhand over the table that leaves players lunging and diving, for he can direct it cross-court or down the line or anywhere in between without telegraphing his intentions, and always sharply spun and lethally quick. 5,9,3,10 it’s all in Keinath’s favor and Adam takes the $320 check that rewards a semifinalist.

Gombos is as close to a STIGA North American Tour win as he has ever been when he stands in against David Zhuang. Like Keinath, David is a veteran of the world scene, currently #189, in fact, and the US Men’s Singles Finalist in 2004, multiple-time US Champion. None of which registers on the single-minded Ludovic at all. He drops the first game 11-4, to no one’s real surprise. David’s penhold backhand block has been destroying loopers for decades. But Ludovic has more of what he gave to Baboor and 8,8 has a sudden 2-1 edge in games. David reasserts himself in game four to tie the match. But this match will not end at the table, it ends instead in the mind of Ludovic Gombos. David serves and Gombos lodges an immediate protest. “That’s illegal!” he wails. “That’s clearly behind his shoulder!” But the umpire does not see it that way, and we all know that for judgement calls, only one opinion counts. Gombos responds by serving what he later tells us he knows to be an illegal serve of his own and is immediately faulted. “That’s it!” Gombos declares, and withdraws from the match, his will and concentration shattered.

What can you say? Gombos, now living in St. Louis with his airline stewardess bride, has plenty to say, but not all of it is printable. “USA is out to get me” he says. “I was paid to be a player in France. Here I cannot even get an umpire to call an illegal serve! Let me tell you what happened to me two weeks ago…” Not certain how any of this matters, it occurs to me that Ludovic has taken too much upon himself. It is enough to be the player, without trying to be the umpire, the ref and the association as well. A somewhat baffled umpire is also at a loss. “He had a chance to win that match,” Pat Collins says. “No one took that opportunity away but him.” Let’s face it, there is a lot of pressure out there, and sometimes it can become too much to allow good decision-making.

Final

So as many people expected, the final is a rematch, the eighth meeting of Zhuang and Keinath in the past three years. These matches have become ‘Instant Classics’, with remarkable comebacks on both players parts. Most recently, David had schooled Keinath in four straight games at the Le Chi/West Covina TTC Open. Was this to be the new order of things? Surrounded by spectators on four sides, our Olympic-sized court was to be the testing ground. With $800 for the runner-up and $2,000 for first, surely neither player could be too disappointed. Obviously, though, for these two, it’s gone beyond money. They are very evenly matched at this point in their careers and have the results to prove it. But today, at the New Jersey Open it is all Keinath. The room quiets as fans wait for a chance to reward David, but it doesn’t come. He does not seem as sure of himself as he often does, and even misses, simply misses, a serve. Thomas, however is delighted with the outcome, 11-8, 11-4, 11-9, 11-8. How did this come about?

“You will not like my answer” David tell me. “I did not like this ball at all. It is too soft, I couldn’t feel contact. Plus, today, all weekend, it has done nothing but rain, very humid, very slippery air.”

Keinath’s responses are a mirror image. Why did he lose so badly in California and then so convincingly reverse that result today? “In West Covina, I was very tired. I did not get proper rest and was not prepared for David, he is a very special player. This time, I was better prepared. I played four matches against short pips this week. I came early. Plus, I cannot afford to lose. Flying from Germany, it only makes sense if I win. Now I am 5 and 3 with him. “

I have lots of opportunity to reflect on this as my NATT friends and I pack the tournament back into a 26 foot truck in the pouring rain that flooded New Jersey that weekend. So much of this sport is mental toughness, will-power, the willingness to overcome distractions and obstacles and simply to believe that you deserve victory. And that is a life lesson worth learning, a reason that Americans are so in love with sports. Whether you are Thomas Keinath, table tennis professional, or Cheryl Friend taking home her first table tennis trophy after months of steady training, it is the mental toughness and willpower that allows an individual to triumph. If this tournament is any indication, the 2005 STIGA North American Tour is going to have the best tour season yet!


2005 New Jersey Open On The 2005 Stiga North American Tour

Event Name

Champion

Finalist

Open Singles

Thomas Keinath

David Zhuang

Women’s RR

Judy Hugh

Renata Peluchova

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions Under 22 Men’s RR

Adam Hugh

Khaleel Asgarali

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions Under 18 Boys RR

Adam Hugh

Oleg Trofimov

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions Under 16 Boys RR

Wesley Fan

Bence Toth

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions Under 16 Girls RR

Julia Lisova

Victoria Akselrod

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions U13 Boys RR

Keahan Mokhtari

Wesley Fan

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions U13 Girls RR

Annie Guo

Emily Yang

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions U10 Boys RR

Sarjui Sam Fazel

Allan Wang

Ying/Lo Junior Competitions U 10 Girls

Mackenzie Friend

Annie Shi

Feingold Memorial Over 40 RR

Barry Dattel

John Mark Wetzler

Feingold Memorial Over 50 RR

Simon Shtofmakher

Ross Brown

Feingold Memorial Over 60 RR

Martin J. Theil III

Mike Kuklakis

Under 2500 SE

Ludovic Gombos

De Tran

Under 2375 RR

Khaleel Asgarali

Marcus Jackson

Under 2250 RR

Judy Hugh

Santos Shih

Under 2125 RR

Larry Bavly

Alden Fan

Under 2000 RR

Oleg Trofimov

Eric Dang

Under 1850 RR

Jens Kaftan

Yong Shi

Under 1700 RR

Herbert Hodges III

Eric Svoboda

Under 1550 RR

Rajat Verma

Chance Friend

Under 1400 RR

Chance Friend

Zhengyang Lu

Under 1250 RR

Michael Haynes

Ralph, Holm

Under 1100 RR

William Cowan JR.

Michael Malone

Under 950 RR

Matthew Sedlock

Yoshihiro Noguchi

Under 800/Unrated RR

Cheryl Friend

Emily Yang

Under 4200 Doubles SE

Mike Kuklakis & Larry Bavly

Diana Li & Amy Huang

Under 3200 Doubles SE

Alan Lin & Joy Liu

Wesley Fan & Ioanna Troost