2011 Western Open on the JOOLA NA Tour
February 19th and 20th, 2011
Recreational Sports Facility, University of California, Berkeley
In 13 years of doing tournaments with NATT, this was the most extreme and exciting Tour event I’ve ever seen, both from an organizer’s perspective and a spectator’s view. If you were a superstitious person, it would be tempting to attribute the highs and lows of the weekend to a planetary alignment, or the wheel of karma turning faster than it usually does. Strange and wonderful, the Western Open this year saw incredible play, an amazing tournament victory for Tim Wang, and an odd, unprecedented set of circumstances that brought the tournament to a unique conclusion. It was a head-shaking experience that certainly made for drama and memorable happenstances! At 5PM on Sunday the 20th, the vast majority in attendance would have called it an unqualified success, and a scant hour later left us wondering what on earth was going on. So make yourself comfortable as I tell you the story, and no, my friend, I am not making this up!
First, there was the remarkable turnout, a record-breaking 292 players. Certainly it was good luck that the US Team Trials were scheduled to take place the following week in nearby San Jose, so top players who traveled to California for that were on hand to play at the Western. Good luck as well that several new players from China were on hand, notably Shen Hailong’s protégé, Chao Ma, eventual victor in the U-22 and U-18 Men’s events, and the amazing Hao Donglong, an energized force in Open Singles. Perhaps not so lucky for players who drew matches against these two standouts! Certainly not a lucky tournament for Ben Johnson, forced to withdraw on Thursday when his doctor advised rest after a fainting spell during training earlier in the week.
No doubt the tournament was lucky to have the services of International Referee Dr. Azmy Ibrahim and his bevy of skilled and helpful umpires, Esther, Yelena, Irina, and William. With umpires working final matches in nearly all the events, and no major controversies involving rules or a disputed call, the tournament worked very smoothly from an officiating standpoint. Then there was the weather, which was best described as monsoonal. Drenching rain for setup left the UC Berkeley student volunteers soaked to the bone as the tournament tables arrived. A bad break? We should have known better. It was just another swing of the pendulum.
With 30 tables in play, and the 292 entrants, our schedule was very tight. Practice tables were not a thing to be found as play proceeded on Saturday. Mark Croitoroo found himself the unhappy recipient of that bad mojo floating around, losing his first round match in the U-2500 in an upset to Nathaniel Chu. Then a three-way tie in his Open Singles Qualifier, caused by his loss to Barry Or, saw him finish second in his group despite his #8 seed in the Qualifier. “Is this what I came all the way to California to do?” he was despondently asking himself in the rain outside the gym. But in sport, for every upset loser there is a correspondingly pleased upset winner, so the karma balances out. Theodore Tran at least had the consolation of being in the opposite half of the draw in the U-22 Men and U-18 Men from Chao Ma, Shen Hailong’s successful student, and came second in both events. Chao’s a large and powerful fellow, and earned a spot in the Open Singles 2nd stage round robins as a qualifier. Two hard-fought losses there, to Xibo Liu and Lily Zhang, in a best of 7 game format left him one tired young man on Saturday!
As the tournament approached high tide on Saturday, the number of conflicted players and delayed round robin groups expanded, and we struggled to keep matches close to their originally scheduled times. At one point, the Western Open was nearly 90 minutes behind in some events, and for players unlucky enough to share Round Robin groups with players who had advanced in earlier events, the waits were annoying. Most players remained cheerful through the most turbulent hours of Saturday, especially players rewarded by victory for their patience, like U-2500 Champion Truong Manh Tu, seen smiling broadly but hugging his sore shoulder when he returned as a spectator on Sunday. Perpetually sunny Ariel Hsing had reason to be pleased, the Woman’s Champion beating her coach Maggie Tien in the final. Diane Jiang double-dipped as champion of both the Girls U-16 and U-13. Jon Rego was a double champion as well, in the U-1250 and U-1100 on Saturday, events that involved a young man named Yaseen Hakim. But more about him in a bit.
Open Singles saw 4 players advance from the Qualifier to meet our top 12 seeds in four round robin groups. Here play became a best of seven game format, and the groups were full of great matches between the tournament’s most outstanding players. In each group, the top two finishers advanced to Sunday’s Quarterfinals.
Group One: James Qiao, Barney Reed, Ariel Hsing, Hao Donglong
Top Seed James Qiao had played the Pac-Rim tournament in November and compiled an impressive 10-1 record, losing only to Fan Yi-Yong. Here he showed no sign of weakness, beating both Barney and Hao in 4 straight games. Ariel Hsing gave James a real battle, going seven great games with the tournament’s top seed, leading three games to one before losing 11-8 in the final game. Her disappointment led her to default her two remaining matches. Hao Donglong, making his first appearance in the US, trailed Barney Reed 3-2 before taking the last two games by identical scores of 11-9 to earn a spot in the Quarters. Hao is a very difficult player to face, using a tuned rubber on his forehand and long pips on his backhand. Spectacular in his court coverage, chopping effectively with his pips and suddenly turning to rip a winner, twiddling the racket on his serve, playing him is both physically and mentally exhausting, but a delight to watch from the sidelines.
Group Two: Anal Kashyap, Jiaqi Zheng, Han Xiao, Shashin Shodhan
Kashyap was feeling out of sorts before the group began, and after dropping his first match with Han Xiao, in 7 games, felt no better. Rather than push through his unease, he defaulted his two remaining matches. Shashin saw his opening and gave his all, but 8,6,9,10, lost his match with Han and Jiaqi denied him in four games as well. So Han and Jiaqi’s head to head result would determine both first and second place, which placed Han Xiao first with a 6 game win.
Group Three: Timothy Wang, Thilina Piyadasa, Maggie Tian, Truong Manh Tu
Right out of the gate, Wang, the US Nationals Men’s Singles Champ, was challenged by Maggie Tian, but prevailed in 5 games. Tian’s match with Truong was a war, a war that Truong won in 7 games, 4 of the 7 games reaching deuce! Despite strong efforts, Tu’s matches with Piyadasa and Wang saw him fall short, so the top two seeds in the group played for first and second place, where Piyadasa notched the upset win, 7,14,10,6.
Group Four: Cheng Yi Du, Xibo Liu, Lily Zhang, Chao Ma
Cheng Yi Du, aka James Du, is a previous Western Open champion and a very fine player, so kudos must go to Lily Zhang, who, playing brilliantly right from the start, handed the top seed a seven game loss. Cheng went down 6, -1!, -6,-17, 11,8,-10 in a match that had the fans on the edge of their seats. With a four game win over the Qualifier, Chao Ma, Lily guaranteed herself a spot in the Quarterfinals. Xibo Liu and Cheng played with fire and passion, but again James fell short, this time in 6 games. With Liu defeating Ma in 7 games, he was assured a Quarterfinal spot as well. Out of the running, Ma and Cheng double-defaulted to each other. Lily took the first three games from Xibo, before prevailing in 6 to nap the top spot in the final group, undefeated!
Meanwhile, as the room emptied and Saturday evening’s matches progressed, young Yaseen Hakim played on, advancing in no less than 4 different events! Playing continuously and with a smile, this young man emerged with a second place finish in the U-1100 and a championship trophy in the U-800 at the end of a long and exciting day.
Sunday started much better for Mark Croitoroo, as he reached the U-2375 Semifinal with Shashin Shodhan, an event that eventually saw David Heng-Wah Zeng claim the title. So the yin and yang of good luck/bad luck continued to swing just as it had the day before! Sunday’s match load is lighter than Saturday’s, and as events draw to a conclusion, more and more players are freed to watch the Open Singles feature matches. In the Quarterfinals, the players are drawn so that a first place finisher plays a second place finisher from the day before, with players from the same round robin group in different halves of the draw, meaning no possible rematch until the Championship match.
Quarterfinals: James Qiao vs. Tim Wang
Unfortunately for Qiao, National Singles Champ Wang had been upset by Piyadasa on Saturday, so in the Quarters he faces the tournament’s third seed. Wang is completely ready and hands Qiao only his second loss in America, in four straight! A brilliant performance by Tim, 3,7,9,10 against a very worthy opponent.
Jiaqi Zheng vs. Lily Zhang
Lily was wonderful on Saturday in her winning performance in the RR group, and goes out in front 2 games to 1. But Jiaqi is equal to the challenge and in a match marked by wonderful exchanges of lightning reaction, she prevails in 6 games to move forward, 4,-9,-8,6,7,5.
Thilina Piyadasa vs. Hao Donglong
No one expects an easy match at this stage, and Thilina doesn’t get one. Hao is very energized and uptempo, even draws a warning for that quickly to the table service motion. If he comes to rest before the toss, it’s extremely brief! More importantly, no point is ever safely over, as Hao proves when he chops a ball back AROUND the netpost on what looked like a sure winner by Thilina. Hao keeps the tempo fast, as he likes it that way, and 12,9,-7,8,8 advances to the Semi.
Xibo Liu vs. Han Xiao
Liu, playing penhold, is stung in the first two games, 5 and 4 before he gathers himself to even the match at 2 apiece. Han gets the crucial 5th game and then guides the match home by sheer willpower. Xiao moves on, 5,4,-8,-9,9,5 in a test of mental toughness.
Played simultaneously and side-by-side, these two matches have the spectators in constant open-mouthed amazement with the quality of play. Near 300 are on hand courtside to see the two Semifinals which both reach match point within a minute of each other! The cheers are intense and the competition ferocious, two of the best matches we’ve seen on the Tour, ever!
Jiaqi Zheng vs. Tim Wang
These two players are just banging away at each other, refusing to yield. Jiaqi plays tight to the table, hitting and blocking right off the bounce, answering Wang’s powerful attack with shattering volleys of her own. It’s truly high level play and anyone’s match right to the final game. Scores of 7, -6,-6, 7,7,-4 and 12-10 in the seventh game it’s Tim Wang who advances to the Final in a nailbiter!
Han Xiao vs. Hao Donglong
Hao is a handful alright. He has beautiful chops off that longpip rubber and every point is filled with reversals of spin and momentum remarkable retrievals and sudden attacks. Winning points against this player takes patience, skill and timing as well as great athleticism. Hao’s left his opponents drenched and panting all weekend. Han’s playing it just right though, and between the two men the first 6 games are split, Hao scoring the first, second and fifth games, Han on top in the third, fourth and sixth. Han’s in top form and a display of power under control, but it’s Hao Donglong that reaches the final, 11-8 in the seventh game.
Championship Match: Tim Wang vs. Hao Donglong
Great Champions overcome adversity. While the Western Open had been such an extreme event, extremes of weather, of luck, of strong performances and dashed hopes, there was no doubt that the two players who had played best were also the two in the final match of Open Singles. After those two great semifinals, the crowd can be forgiven for thinking that the Final was going to be a blowout. For the first three games, Tim Wang turned away Hao’s every effort to get traction and he pocketed each game, although both players went through streaks of four, five, even six points won in a row. 11-9, 11-8, 11-8, and the first three games are all Tim’s. But this tournament was one surprise after another, and beautifully, brilliantly, Hao Donglong’s comeback began, and all the next three games were his, 11-8, 11-8, 11-9. Now the crowd was overcome with the dramatic and brilliant play. Whoever won was going to be a very worthy champion. In the seventh game, a grimly determined Tim Wang proved his worth, overcame adversity, turned the tide and 11-5 became the 2011 Western Open Champion!
As the crowd exited, excitedly chattering about the outstanding competition they had witnessed, our story would normally reach it’s conclusion, but this tournament had one last challenge to issue, one last swing of that fickle pendulum to deal us.
The facility staff now tells us that we must exit the gym by six o’clock! What’s this? It can’t be. We have only 20 matches left to play, and we’re already packing tables to vacate the room, but clearly there has been a miscommunication between the facility and the host club and there’s no room for compromise. Suddenly it’s all pandemonium and what are we to do, when the facility manager gives an inch and says we can use the racketball courts for three tables, but the gym is scheduled for basketball at 6PM and we’re packing as fast as we can. But 20 matches on 3 tables can’t happen as fast as you’d like and at 7PM, only three matches left to play and that’s it, says the facility. Vacate the racketball courts, pack it on out, the tournament’s over. Except of course that the tournament isn’t over, and ready to go to any length to overcame this last twist of fate, Avishy Schmidt stands forward and rescues the final event, offering the Alameda Table Tennis Club as home to the last matches. The handful of players left in the tournament jump to their cars, we bring the match slips, trophies and balls and at 8:30PM the final point of the last match of the Western Open is played in a different city than it began that morning.
It’s leaves me shaking my head, and as I promised you at the start of this story, a completely unique conclusion to the tournament. It’s certainly not one I’ll forget anytime soon! We take a cue from our players, convinced that no matter what obstacles, annoyances, twists of fate await us; a true champion prevails and finds a way to win. But if it’s all the same to the gods of chance, we’ll take a nice boring, predictable tournament the next time out on the JOOLA North American Tour!