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Sunday, August 04, 2019, 10:59
Bouncing around the globe to Ping-Pong pinnacle
By Zhao Xu
Sunday, August 04, 2019, 10:59 By Zhao Xu

Zhang Kai: Let the bouncing ball lead the way. (GAO TIANPEI / CHINA DAILY)

Keeping his eye on the ball, Zhang Kai is training hard in an attempt to secure his future Olympic glory.

On an ordinary night in 2004, 6-year-old Zhang Kai crawled into bed at his home in suburban Beijing, after his parents had long gone to sleep in their own room.

There's no denying that over the past years, an increasing number of Chinese table tennis players, faced with tough competition at home, have sought opportunities elsewhere

There the child lay wide awake, listening over and over again to the imaginary sound of a tiny white table tennis ball hitting his bat, just as it did during the afternoon training session.

This went on for some time, before Zhang sat up, and with a highlighter pen wrote on the wall beside his little bed: "The four dreams of mine ..."

Those dreams were: to become a district champion, a city champion, a national champion and at last, a world champion.

It was a moment of solemnity, made even more so by the innocent hopefulness of a child. Sixteen years later, Zhang can still feel the burn he had felt in his chest when he put down those lines, with the few Chinese characters he'd been taught as a first-grader.

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"The first three (goals) have been met. All I need to do is to fight for the fourth and last one, irrespective of the result," he said.

Zhang spent June in Beijing, training first in Chengdu and then in his hometown, Beijing.

"I'll be in Germany between August and next May for further training. But in October, I'll play against the Canadians in the North America Olympic Games team qualification," he said. "This is to get ready for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and I'm now fighting to be one of three who could play the qualification representing the US."

The competition is fierce to the point of being cruel. But for Zhang, who became a US citizen in April and thus eligible for representing the country in international competitions, that is how things have always been.

"I was introduced to ping-pong as a 5-year-old, when a coach came to our kindergarten looking for kids with potential. He pinched a few shoulders and asked us to move around a little bit. And before I knew it, I was handpicked, the only one out of the entire class," he said.

Cheng Yinghua was the men's singles champion at the 1993 US Open. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

The coach was proven right: Zhang became instantly smitten with the sport and played frenetically for a year, before the end of which he was already consuming himself with his growing ambition.

"Before I turned 11, I had gone from a district team to a semiprofessional city team to the reputable Beijing Provincial Team, from where the best ones are expected to go to the Chinese National Team, a dream team made up almost entirely of world medalists who have dominated the sport since the 1960s," he said.

Little did he know about the name Cheng Yinghua, despite the fact that the 61-year-old was one of those who helped mint that glory, at the cost of his own ambition.

Today, Cheng is the co-founder of the Maryland Table Tennis Club, the first successful full-time table tennis club in the US.

"My story started in 1972, when I walked barefoot for miles on the mountainous road to take part in a selection by the Chongqing City Sports Team," he said.

From there, Cheng went on to the Sichuan Provincial Team, where a veteran coach lavished time and attention on him, convinced of the young man's gift.

By 1977, Cheng, who had shone at previous competitions, was already part of the national team. For the 19-year-old, a champion's dream had never been so near, so real, until two years later.

At the 35th World Table Tennis Championships held in 1979 in Pyongyang, the Chinese men's team was stunned by its Hungarian counterparts.

Hungary's top star Tibor Kampar played a heavy topspin with both forehand and backhand while staying close to the table, something the Chinese were utterly unprepared for.

Back home, the fiasco was met with huge disappointment mixed with anger. The Chinese team, faced with unprecedented pressure, vowed to retake the Swaythling Cup at biennial event two years later.

The decision was made for some players to "mimic" the powerful opponents and be training partners for their fellow teammates, preparing them for future encounters. Cheng was chosen to be Kampar.

"For the next two years, I tried to unlearn myself on some of my personal techniques while acquiring those signatory of Kampar. I practiced and practiced until those moves became instinct."

The sacrifice had its payoff when the Chinese swept the 36th World Table Tennis Championship in 1981, taking home all gold medals the event had to offer.

"I had mixed feelings: I was elated by our win yet couldn't help but hoping that this was also my win," said Cheng, who was also partly credited for China's many wins at the 37th, 38th and 39th world championships.

Kampar was not the only one whom Cheng had studied and mimicked. Another player was the legendary Jan-Ove Waldner, whose multiple encounters with top Chinese ping-pong players over a career spanning three decades made him a household name in China.

Cheng Yinghua (first right on the bench) at the 1981 World Table Tennis Championships in the former Yugoslavia. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Cheng met the then-15-year-old Waldner for the first time in China during an invitation match. The last time the two played against each other was at the 1995 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Atlanta, Georgia, when Cheng, representing the US, won by a narrow margin.

In between the two matches was Cheng's 1985 visit to the US, to participate in the US Open representing China.

Having witnessed the defeat of his teammate Jiang Jialiang, then ranked the world's No 1, at the hands of Wu Wenjia of Chinese Taipei. Cheng, mobilizing his varied techniques gained as a training partner, routed his opponent while dazzling the audience.

One of those in attendance was Larry Hodges, a wannabe-journalist-turned ping-pong coach for junior players. "When I saw Cheng winning men's singles, doubles and teams at the 1985 US Open, I had no idea that our futures would be together," he said.

In 1988, table tennis became an Olympic sport. That year, Cheng was invited by the US Table Tennis Association to join a resident training program and coach some of the country's top players and juniors at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs - his previous performance had clearly been marked down.

"At the time I was the program's manager and coach, and would later become its director. Cheng and I shared one dorm and he discovered early on that I liked kung pao chicken," said Hodges, referring to the spicy dish that ranked among China's most popular exports. "So he made it for us about once a week!"

In the years that followed, Hodges would discover Cheng's other gifts, including in tennis and badminton playing, as well as in Go, a game that originated in China.

Cheng stayed in the US for about a year, coaching and playing. For the next two years, he flew between China and the US, before gaining permanent residency and moving to Maryland with his family in 1991.

In 1992, Cheng, together with Hodges and a number of other friends, opened the Maryland Table Tennis Center, the first successful full-time one in the US. Between coaching sessions, Cheng would bring down the heat in the coolheaded game of Go, which he also taught to interested students.

However, there was still a dream to live and fulfill. In 1995 in Atlanta, Cheng, then 37, and representing the US, beat Waldner in his heyday. The US team won bronze in the World Team Table Tennis Championships, a category under the World Table Tennis Championships that was inaugurated in 1990.

"That was the first time I won a medal at a top-level international table tennis competition," Cheng said.

Twenty-four years later, Cheng's desire to win is acutely shared by Zhang, whose own life story reflects that of his predecessor, in both the distance it has covered and the scale of the ambition.

Back in 2011, Zhang was a promising 14-year-old training frenetically with the best team in Beijing, with the sole expectation to join the Chinese National Team and compete on the world arena in the not-so-distant future.

In October that year, Zhang, together with his parents, had a weeklong vacation in the US. "We were told by a friend of my father that by the time we were arriving at New York, there would be a tournament at a ping-pong club in neighboring Pleasantville, a suburban village just a 50-minute train ride north of Manhattan," he said. "We made sure to show up in time."

Cheng and Larry Hodges in Maryland Table Tennis Club. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

So there was Zhang, coming out of nowhere to fight his way into the top eight among the 162 participants in the first-ever tournament held by the newly opened Westchester Table Tennis Center.

However, the teenager didn't make much of an impression on Will Shortz, one of the co-founders of the club who's a ping-pong fanatic plus crossword-puzzle master of The New York Times.

The next year, Shortz, chairman of the World Puzzle Federation (WPF), was in Beijing for the World Sudoku Championship. Seeking out table tennis clubs to add to his ever-growing list, Shortz found an ideal local host in Kai, who was more than willing to show his new friend his country's ping-pong prowess.

The two bonded, and Shortz asked Zhang whether he would like to play in the States.

"The same question was raised while I was in the US half a year before, at that time my answer was a definite 'no'," said Zhang. "However, things changed."

"Within those six months, competitions were held within our team to select the best for short-term training with the Chinese National Table Tennis Team. Twice I missed the opportunity," he said. "So I said to myself: 'You are not going there.' ...The disillusionment was crushing."

There were other concerns. Having adhered to a strict full-day training schedule, Zhang lagged far behind academically as compared with his fellow youngsters in China. If that were to continue, he might end up as a coach with his team, a coach with little quality education and therefore little liberty to take in his life. "I was too young to be set in track," he said.

By the end of 2012, Zhang had moved to the US. He enrolled at Pleasantville High School the next spring. Shortz, in the meantime, had cleared out his third-floor attic for Zhang, with whom he acted as both a guardian and student.

For the next five years, Zhang shared that space with the 25,000 puzzle books and magazines that Shortz had accumulated, the oldest dating back to 1533. Yet the two-wings attacker had his own "puzzles" to solve, and he confronted them head-on.

"Kai went to school knowing little English. What he did was to tape-record everything the teacher had said and then listen back after class. This went on for about a year and a half before his English became reasonably good," Shortz said. "He was fiercely independent and seldom asked for my help."

Zhang Kai with Jan-Ove Waldner in Beijing in 2006. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

But Shortz did his pushing nonetheless. "He would take me to shop at the supermarket. While we were in the car, we didn't listen to music. Instead, we talked," Zhang said. "It was his way to help."

Having found his footing, Zhang proved himself a competent, sociable student with a knack for math. Each day during lunch break, Zhang would hit a few balls with his schoolmate over a ping-pong table in the canteen, surrounded by crowds "who were there to see me play, sometimes with my cellphone".

In fall 2017, the high school graduate became a management major at State University of New York-Binghamton. But earlier this year, Zhang applied to postpone his university study.

"I need to concentrate fully on training, in order to be able to enter the 2020 Olympics." After all, ping-pong, which had instilled his young heart with pride and had brought him here, has always been part of his very existence.

There's no denying that over the past years, an increasing number of Chinese table tennis players, faced with tough competition at home, have sought opportunities elsewhere. But it has never been easy.

"I may be facing less competition here, but at the same time, top-level, systematic training is far from a guarantee," said the 22-year-old, who has achieved financial independence since coming to the US at the age of 16. "Having to earn all the money to pay for my own living expenses, as well as education and training, means that some of my precious time has to go into coaching other players."

Most of the coaching is done at Shortz' club, where the monthly tournament constitutes a steady source of income for Zhang, who has won US$40,000 in prize money over the past seven and a half years.

In 2013 alone, he triumphed at six of the year's 12 competitions. And his latest win was on June 30, two days after flying back from Beijing.

"Kai has undoubtedly helped elevate the club and attract top players," Shortz said.

This is not quite unlike what Cheng, the four-time men's singles champion of the US Nationals (in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2004), has done for his own club in Maryland.

Hodges, who had been closely involved in the club's publicity and who himself coached for the past three decades, offered his thoughts.

Zhang Kai and Will Shortz. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

"The presence of China-born players has raised the standard of table tennis-playing here by quite a bit. They are crucial in teaching and spreading high-level techniques, and in helping to spawn an entire segment of the population who are active in the sport," he said, referring both to Cheng and another co-founder-cum-coach at the club.

An old acquaintance of Cheng from the Chinese National Team, Huang, who himself had also been a training partner, followed Cheng's footsteps and moved to the US in 1992.

"On the other hand, they have made it harder for US-born players to prevail at major competitions, an ongoing problem which partly explains why many up-and-coming players in the US, after high school, often go overseas to train and make a living," Hodges said.

In 1995, three years after moving to the US, Cheng competed in the International Table Tennis Championships in Tianjin, China. In 2005, he competed again in the event in Shanghai, where he and his former teammates from China enjoyed a get-together.

"We shared a youth and a dream," said Cheng, who over the years has sent more than a few US players to national and international competitions. "Looking back, I'm a natural teacher."

Cheng's last appearance in the World Table Tennis Championships was in 2009 in Yokohama, Japan, when he was 51.

Last month, Zhang had his own reunion when he trained with the Beijing Provincial Team. "Some of my former teammates have today become the main strength for Chinese table tennis. And I feel so happy for them - I really am," he said. "But I have no regrets - what I have learned and what I have been through here have made me a more rounded person."

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9-year-old Zhang Kai won gold for men's singles and men's team at the 2007 Beijing Middle and Primary School Students Championships. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

An emotional moment came rather unexpectedly for Zhang one morning. "I was at the table hitting at balls, and there they came, a group of young players in their early teens. One moment, they were rollicking boys and girls; the next, they had positioned themselves in front of the table, shifting slightly left and right, and their countenance started to change," said Zhang. "Between us, we shared a champion's dream."

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