Sixteen and Training Again . . . with Christer Johansson
The year was 1976, I was 16, and I'd just finished a week of hard training at the Monty Merchant Christmas Training Camp. On the last day I got a surprise – Monty had been so impressed with my skills that he'd arranged for Christer Johansson, the great Swedish coach, to fly to the U.S. to take personal charge of my training.
The preceding never happened – or did it? Let me tell the story in order.
I'm in my room, shadow-practicing my forehand, when Monty and Christer walk in. Monty introduces us, then Christer takes charge. Tells me I need to focus on looping from both sides. On the forehand, I was both hitting and looping; he assures me that the future is looping, and to focus on that.
But then we get to my backhand. "You must loop your backhand," he says. He guides me through the stroke as he wants me to do it, and I begin to shadow practice it.
"It's easy to do in practice," I vividly remember telling him, "but hard to do it in games."
"But you must do it in games," he says. We're still in my room at home, with a table somehow jammed into it. We begin training, as he blocks to my backhand loop, constantly on me to spin it harder, Harder, HARDER!!! He's moving me side to side, backhand to forehand, and I'm really into it, looping everything, as I want to be the best in the world, and now I have one of the best, maybe the best, coach in the world training me. Every now and then I see Monty in the background, nodding. I'm a hard worker, and both of them are impressed. He's focusing especially on my backhand, turning it into a deadly weapon.
Soon I'm ripping loops from both wings, relentlessly, like a champion. I'm 16 and I have a great future ahead.
Then I'm lying in bed, just waking up and thinking about the upcoming day's training. I'm going to work so hard, I tell myself, and the coaches will be impressed, and someday I'm going to be world champion. As I lay there, 16 years old, realization gradually dawns, even as it is dawn outside. I'm not 16; I'm 56, and I've been having an unbelievably vivid dream. I'm extremely disappointed. I never did develop a strong backhand loop, just a steady blocking, countering game. I look over at the clock, and it's 5:55 AM.
I really did go to the Monty Merchant Christmas Camp in December, 1976, my first training camp. I only started to play when I was 16, early in 1976, and at the camp was about 1400 level. But I trained pretty hard right from the start. Alas, Monty died in 2008; here's his obit. Little remembered fact – when I was about 1850 but about to jump up a lot, I played my former coach in a tournament and led 19-13 in the third (best of three to 21). Monty came back to win – I still tense up just thinking about that choke – and then he withdrew from the tournament, saying that that match proved to him that he just didn't have it anymore. He never played a tournament again, at least in the U.S. (For a time he was Sean O'Neill's near full-time coach.)
But who was Christer Johansson? I never met him, and don't think I've thought about him much in decades. But back then he was a big-time coach from Sweden. He was the older brother of Kjell Johansson, the 1973 World Men's Singles Finalist. Christer was on the Swedish Men's Team that won the bronze medal at the 1967 Worlds. He even had a racket named after him. But it was as a coach that he most shined, first for the Swedes, later for Norway. He wrote a book on table tennis, Bordtennis (in Swedish, alas). Here's a recent picture. He'll be 72 on Dec. 10.
And amazingly, he's on Facebook. We're not Facebook friends (yet), but we do have nine mutual friends. I just sent him a friend request. (Update: He accepted.)
I never met Christer Johansson, but we did have one great night training together, last night, when I was 16.
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