May 22, 2018

Man in the Arena
Many years ago, when I was in one of my many battles with USA Table Tennis or with some other group of naysayers, I received a note from USATT Hall of Famer Wendell Dillon (one of the all-time great USATT officials, and still active) that I was "The Man in the Arena." To my great embarrassment, I only vaguely knew of this famous speech by Teddy Roosevelt, and had to look it up. Here it is:

Teddy Roosevelt Speech, April 23, 1910
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

Over the years I've had to regularly face these "critics" who continuously play out their part in the above, while I, and others "in the Arena" are trying to get things done and make things happen. When I opened the Maryland Table Tennis Center in 1992, there were no other full-time training centers in the country and I was besieged with people saying we were crazy, there weren't enough players in the U.S. for something like that to work. Now there are 92 of them. When I co-created the USATT League Rating system (with Robert Mayer) we were told that the U.S. simply wasn't league-oriented, that the winner-stay-on system almost universally used in USATT clubs would never change. Now the system is used in clubs all over the country and processes more matches than the tournament rating system. There are a dozen similar stories. I was in virtual wars with USATT in 1989-1990, from 1996-1999, and in sort of a cold war for a few years after 2007; in each case the ones causing the problems I was citing were voted out or left, and I returned to working for or with USATT.

For the last few years I've been trying to resolve the hidden serve problem. I've blogged about it many times, but the bottom line is that most top players regularly hide their serve, which is illegal, and umpires almost never call it. Why? Because it's become part of our culture not to call hidden serves, since from the umpire's perspective, it's very difficult to tell if the serve is hidden or not. This would be understandable if it were not for rule 2.6.6, which states, "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws." Therefore, when an umpire says, "I can't tell if the serve was visible," what he's really saying is, "The player didn't serve so I can be satisfied that the serve was legal," and so the serve was illegal. (And so the player should get a one-time warning or a fault.)

The reality, of course, is that no umpire wants to be the one who calls these serves when the other umpires are not, and of course players who have been serving illegally for years without getting called for it have a fit when they are called for it, and quite legitimately can say that no other umpire has called him for it. I don't blame the umpires for not calling it since in our current table tennis culture, it's taboo to call hidden serves unless the serve is so obviously hidden that the umpire has no choice. (The best example of that is Wang Chen, who gets called for this over and over because she hasn't perfected the art of the borderline hidden serve, where the ball is hidden at contact but no so obviously so that the umpire has to call it.) The overwhelming majority of top players oblige this by not making it so obvious they are hiding the ball, and so it is almost never called.

Complicating all this is that most top players do not hide the serve every time. If they did, the receiver would get used to having to read the serve from how it travels through the air and bounces on the table. But if you serve borderline over and over, allowing the receiver to see contact much of the time, the times when you do hide it are far more likely to force a mistake from the receiver. (Plus you get the umpire used to not calling your borderline serves, so when you do hide the serve it is not called.) At the world-class level, they are so used to illegal hidden serves that they return them pretty well, though not as well, as aggressive, or with as much control as they would if the serve were legally visible. Below the world-class level, hidden serves lead to constant outright misses and pop-ups.

One of the huge victims in all this are the top players and up-and-coming players. They don't want to serve illegally, but they really have no choice if they want to compete on an equal basis. There are a few who don't hide their serves, and they are at a big disadvantage. But those who do reach the top are almost all serving illegally - and so it's difficult for them to raise the issue since they are doing it themselves, so to complain would seem like hypocrisy. It's really not, if they also acknowledge they serve illegally because they have little choice if they want to compete on a level field.

I tried to get USATT to act on this several years ago, where I moved that USATT ask its referees and umpires to enforce this rule, but the counter-argument was that this would put USATT top players at a disadvantage, since they would have to face these illegal hidden serves regularly in international competition, and so we literally had to allow players in the U.S. to illegally hide their serves so our top players could get used to them. And so that motion lost 6-1-1.

As noted in my blog on Friday, I'm now trying to get the ITTF to resolve this problem. I made my own proposal, the Net Visibility Rule, which would make enforcement much easier - it's tricky trying to hide the serve from the receiver and make the umpire think it might be visible, but try making it look like you aren't hiding it from the entire net and still hide it from the receiver! That can't really be done. But of course that proposal met with its share of naysayers who hadn't really tested it out as I have, or simply thought it through. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to convince an umpire you aren't hiding the ball from the entire length of the net, while still hiding it from the receiver, who is somewhere in the middle? It can't really be done. (There are other proposals, such as making it illegal for any part of the body to be in front of contact. That would work as well, and yes, you can still do a forehand pendulum serve effectively with this rule.)

Predictably, my proposed letter to the ITTF (which would go to the ITTF Rules Committee, Umpires and Referees Committee, and Athletes Commission, which already has a working group on fixing the serve problem) has met with the usual protests. Several have already told me "It won't work!" and so they oppose sending it - it's right out of Man in the Arena. To me, this is jaw-breakingly dumb. The odds are it won't work, but that does that mean we shouldn't even try? If you were down 6-10 in the fifth, you probably won't win, but does that mean you shouldn't try?

All I want to do is try to bring attention to the problem in the hope that we can make it a higher-profile problem with ITTF. The ITTF already recognizes the problem, it just isn't a top priority with them, and so while they've had "working groups" on this for at least three years (and I think much longer), nothing has come of it. The worst that can happen is it becomes a higher-profile issue that they don't act on now, but by raising its profile, we can keep coming back to it until the ITTF finally takes action.

Or we could sit back timidly and twiddle our thumbs and hope someone else will jump into the arena and solve the problem.

So . . . should we send the letter and push ITTF to make it a top priority to fix this problem, so that we aren't the only Olympic sport that allows cheating right out in the open, where top players literally have to cheat to compete? Or should we listen to those who are acting out the part of the "cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat"?

Looping and Blocking
Here's video (22 sec) of USA's Yijun "Tom" Feng and Kanak Jha practicing at the Hong Kong Open. Want to learn how to loop and block? This is how it's done. (Tom is a penholder, but there's no real difference between penhold and shakehand looping.) These two have won Men's Singles at the last three USA Nationals, Tom in 2015, Kanak the last two years. 

Training With Chen Weixin, Werner Schlager, Zoran Primorac and Kalinikos Kreanga at Legends Tour 2018
Here's the video (22:530 from Arnaud Scheen.

New from EmRatThich

Parenting and Coaching the Perfectionist Athlete
Here's the article and project.

Indore Once Again Hosts Level Three Course
Here's the ITTF article on the ITTF course held in India by USA coaches Richard McAfee and Christian Lillieroos.

Young US Para Talents Selected Among World's Top
Here's the USATT article by Matt Hetherington.

Las Vegas Table Tennis Club "The Place to Play" in Town
Here's the USATT article by Richard Finn.

NCTTA Best of the Best Announced
Here's the article. Here are the winners:

  • Male Athlete of the Year: Tom Feng (NYU)
  • Female Athlete of the Year: Yue Wu (Texas Wesleyan)
  • Rookie of the Year: Kai Zhang (Binghamton)
  • Coach of the Year: Yanjun Gao (NYU)
  • Rookie Team: Bryn Mawr College
  • Most Improved Team: New York University
  • Division Director of the Year: Doru Gheorge (Texas Division)
  • Regional Director of the Year: Ryan Hsu (West Region)

Retrospectives on Past USA Greats
Here's the page, with articles and lots of photos on the following big stars, mostly from the hard bat era: Ruth Aarons, Bernie Bukiet, Bobby Gusikoff, George Hendry, Erwin Klein, Jimmy McClure, Dick Miles, Leah Thall Neuberger, Lou Pagliaro, Sally Green Prouty, Marty Reisman, Sol Schiff, Thelma Thall "Tybie" Sommer, and Leah & Tybie Thall. There's also the Hall of Fame Profiles by Tim Boggan on the exactly 150 members of the USATT Hall of Fame.

ITTF Museum & China Table Tennis Museum
Here's the page where you can do a video tour, with links to 25 videos.

Why You Don't Sit on the Table
Here's the video (4 sec)!

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