Article and Photos Courtesy of Tom Lackaff, Table Tennis Info
The 2020 Oregon State Championships reflected both the durability of tradition and the inevitability of change. In stark contrast to the warm, festive Labor Day setting in years past, this year’s games began on the cold morning of October 24. Dried leaves rustled in the cold wind outside the Paddle Palace Club in Tigard, Oregon, where champions, both defending and aspiring, did gather.
In accordance with both state law and common sense, the tournament was run under strict COVID-19 protocols. The spacious club limited its occupancy to 20, with masks required at all times (even during matches, unlike current European league rules). The event was closed to spectators. Players neither changed ends between games, nor shook hands afterwards. Despite these deficits of etiquette, participants somehow still managed to play nice.
Jiwei Xia, the 31-year-old head coach at the Paddle Palace Club, has been steadily padding his already impressive résumé with state championships ever since moving to Oregon from his native Tianjin, China. The two-time defending Oregon state champion entered this year’s tournament as the prohibitive favorite, his customary position.
One of his star students, up-and-coming local 16-year-old Dean Schultz, proved his promise by overcoming a tough round robin group and sweeping his progressively tougher quarterfinal and semifinal matches.
There is a unique dynamic when a teacher and a student move from the realm of nurturing tutelage to that of gladiatorial combat. Imagine if “The Karate Kid” ended with Daniel-san fighting Mr. Miyagi for the championship. While they both might feel conflicted between honoring their relationship and the competitive discipline which unites them, there is absolutely no way Mr. Miyagi is going to eat a crane kick just to encourage the boy.
Both finalists were acutely aware of the fraught dynamic between them. For Xia the competitor, victory was always the goal, and one that was never in doubt. For Xia the teacher, however, the goal was to give Schultz meaningful practice. Toward this end, he purposefully pushed long in order to invite Schultz to loop, one of the skills he must hone in order to bridge the 500-plus gulf between them in USATT ratings.
“I tried to teach him some higher-level stuff,” related Xia, who mostly taught by example.
With coach Jiwei Xia in control every step of the way, he secured the three-peat in three straight, (11-4, 11-5, 11-6). Schultz will have his name engraved next to his coach’s on the prestigious state championship trophy.
For Dean Schultz, it was both a humbling and encouraging experience to reach the state finals at such a young age. Playing Xia was “very intimidating,” he said, “but I gave it my all… Maybe next year we’ll switch the first and second place names on the trophy,” Schultz added, his eyes betraying a playful smirk otherwise obscured by his mask.
Women’s Singles RR
The women’s singles featured four fierce competitors with a range of ages and styles. The top seed was “almost 15”-year-old Cheery Zhang, the defending champion with a strong forehand topspin attack. The second seed was Leezan Da, a long-pips-wielding block-and-smash specialist who identified as “over 50.”
The third seed was Paddle Palace club director Jen Beeler. The 39-year-old Oregon native was a varsity athlete at nearby Tigard High School, winning state championships in soccer, basketball and softball. Today, she kept the trains running on time, and even found time to employ the playing skills she has been practicing with—who else?—coach Jiwei Xia.
Rounding out the round robin was Eden Choi, a tenacious defender with short pips on her backhand. A huge underdog on paper, she played with poise and discipline way beyond her 12 years. About playing older, tougher players, she said, “It’s cool, it’s a fun opportunity.” With her positive, carefree mindset, she made her opponents sweat bullets with her low, vicious forehand chops buzzing like murder hornets with venomous backspin.
At the end of the day, multi-sport star Jen Beeler claimed her first state table tennis championship. Although Beeler prefers an attacking game, wielding an authoritative inside-out forehand smash, it was her ability to adapt to her opponent’s various styles and play more strategically which netted her the title.
The championship hinged on her tense match with Cheery Zhang, who won the first game. After winning the next two, Beeler trailed 5-8 in the fourth. She then simply decided to win, reeling off five straight points to earn two match points. Serving, Zhang saved one to get within a point of deuce. The next point was as tense as a violin, the players trading pushes for a seeming eternity until one of Beeler’s caught the end line and fell out of reach, and along with it Zhang’s chances for this year’s title.
After Beeler blasted through Leezan Da in three straight, her second straight upset, this put Da and Zhang in position to battle for second place. Once again, the Zhang found herself in another tense match, this time going the full five games with Da.
With first and second places to be engraved on the state championship trophy, both players gave it their all. Da, using long pips on her backhand, frustrated Zhang with blocks and demoralized her with smashes. Nevertheless, Zhang persisted in her forehand topspin attacks at every opportunity. Tied at 7-all, Zhang showed her championship form by closing on a 4-1 run to achieve engraved immortality.
In Oregon, Jiwei Xia towers above the field like a scarecrow. While his cavernous shadow may be intimidating to some, especially during this spooky time of year, remember that the purpose of a scarecrow is to protect those under his watch. As evidenced by the rapid progress of his students, such as Jen Beeler and Dean Schultz, Jiwei Xia is undoubtedly raising a strong crop in his field.
On Sunday, action concluded with two age events, one for the young and one for the (ahem) formerly young.
The top seed was Kevin Nguyen, the 13-year-old defending champion rated 2062. Kevin could have been forgiven a touch of overconfidence when he saw the yawning chasm in rating points between himself and those who stood in the way of a second straight state title. The field consisted of Nate Wilkinson (925), Eden Choi (772) and Ben Zhang (500, estimated).
16-year-old Nate Wilkinson possesses a solid attacking game, using backhand jabs to set up forehand haymakers. If pushed off the table, he has the all-around game to stay in the point, but is always looking for the counterattack.
12-year-old Eden Choi, who displayed masterful defense in yesterday’s Women’s Singles, came out with a more aggressive mindset today. Not about to let any boys bully her around, she liberally peppered her chops with pick hits and loop kills.
9-year-old Ben Zhang is a promising young player employing an advanced arsenal of shots, including the newfangled “banana flick.” Although it was a little on the unripe side, as Ben himself is still quite green, this commitment to learning modern tactics will make him very dangerous with a few years of practice.
Nguyen, one of many success stories to emerge from the Paddle Palace youth program, has developed a technically sound tactical game punctuated by a huge forehand loop. Despite his huge advantage in firepower, however, the high school freshman was careful not to overlook anyone.
“I try to think of them as the same level so I don’t underestimate them,” says the wise Nguyen. Perhaps he managed to photoshop a portrait of an equitable opponent such as 16-year-old Open Singles finalist Dean Schultz, absent from today’s contest, onto his opponents.
Whatever the method, it worked, as Kevin Nguyen stayed focused and won every match in straight sets to claim his second straight state title to date. In what amounted to the title match, Nguyen the tactician kept pressure on Wilkinson with a merciless barrage of forehand loops to his backhand. Nate Wilkinson finished runner-up, fearlessly going toe-to-toe with Nguyen at every opportunity.
Although attendance was low this year due to COVID-19, there is nonetheless a promising procession of precocious players in Portland. In order to improve the level of competition for the Paddle Palace juniors program, coach Jiwei Xia has been working with fellow coach Lingshuai Meng in Seattle. Meng, like Xia a Chinese expatriate, works in junior development with the USATT Hopes Program.
Xia and Meng have engaged their students in what they call a “conversation,” or an ongoing series of joint training camps ping-ponging back and forth between the cities. With two such dedicated coaches, there is no limit to where this “conversation” could lead these talented juniors in a few years.
Over 40 RR
After witnessing the next generation at work in the morning, the afternoon’s attention shifted to the exploits of those born before the Reagan Administration. Eight players formed two round-robin groups, with the top two finishers in each progressing to the semifinals.
The top seed in Group 1 was Duc Nguyen, a stubborn defender who chops with long pips on the backhand and looks to smash with the forehand. Group 2 was headlined by Nikos Antoniadis, the very portrait of aggression who never hesitates to unleash a mean forehand loop.
The groups were vigorously contested, top seeds facing many spirited challenges, but ultimately finished according to seeding. Second seeds Sarit Roy and Kevin Young also advanced to the semifinals.
In Sarit Roy, Duc Nguyen faced his doppelgänger: an impregnable wall of long-pips backhand defense, interrupted only by forehand attacks as unpredictable as they are unreturnable. The key difference in their playing philosophies was that, instead of chopping with his long pips away from the table like Nguyen, Roy uses his to chop-block right off the bounce. In the end, Nguyen’s more traditional style chopped Roy down, but not without a good fight.
In the other semifinal, Kevin Young threw everything but the kitchen sink at Antoniadis. Young fired a fusillade of left-handed mid-range loops like vintage Mikael Appelgren, but ultimately to no avail. “I give him all the credit in the world,” Young graciously said of Antoniadis afterward. “He played stronger shots when it counted.”
This set up the final that Las Vegas predicted: Duc Nguyen and Nikos Antoniadis, the two top seeds. The first game was all Antoniadis. Painting the corners with his forehand loop like a Clayton Kershaw slider, he cruised to an easy 11-4 win.
In game two, however, Nguyen began to frustrate Antoniadis with his spin variations. They marched in lockstep, 6-6, 8-8, 10-10, until Antoniadis pulled ahead with a third ball attack to the forehand. Then, after a long rally, it was the suddenly more patient Antoniadis who forced an error, forging a 2-0 lead.
Down but not out, Nguyen further fine-tuned the adjustments he made in game two to build a 9-5 lead in game three. Antoniadis, suddenly on the ropes against Nguyen’s attacks, buys some time with a defensive topspin. Nguyen ends the comeback attempt with an inside-out forehand smash to get on the board, winning game three 11-9.
In game four, Antoniadis jumped out to a 5-1 lead with his trademark forehand attacks to the corners. Nguyen fought back to tie it at 9-all, and seized the early initiative in the next point with an over-the-table backhand attack with the long pips. When Antoniadis defended with a weak backhand topspin, Nguyen had a chance to claim game point with an attack.
Instead, Nguyen chopped the moonball back with his pips, all but inviting Antoniadis to attack. Two forehand bullets later, and Antoniadis held match point. He converted on the first opportunity when his defensive topspin led to Nguyen missing a forehand smash.
“I attack as much as possible to get him in distress,” explained the victorious Over 40 champion, Nikos Antoniadis. “I played my game.”
After the thrilling finish, the masked competitors blended into the pleasant din of regular Sunday afternoon open play. Such is the beauty of our sport, that a newcomer could never guess by appearance alone who is a champion.
Image Courtesy of Tom LackaffPosted by Paddle Palace Club on Monday, October 26, 2020