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Bouncing around globe to ping-pong pinnacle

By ZHAO XU in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-20 05:08

Cheng Yinghua coaches a young player at the US Nationals held in Las Vegas earlier in July. [Photo provided to China Daily]

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 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.

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