(By Larry Hodges)
It’s time for some serious Hardbat Table Tennis! Y’know, the way the game was played in classic times, by Barna, Vana, Bergmann and Leach, and Americans Miles, Reisman, Schiff and McClure. Then modern table tennis was invented, with sponge and super spins, and it’s a great . . . but rather different sport.
Many like the classic hardbat game, where rallies are supreme and even novices understand what’s going on. Instead of Bang Bang Bang, point’s over, with ferocious spins and speeds, it’s a balance of offense and defense as players battle for tiny advantages to exploit as players play chess with a ball. As the famed Marty Reisman described rallies in the classic days, “There was a dialog between the players.”
The $10,000 Second Annual Classic Hardbat World Championships, presented by We R Table Tennis, will be held Aug. 5-7 near Houston, Texas, USA. There are five events: Open Singles, Women’s Singles, Over 60 Singles, Under 18 Singles, and Reisman Cup Teams. (I’m third seed in Over 60, my only event since I’m doing coverage. Wish me luck. I’ll need it, in a deep field that includes George Guo, Bin Hai Chu, Randy Hou, and tournament director Steve Claflin.) Here’s the entry form, where you can enter via Omnipong, and the current list of players. Entries are limited, so enter soon! (The event is not a USATT sanctioned event.)
Things kick off on Friday, Aug. 5, with a Celebrity Pro-Am Event at 6PM. Some of those committed (so far) include basketball superstar Hakeem Olajuwon, Daryl Morey (president of basketball operations of the Philadelphia 76ers), and Missouri City Mayor Robin Elackatt. Saturday is the Reisman Teams in the morning, and Senior (over 60), Junior (under 18), and Women’s Singles in the afternoon. On Sunday is Open Singles.
Last year’s final between Jimmy Butler and AJ Carney was a classic nail-biter. In the best of five to 11, AJ led 2-1 in games and 7-2, 10-8 double match point in the fourth. Jimmy seemingly hit one off, match seemed over – only it nicked the edge, 10-9! Oh, how a few millimeters changes everything. Jimmy deuced it and survived three more match points – five in all – before winning the game, 16-14, and the fifth, 11-6. (Final scores: 9,-7,-6,14,6.) What made the match even more interesting is that Jimmy, normally an attacker and counter-hitter, made his comeback from 2-7 in the fourth mostly by chopping!
Both are back this year. Top-seeded Jimmy, from the Texas Table Tennis Training Center, has been building his hardbat rating up for years, higher and higher, to an astronomical #1 ever at 3299! (Hardbat.com maintains the hardbat ratings.) He lost a hardbat match to Steve Berger at the 1999 Nationals . . . 23 years ago! Since that time he’s played hardbat in four US Opens, winning them all, in 2002, 2014, 2015, and 2019. Plus, of course, he topped that off last year by becoming the World Hardbat Champion. (Do we need to mention that he’s also the four-time US National Men’s Singles Champion – in 1990, 1992, 1993, and unbelievably, 21 years later in 2014! Now 51, he shows little sign of slowing down in hardbat or sponge. (He’s rated 2576 in USATT ratings.)
AJ, 34, from Triangle Badminton and Table Tennis in North Carolina, is also back, with perhaps the strongest hardbat resume in the world after Jimmy. The lefty made the final of Hardbat in both singles and doubles way back in 2008 – and hasn’t lost in singles at the Nationals or Open since, winning Hardbat Singles at the Nationals in 2016, 2018, and 2021, and at the US Open in 2016 and 2017. (He and I also won Hardbat Doubles at the 2017 US Open, and barely lost in the final at the 2016 US Open.) Plus, of course, he was a finalist at the first World Hardbat Championships last year, missing the title by a few millimeters and five match points. (Yeah, he probably doesn’t want to be reminded.) In fact, AJ’s only other hardbat singles loss since 2008 was also against Jimmy – in the $10,000 Challenge Match in 2018, won by Jimmy in another nailbiter, 4-2 (15,-16,7,11,-15,19). And yet, with a 2769 hardbat rating (and as high as 2444 in USATT ratings), he’s only the fourth seed.
Second seed is Alex “The Flash” Flemming, 34, from Germany, with a hardbat rating an estimated 3000. His seeding is mostly based on his sandpaper play – where he’s ranked #2 in the world. He was the winner at the 2021 World Ping Pong Masters and runner-up at the 2020 World Ping Pong Championships.
Third seed is Yinka Olasoji, 41, from Nigeria (but now living in New Jersey), with a 2892 hardbat rating. He was a semifinalist last year, losing to Jimmy. In sponge, he has been rated as high as 2577, was two-time National Doubles Champion of Nigeria (2012, 2013), was two-time Nigerian University Games Champion (2000, 2001), and was the 2004 All-University Champion of Africa.
Other top seeds are:
- Alexandru Cazacu of Romania, with a 2675 hardbat rating, and 2583 in USATT ratings. Since coming to the San Antonio TTC he’s played three tournaments this year (sponge, not hardbat), going 15-0, winning the 2022 Austin Summer RR, Alamo City Open, and South Central Regional US Nationals Qualifier. Can anyone beat this guy?
- George Guo, 2635, from Table Tennis America in Michigan
- Joey Cochran, from South Bend TTC, with a 2508 hardbat rating, is coming out of retirement for this event!
- Alexis Perez, 2497, from New York, a quarterfinalist last year, losing to AJ. He’s been in the Hardbat Singles final at three US Opens and one Nationals – could this be the one where he finally wins?
- Adam Vitasek from the Czech Republic, 2450. He’s a two-time finalist in the Czech Sandpaper Championships.
- Jones Baldonado, 2420, from the Las Vegas TTC. He’s a chopper and is the reigning US 2021 US Open Hardbat Singles Champion. He was the 2010 US Nationals Champion and a finalist three other times, including in 2021, where he lost the final to AJ.
- Xin Li, 2249, from ICC – yes, she’s #1 seed in Women’s Singles!
Events like this don’t just happen. This one is happening because of the efforts of Steve Claflin (director and organizer); We R Table Tennis; main sponsor UniChem USA Laboratories Pharmaceuticals; and a slew of other sponsors the Steve brought in: Butterfly and Bowmar Sports, The Tiger’s Eye: Angels in Mumbai, Olympia Gymnastics and Tumbling, 19 Sports, Parkway Family Mazda & Kia, Missouri City, Texas – The Show Me City, and Karisma Resorts. (We R Table Tennis and Domoishi Asian cuisine, along with the mayor of Missouri City, are donating a table to a school of the mayor’s choice.)
So, are you ready for some serious hardbat? For another Worlds here in the US? Come play and watch how the classic game was and is played, with Jimmy, AJ, “The Flash,” Yinka, Hakeem, and the rest!
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