Interview with Steve Claflin
Founder and Director of the Classic Hardbat World Championships
By Larry Hodges
How did you get started in table tennis? Weren’t you a top junior player once?
I am from Port Huron, Michigan. Port Huron had a weekly club and my parents made sure the entire family played every Monday. I was eight. The club was started by Marshall and Jay Barrymore. Jay was a top junior along with Mike Baber. Luckily, there were many clubs nearby growing up – Sarnia, Ontario. Detroit GAR (with George Burns). Detroit Club (George Buben). And many tournaments in Grand Rapids with Dell Sweeris. I was the top Junior player in Michigan for many years. Was invited to the Pan Am Games. And was the undefeated Detroiter TEAMS Junior MVP, TEAM captain, and player on the winning Michigan Team in 1979.
How did you get started in hardbat and other classic surfaces and what are your best results?
When I started playing as an eight-year old it was with a classic hardbat ping pong paddle. I still have my Grandfather’s paddle from 1940 as well as a Hock paddle. I switched to sponge about 1972. I returned to hardbat at the 2014 US Open. I won U-2000 in my first try. I would say losing to Larry Hodges in the 2021 US Open Hardbat semifinals is my best result. I beat Estee Ackerman along the way.
Why do you like playing hardbat?
Hardbat is all about point strategy and not third-ball serve and loop. Anyone can play. Anyone can win. Players love the long rallies and not knowing who the better player is until you start the game. It’s easy to play, easy to understand, and everyone has fun.
How did the idea of creating a Classic Hardbat World Championships come about?
A couple of years ago there were very few hardbat events and zero hardbat-only tournaments. With encouragement from Jones Baldonado and AJ Carney, I decided to try to arrange a tournament. It quickly became international. I researched if there was an existing world hardbat championship. There wasn’t. I spoke with Barry Hearn about the sandpaper effort and their world sandpaper championship. I was encouraged to promote something larger. I did, with a lot of help…
What are your hopes and plans for the future of the Classic Hardbat World Championships?
Next year, we will become a destination event. We will include classic hardbat, classic sandpaper, classic wood, and a ‘Loco Event’ where you can play with any one of those paddles you want.
What people and sponsors have been helpful in putting this event together?
LOTS. My wife Ijeoma and my long-time good friend Stan Pennington. AJ Carney with TBTT is a Hardbat Hero. Jack McCarthy with Live TT Scoreboard. Alhasan Mohamed with Table Tennis Life, Inc have been incredible. Ali Ammar, Larry Hodges, Ty Hoff, Bowie Martin, Dave Sakai, Danny Seemiller, Jones Baldonado, Vlad Farcas. I started a company – We R Table Tennis, Inc., and along with Stan Pennington, Igor Negovetic, Chris Schabel, and Eric Bronk, have all worked incredibly hard creating new AI tourney software named AMIBO. This weekend we will give away a table to a ‘needy’ school in Houston. In total, I have 42 sponsors for this event: The City of Missouri City, the Mayor, Unichem Pharmaceuticals, Scott Delaney (author of The Tiger’s Eye – Angels in Mumbai), Domoishi Asian Cuisine, Cardboard Cutout Standees, Center Court Pizza, Gala Bethany Photography, Wolf Diamonds, I9 Sports, Butterfly, and many more! Butterfly has also helped tremendously in promoting the event on their news page, and provided balls, barriers, and scoreboards. Lastly, Willy Leparulo and the NCTTA have supported ALL of my efforts. Just because is the only reason really. The event would not happen without Willy and the NCTTA.
You once wrote to me, “I will lobby and work with USOC to get classic hardbat, sandpaper and wood ping pong recognized as an Olympic sport.” Could you elaborate on that?
The goal is to promote ping pong. Grow the sport for all and not just the elite athlete. The Olympics adds new sports regularly. A great way to (re) announce ping pong is to have it recognized worldwide as a sport. It’s silly that it’s not. It’s time for Classic Ping Pong – the largest individual sport in the world – to join our table tennis brothers in the games. One way to do this is via the USOPC. Countries around the world support their sports and athletes based on USOPC recognition. Ping Pong is MUCH more popular than table tennis. Yes – at the highest level – a sponge player will beat a hardbat player. But put a hardbat in Ma Long’s hand and we will see what happens when the playing field is leveled. Jan-Ove Walder is ranked #14 in hardbat in Europe. Another way to look at classic hardbat ping pong is … a sprinter will beat a marathon runner in a sprint. A downhill skier will beat a slalom skier to the finish line as well in his event. It’s not always about, biggest, fastest, strongest. Ask the Olympic Curling champion. It’s about skill. I think it makes sense to add classic hardbat as a category or as a separate sport to the Olympics. In doing so, classic hardbat ping pong will be recognized as the great sport it is, and has been, for 100+ years. I will lobby and work with USOPC (and USATT, ITTF, WTT, and Santa Claus if need be) to make this happen on behalf of 300,000,000 players worldwide.
What do you do outside table tennis? Or is there nothing in the world except ping-pong?
Laughs – I am a stay-at-home dad. I playfully describe myself as a soccer mom. I have a beautiful wife Ijeoma, an eight-year old daughter Faith, and five-year old son Luke. There is nothing in the world but family.
Is it ping-pong or ping pong?
Laughs – I have been asking Escalade Sports that question since 2014. I guess they want to keep it a secret. For now, it’s Classic Hardbat, Classic Sandpaper. And Classic Wood.
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