The area's best table-tennis players had their hands full last weekend as top-rated players on the Washington Supreme Team were nearly wiped out by visiting Oriental teenage boys and girls.
The occasion was an international table tennis exhibition at the Washington Tennis Center in Tysons Corner. The 15 members of the South Korean youth team were special guests.
North and South Korean teams rank among the top 10 on the world table tennis scene. The top-ranked Chinese and Japanese teams make Northeast Asia the Ping Pong center of the world. In America, table tennis ramains largely a suburban leisure activity.
While the fun-seeking American players dragged their children along for a family outing, the guest players, all 16-18 years old, moved in with military precision. They marched into the center, saluted and bowed to the South Korean chief of mission and coaches before and after each game. Glenn Stewart, a 23-year-old American carpenter, remarked, "What discipline. It's just sport. All the bowing surprises me."
All that discipline paid off.
Shaking his head, 9-year-old Sean O'Neil, who is ranked second nationally in his age group, watched the 14 matches in disbelief.
They are better, a lot better," he said bluntly after watching his mentors, coaches and adult friends get crushed by the juniors from Asia.
The only survivor in the massacre was Monty Merchant, the 31-year-old pro at WTC. Merchant lost his first two matches but rallied to win the third.
First he faced Kim Wan, ranked first in the Junior Korean Open championship this year, and lost, 22-20, 21-15. His second match was against Lee Kwang Ik, rated No. 1 on the team selected for the Canadian Open next week in Montreal. Again he lost in two straight.
Against 17-year-old Lee, Merchant had an early lead with seven strong points. Lee's service balls were easy to read but the returns were wild. Each time Merchant sent back shots, high or low, Lee killed with bullet-speed smashes. The final score was 21-15, 22-20.
Merchant is unbeatable in Washington, and after the two defeats his local fans were groaning and urging him on.
Finally, against Choi Wan Kyu, Merchant came on. His topspins and backhand trick shots took him to a hardfought 22-20, 24-22 victory. In all, he went to deuce four times during six games in three matches.
One disappointment for the locals was Aram Avanessi, last year's Capital OPen winner. His backhand snap was a beauty but inconsistent, and he lost two matches to two Koreans. The Koreans play with simple style that is very enegry-efficient. The girl's shots and slams and loops came with machine-like accuracy; they were deadly.
Fast-moving Barbara Kaminsky, 35, three-time U.S. gorls' champion, and her sister, Bonna Newell, 29, who also won many championships up to 1965, also lost in singles and doubles matches.
"Well for us, we play for fun. It's recreation," said Harold Weiss, 56, a regular of the club. He conceded that the top-notch American players are in Los Angeles or New York City.
All the Korean players but one used the pen-holder style grips and all the Americans used the hand-shake style, but it's been accepted for a long time on the world table-tennis scene that grip makes no difference, players do.
Gary Akinsette, a Howard University graduate student in chemistry, summed up the feeling after losing two matches. "These kids are in top condition. Conditioning is the name of the game."
On their way home after the Canadian Open next week, the Korean delegation will play in the U.S. Open in California, June 2-5.
Most of those players came from remote provinces, not the urban area around Seoul. That is a sign that one doesn't have to be product of city sophistication to be a good player. Indeed, the People's Republic of China, still an argarian society, has the world champions.