A year ago, in the U.S. qualifying for the World Table Tennis Championships, Brian Masters placed sixth and Sean O'Neill seventh. Unfortunately for the two stars of the Northern Virginia Table Tennis Club, only five players were selected.

Since that disappointment, there has been considerable improvement in the fortunes of Masters, 19, and O'Neill, 15. In trials for the Pan American Games team, for example, O'Neill was first and Masters second. O'Neill also won the under-17 title at the U.S. Open championships.

Here at the National Sports Festival, Masters teamed with O'Neill to win the men's doubles. He also earned a mixed doubles gold with Insook Bhushan, after first winning a coin toss from O'Neill to see who would be the partner of the top U.S. woman player.

Tonight, however, O'Neill caught up in the gold medal department as he played brilliantly throughout and easily beat a weary Masters, 21-6, 21-13, 21-4, in the singles final.

Masters recently took singles honors in the Cuban Invitational and he and O'Neill took the doubles title, as well. It was an experience the two will not soon forget.

While walking around Havana, they continually found themselves accompanied by Cuban secret service types, who drove off inquisitive natives with, "Psst, Psst." Then, during the matches at a soldout gym, they heard the same "Psst, Psst" while they played. So, after the final point of their victory, Masters and O'Neill threw up their arms and saluted the crowd with a loud, "Psst, Psst."

"The place was packed every night and the crowd was really pro-Cuba," O'Neill said. "Every time we made a good shot, the reaction was like a 76er crowd to a good play by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--nothing. So we got to the point where if we made a good shot, we'd jump up and wave at them. I will say, though, that the umpires were absolutely fair, giving no advantage to the Cubans."

O'Neill, a student at Marshall High School, also has spent time training in Sweden and China. He feels it is the only way his game will improve.

"The Chinese totally dominate the sport and finished 1-2-3-4 in every event at the last world championships," O'Neill said. "We got to play their world championship team one day and it was like a kid getting to play with the 76ers. It was such a great thrill.

"The Chinese national coach was with us for two months and we trained six hours a day, with only Saturdays off. It was the biggest learning experience I ever had. We had to work for every point, every minute of every day.

"When we came back, we were terrible, because we all tried new stuff and we weren't ready to handle it. But after a few weeks, we improved an incredible amount. Five of us went on the tour and four of us are here at the festival. The other one was only 11, so he wasn't eligible.

"Playing in the U.S. is no way to get better. If you play the same people and beat them, it doesn't help you. Instead, the other guy eventually catches on to what you're doing.

"The big problem in the U.S. is that there are no coaches. You have to do it on your own. In other countries--Sweden for example--there are always coaches looking on."

Masters said he had played every participant in the festival "five or 10 times, some 50 or 60 times." That includes O'Neill and, Masters said, "It's been close between us. We've had some very good matches."

Masters almost left here without any medals, because he became dehydrated earlier in the week and had to be hospitalized. He lost 13 pounds and eight quarts of fluid were introduced intravenously to replace the liquids. Nevertheless, he insisted on playing the mixed doubles Wednesday and wound up with a gold medal.

"Brian was in bad shape," said Chris Dawson, the media liaison for table tennis. "He'd ask for time, throw up, fight off stomach cramps and then come back and win three straight points."

Masters attends Howard County Community College and was the state tennis champion for Maryland community colleges, although he does not practice that sport.

"Tennis can upset your table tennis, so I just practice table tennis," Masters said.

Masters said the caliber of play here was not the best, for a variety of reasons.

"The altitude affected play . . . the lighting is bad and the tables are positioned so there is a white wall behind the players, which makes you lose the ball. But I guess it bothered the other guys more than Sean and me."