Spring 2013 – The Main Story of this Tournament as I see it

Last semester, history was made.  Coming off one of the narrowest losses in finals history the semester before, Greg Cardi returned to the final show last semester only to face perhaps his toughest challenge yet:  a matchup with four-time champion and the first-ever Grand Champion Jeremy Berry.  Berry and Cardi weren’t strangers.  Berry literally scrubbed the floors with Cardi for years until a fateful match in the Spring 2013 semifinals.  While the world had already anointed Berry finalist, as his continued Kobe-domination was foregone conclusion, we all geared up to see Berry face off against then-champ Christopher Zack a record third time.  This was the story, the inevitable, the only direction any of us amateur clairvoyants could imagine…all except for one man.  Greg “Kobe” Cardi himself saw his destiny as the one to rise above and challenge Zack for supremacy.  And he did.  Cardi did defeat Berry in that semifinals and, as we have already mentioned, fell valiantly to Zack in the finals being the only competitor in CTTA history to take Zack to 7 sets on Championship Thursday™.

And Cardi was validated.  That finals loss, while still a loss in the record books, was a major victory for Cardi and his CTTA legacy.  Remember, Cardi entered the league three and a half short years ago with perhaps the greatest hype surrounding any player.  Cardi rose on the mean concrete of the tennis court, digging out a huge forehand–one that he’s used to slam many a winner in tournament play.  His Achilles heel has always been pressure situations, where the smooth-swinging Cardi would lose too many off the end of the table when performing in a big-time match.  Defeating Berry and then performing brilliantly in a final that could have gone either way, Cardi showed us the competitor inside.

The only question was, who would show up in the finals this time around?  Cardi was the only person to make the finals both tournaments in the 2013 calendar year.  Would he lose them both, or find a way to hoist the Crystal Trophy™?  Berry sought revenge.  Berry was the winningest player in CTTA history.  Berry had more finals appearances than any other player by at least double.  Berry’s career was storied, grand, inspirational, filled with integrity, talent and grace.  Berry was everything right with this sport, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for what he has brought to the table, but who are we kidding?  This is not his story.  Cardi rose, shed all demons, pushed harder than perhaps any other competitor in history for arguably the biggest upset in CTTA history (inarguably one of the two biggest).  In the second 7 set final match in as many tournaments, Cardi came back from a 2-3 deficit, winning the deciding two sets to take it all in absolutely thrilling fashion.

True validation.  Cardi joined the hall of Champions–no small feat with the quality of his competition.  Now the question is, can he back it up?  The hall of fame status of players like Jeremy Berry or Christopher Zack is unquestionable, but Greg Cardi?  One championship and one finals isn’t bad; it’s the kind of resume most players would murder for, but is it hall of fame?  A second championship in a row would go a long way for the fickle CTTA hall of fame voters.  Cardi is past the point of validation–he earned that by hoisting the Crystal Trophy–but now he looks to secure status as an all-time great.  Joining the ranks of champions is one thing, but to be mentioned in the same level of greatness as Berry or Zack will require Cardi to dig deeper and train harder than he ever thought possible.

And this sportswriter looks forward to watching his journey, and the journeys of all those that stand in his way on their own personal paths to greatness.

March 27, 2014 at 12:16 am Leave a comment

Fall 2013 Season Underway!

And it’s upon us.  As of this writing, the 2013 Fall Season of Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School is in full swing, with the fast and furious ONE-NIGHT-ONLY! Doubles tournament in the books and the Singles Tourney–the chase for the crystal cup–is on its way as well.

The Doubles tournament was held Saturday November 2nd and featured 13 teams of 2 doing battle for total team table tennis transcendence.

The first few rounds of preliminaries saw the team of Wellems/Lipsett defeat Pouliot/Porter 3-0, only to fall to Lin/Wan 3-0.  Berry/Myers steamrolled Davis/Andonova 3-0, as the Steamroller himself, four-time singles champ Jeremy Berry put on a slamming demonstration.  Next, Cardi/Tavani swept Yu/Bender and Kim/Zhou took down Kremer/Lauzon both 3-0.  Although his doubles night was over, CTTA newbie Kyle Kremer showed enormous potential, and looks to make a mark in the singles tourney.

The last two preliminary matches showed a bit more competition, as middle seed opening matches typically do.  Wilder/Hagen dressed to impress in athletic shorts, dress shirts and ties and took the first set from the always dangerous Teplitsky/Steele.  Not to be outdone by his own tournament organization, CTTA manager Allen Steele led a comeback in set 2, tying the match 1-1.  Wilder/Hagen couldn’t hold out and dropped the next two sets, losing 1-3.  Two-time singles finalist Radu Paponiu also made an entrance in the doubles tournament as Paponiu/Gasparyan took on Peña/Thonis.  Peña/Thonis played well and managed to win a set, but couldn’t keep it together and fell 1-3.

The first Quarterfinal match saw Kim/Zhou and Lin/Wan.  Lin/Wan opened hot, stealing the first set in dominating fashion, but couldn’t stay out of their own way in the second, making many unforced errors.  Tied 1-1. Lin/Wan held it together for a nail-biting third, that went to the third deuce before Lin/Wan pulled it out.  That was as close as Kim/Zhou would get, as Lin/Wan handily held out in set four, taking the match 3-1.

Next was Teplitsky/Steele against Paponiu/Gasparyan.  Paponiu/Gasparysn had the advantage of championship experience on its team, but Teplitsky/Steele obviously was much more accustomed to playing as a team.  Like a well-oiled machine, Teplitsky/Steele wore down the two-time finalist’s team and went up 2-1 going into the fourth.  Trying to mount a comeback, Paponiu/Gasparyan made a concerted effort and even won 6 straight points to lead 8-5 in the set, but Teplitsky/Steele played like one to secure the set and match victory.

The semifinals were them underway as Cardi/Tavani battled Lin/Wan.  In what would be the match of the evening, both teams were in top form, committing few errors, making large numbers of winners, and putting on pure hitting displays with long, furious rallies.  They split the first two sets, each earning their win.  In set three, Cardi/Tavani simply outplayed Lin/Wan, prompting an intra-team squabble within Lin/Wan.  Leading out in the fourth, it seemed as though Cardi/Tavani would be able to capitalize on the fracture of their opponents, but somehow gave up a few too many errors, and let Lin/Wan back into the match.  Going down to a fourth set deuce, they played through six deuces until Lin/Wan slipped away with the set win 17-15, tying the match 2-2.  Following the narrow loss, Cardi/Tavani didn’t seem quite the same and tried to force too many points in set 5.  They got down early and couldn’t climb back, as Lin/Wan easily won set 5 and the match.

The next semifinal match had the return of the steamroller in Berry/Myers against the the Teplitsky/Steele machine.  Set 1 was close, but Berry/Myers pulled it out, and never looked back, as even though Teplitsky/Steele played well, their quality shots and strategic footwork just couldn’t prevent the awful onslaught of Berry&Company, who rolled 3-0.

The final match, then, had Berry/Myers take on Lin/Wan, winner take all.  The first set was a back-and-forth affair with a close, 14-12 score with Berry/Myers on top.  Lin/Wan, though, instead of internal squabbles, bonded together and steamrolled the steamroller himself the next two sets, going up 2-1.  Down in the fourth, Berry&Company staged a comeback, but couldn’t break through and fell 3-1 to the tournament champions:

Kevin Lin and Ivan Wan!

Recaps from the first two singles nights, as well as pictures from doubles will be up soon, so stay tuned!

November 16, 2013 at 11:20 pm Leave a comment

Spring 2013 Tournament – The Middle

“The Middle.  Where the battlefield matures through the beginning and winds toward a conclusion that will shape nations, peoples, and society.”  Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

The middle of any Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School tournament sets the foundations of the drama to come. Here, the matches set the matches that set the matches that set the matches that lead to the climactic finale under the lights in Olive Rehearsal Hall on Championship Thursday.  This is the story of that middle.

The night was led off by 8th seed Ivan Wan and 14th seed Mark Teplitsky.  Teplitsky has made major splashes in past tournaments by knocking off top seeds, most notably the top-3 seed Kobe Cardi in not one but two tourneys.  This sportswriter and the waiting crowd wanted to see what Teps would do this year, but unfortunately for him, he ran into Wan who entered this tournament at the top of his game.  Wan began by building a sizable lead and never let Teplitsky get any kind of a foothold.  Wan cleaned up with three quick set wins.

The second match was, in this sportswriter’s view, like two mice fighting to the death to decide who would have the honor of being eaten by the cat.  11th seed Stephen Tavani took on 12th seed Titus Underwood to determine who would meet the cat (a.k.a. Christopher Zack) in their next match.  Both seemed a little off right from the start.  Underwood had a difficult time with Tavani’s spins, especially off the serve, which aided Tavani in taking set one 11-8.  In set 2, Underwood picked up the aggression and had a healthy number of good, hard winners, but Tavani’s backspins sent too many of Underwood’s returns into the net.  They both fought to a 10-10 deuce and fought it out until Tavani took it 16-14.  Set three was more of the same, close, hard fought, but Tavani also managed to win the set 11-8 and the match.  Congrats.  The cat awaits.

Match 3 had the two-time finalist 3rd seed Timmy Yu square off against a winner from previously in the evening, 8th seed Ivan Wan.  This match began fast, swift, and confidently, as both rallied, slammed, and returned over and over.  Wan won more than Yu in set 1 and took it 11-7.  Wan shot out of the gates in set 2 and looked like he would just run away with the victory.  Yu, however, settled down and played spectacular table tennis winning 10 of the next 12 points to set up three set points 10-7.  Wan, though, punched back with three straight to make it 10-10, and eventually won the second set 13-11.  Yu refused to die in set 3 and came out incredibly aggressive, constantly slamming and putting Wan on the perpetual defensive.  Wan had some spectacular defensive shots, but Yu pounded his way to a third set win 11-8 and forced the match’s continuation.  Wan, though, came to play and decisively defeated Yu in the final set 11-6 to take the match.

Enter Christopher Zack.  Also known as the cat.  The cat eating all the mice.  Gobbling up those mice.  Just like a cat.  Zack.  Cat.  That’s why they call him Zacat.  (No one really calls him Zacat)

The next three matches were kind of like basement ping pong at its best.  Zack jumped on the table (not literally) and proceeded to dismantle one of the night’s previous winners Stephen Tavani in straight sets before he held the table and devoured Ivan Wan, a two-time winner of the night, in straight sets as well.  Zack always looks like he’s playing these matches with one arm behind his back.  If an opponent looks like he’s sneaking up, Zack just breaks out some of those freaky deaky serves and goes on a run to secure the contest.  This sportswriter won’t go so far as saying it’s not possible to beat Zack, as Timmy Yu did just that three tournaments ago, but good lord.

The night’s final match had first seed Christopher Zack looking to wrap up the last match in the way between him and the finals.  Standing in his way, however, was his greatest regular-season test since Yu a year and a half ago.  5th seed Emil Khudyev has been playing very high-level table tennis lately and looked to show his stuff against the Grand Champ.  As this sportswriter saw it:  Khudyev = advantage rallies, Zack = advantage serves.  Khudyev returned enough serves to make it interesting and won a large portion of the rallies.  They socked away at each other until it was 10-10.  Khudyev made a great effort, but couldn’t crack Zack’s serves and fell 12-14.  Zack pulled the other arm from behind his back in set 2 and obliterated Khudyev 11-4 to take the two set advantage.  Khudyev settled down once again in set 3 and made some extraordinary shots to again take it to a 10-10 deuce.  But a win was not to be, as Zack won the next two points to secure the match and his entrance into the finals for a third straight time.

One half of the bracket is set.  The other half is yet to be decided as this conflict roars toward its inevitable conclusion.

April 13, 2013 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

Spring 2013 Tournament – The Beginning

“Every conflict must have a beginning.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We stand now at the beginning – that period of innocence before the upcoming storm.  That time before battle where we eerily sense the suffering, heartbreak, and despair to come, but can’t quite grasp the serious nature of things until we live through them, and experience the strife for ourselves.  Our naive, almost childish wonder and curiosity take us by the hand and lead us into the unknown where dreams are crushed and hopes crumble as warrior after warrior inevitably falls.  We think now, before these tournament hopes die, that things could possibly be different.  Perhaps, by some miracle, all could be well, all could survive, and springtime and roses will forever live in our hearts as we all join hands in perpetual practice games forever.

But such is not to be, and we know it.  Deep in our souls we understand that Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School is not defined on the second floor, and that a thousand victories on the practice table isn’t worth the discarded crust of a half-eaten piece of pizza.  We know that the real war is coming, and that we will somehow change as a people.  We will awaken from the cookie, candy, and sugar-plum fairy nightmare we are currently in and transform in a way that is only possible after witnessing a struggle so awful–yet so fundamentally necessary.  We wait and watch with wide-eyed anticipation that we might finally emerge from the dark cave we’ve blindly occupied for far too long and enter the brave new world where a Champion rises above it all and hoists the Crystal Trophy.

But we aren’t there yet, and this great conflict has yet to occur.  We stand now at the beginning.

Nineteen competitors begin this journey into the void, to do battle over the next three weeks until two are left to compete on Championship Thursday.  This tournament, like all others before, is filled with drama and desire.  Top seeded Christopher Zack has his sights set on another title and his second Grand Championship.  With this being Zack’s possible final semester at Colburn, will he retire with a glorious bang, or will he fade away into obscurity?  Can anyone topple the mighty first seed?  How about former champ Jeremy Berry or two-time runner-up Timmy Yu?  Maybe a dark horse or cinderella story could also run the table.  Anything could happen, but the only thing that’s for sure is that only one will survive the entire way through.

Sunday, March 31st saw the tournament’s first bit of action.

The first match had 13th seed Joe “The Flash” Beribak against 10th seed Kevin Lin.  A semi-finalist at last semester’s tourney, Lin set out to make a deep run again.  The Flash started fast and kept up with Lin’s pace, but he just ended up on the wrong side of too many points.  Lin showed a clean, relatively error-free game, but also appeared reserved and non-aggressive.  Perhaps he was waiting for Beribak to make errors, and if that was the case, his strategy worked, but it was an unsettling three-set victory over the Flash.  By containing his speed, Lin’s timing would possibly be off, and this sportswriter wonders if Lin wouldn’t have been better served by maybe making a few more errors against Beribak, thus warming up his game, especially with a 2nd round matchup with 2nd seed Jeremy Berry later that night.  Either way, it’s hard to fault Lin too much, as he recorded a victory and secured a spot in the next round.

Next we saw the tournament debut of 18th seed Will Hagen as he tried to hold off the CTTA veteran 5th seed Emil Khudyev.  Khudyev showed some fire and rage last tourney, and to this sportswriter only looked better this time around.  Even though Hagen showed up at the table dressed to kill in a white shirt and black slacks, Khudyev got the better of him in three quick sets.

Match one’s winner Kevin Lin returned for the third match against second seed Jeremy Berry, who had a bye through the first round because of his seeding.  Coming out of the gates, however, Berry looked–how should I say–nervous?  Nah.  Impossible, as he’s won this tournament countless times and is the Spring Tournament’s defending champ–he won a year ago last May.  What could he be nervous about?  Well, as we will see, the danger was real.  Many of you may remember that last semester’s tournament was historic.  Before last fall, Jeremy “The Steamroller” Berry had never failed to make it to Championship Thursday.  In other words, throughout his entire CTTA career, he had either been Champion or runner-up, and had never lost a match during regular tournament play.  That ended last semester as he not only failed to make the finals, but didn’t make the semi-finals as he lost in the quarters to, wait for it, Kevin Lin.  Now here we are, as the cruel hand of fate has pitted Berry against Lin in his first match of this tournament.  Could the unthinkable happen and Berry be bounced from this tourney right from the beginning?

As the match got underway, it was quickly obvious that this was a fan’s dream–fast shots, big slams, and long, exciting rallies.  There was, however, something missing from Berry’s game.  He would come through a rally with a monstrous slam for a winner, only to drop the next three points with weak hits into the net or off the end of the table.  This sportswriter had the image of an aged Babe Ruth, slugging towering home runs only to run to first base and have a younger runner trot the rest of the way around the bases.  Could this be it for the champ?  Was his time over, still able to slam a big one home, but unable to go the distance?  Fears were reinforced as Lin toppled Berry in set one 11-9.  

How would the champ respond?  Would he be able to bounce back, or would history repeat itself as Lin knocked him off for a second straight tournament?  After they switched sides and engaged in the second set, the Champ showed why he’s perhaps the CTTA’s most illustrious competitor.  Berry proceeded to give a table tennis clinic as he tightened up his game and never let up.  The next three sets saw Berry victories 11-6, 11-7, and 11-5.  Berry will move into the quarters.  As for Lin, he has one of the brightest futures in the CTTA and will be back next semester.

Match 4 had another tourney newcomer in 19th seed Dan DeVere as he took on 4th seed Greg “Kobe” Cardi.  Kobe never gave an inch to the rookie as he took the victory 11-3, 11-1, 11-6.  Cardi, who entered the league the same year as Christopher Zack, both with huge expectations, will forever be compared to the Grand Champion.  In order to seal his legacy, Cardi looks to makes his first trip to Championship Thursday, and this was a great start.  But tougher times are up ahead.

Next up was the always dangerous 9th seed Ilia Ulianitsky versus tourney coordinator 16th seed Allan Steele.  Set one was a small ball, spin-filled little game where neither player wanted to make a mistake or start a slamming fest.  Ulianitsky edged out Steele 11-8, in the close, hard-fought set.  In the next two sets, Ulianitsky showed his vast array of tools and strided to victory easily taking them 11-4, 11-3.

The final match of the night was another second round match featuring two of the evening’s previous winners.  9th seed Ilia Ulianitsky squared off against 5th seed Emil Khudyev.  Both players have much improved over the past couple of years and this sportswriter could see either making a deep run at any given time.  Khudyev, however, started the bout much stronger, and he simply overpowered in the first set, smashing to a 10-4 lead and taking the set 11-7.  Not giving up, Ulianitsky bounced back as the two engaged in a cool, calculating second set, yet Khudyev also ended the victor in a narrow 11-9 win.  Khudyev looked to close in the third, and jumped out to a lead, keeping a three or four points lead the entire way before taking the set and match 11-7.

With that, the first night came to a close, and we all wait with eager anticipation for round two, where this path we’ve now begun continues to wind through toward its inevitable conclusion.

April 6, 2013 at 11:13 pm Leave a comment

Fall 2012 tourney – the drama continues

Although we couldn’t have asked for a better opening night, somehow, someway the second night surpassed it.  The top seeds rolled, middle seeds pushed, and former finalists, well, struggled.  Yes, finalists.  Plural.

Warming up the crowd was second seed four-time champion Jeremy Berry.  He dismantled Christine Kim in three straight sets.  It would be easy to chalk up Kim as another simple victim to Berry’s surgical moves, but this sportswriter saw something in Kim that’s more than mere high-seed fodder.  She demonstrated reflexes and coordination rarely seen by CTTA newcomers and with guidance and practice could make a major splash in tournaments to come.

Match 2 pitted 7th seed Ivan “the Terrible” Wan against 15th seed Jacob Wilder.  Although Wilder showed great life, it appeared as though he was constantly running in to a brick wall as Wan simply couldn’t be put down.  And while this match went the three set minimum as Wan continually shot winners and forced Wilder errors, Wilder was not without skill.

Next upon the stage was the two-time and current champ Christopher Zack as he made his tourney debut against 18th seed Julian Zheng.  Ah, what can a humble sportswriter say?  Poor Zheng pulling Zack for a round one match.  Poor, poor Zheng.

Another tournament debut was last seed Hyeryung Lim against 3rd seed Greg “Kobe” Cardi.  Kobe began the match by emulating Lim’s slow style, and suddenly picked up the speed and finished her off in three straight sets.

Match 5 had 6th seed Sang Yoon Kim against 11th seed Mark Teplitsky.  Teplitsky has made news in the past few tournaments for taking down higher seeds with his continually improving play, while Kim has flown under the radar, yet continually impressed with his constant high level of play.  Kim thrust out early and  rolled to a quick set 1 victory.  Teplitsky held his own in set 2, keeping it relatively even and forced a 10-10 deuce, but couldn’t hold off Kim, as he took it 13-11.  Up 2-0, Kim faltered in set 3, unable to close and unable to hold off Teplitsky as he refused to go down.  Set 4 was more of the same as Teplitsky won and evened the sets 2-2.  When it looked like Teplitsky could come back and knock off another top seed, Kim held strong and took set 5 with a 11-7 win.  Oddly enough, with the victory, Kim strided away from the table to enjoy a piece of pizza without a care in the world while Greg Cardi was seen throwing his hands toward the sky and thanking the heavens.  Interesting.

Returning in the next match was Ivan “the Terrible” Wan taking on 9th seed Titus Underwood.  Underwood looked stunning in warmups, slamming anything that moves, but looked sluggish and tentative when the stakes were for real.  This is a common thing this sportswriter sees with many competitors, and whether it’s nerves or just better competition, players just sometimes just don’t look like themselves.  Perhaps it was just that “the Terrible” was too good, as Underwood, coming off a stunning three set rout on night one, fell in three more to Wan.

Match 6 saw 8th seed Radu “cool hand Luke” Paponiu against 3rd seed Greg “Kobe” Cardi.  Cardi had already taken care of Lim earlier in the night and Papoinu had taken down the always dangerous Ilia Ulianitsky in the first round.  Hopes were high for this one, but as it got underway Cardi looked – from the beginning – more polished.  Paponiu’s back was against the ropes for the entire match, yet the one weapon he had was his ability to control the tempo, and when Cardi let Paponiu dictate a slower speed, he usually lost the point.  Cardi caught on pretty quickly, however, and sped up the tempo and the match taking it in three straight.

The evening’s last match had two-time finalist 4th seed Timmy Yu square off in an unusually difficult first round test against 8th seed Emil Khudyev.  If you remember from the last tournament, Khudyev had a tough road in the first round as well in Stephen Tavani (who’s already in the third round this tourney) and narrowly defeated Tavani in five nail-biting sets.  This time, would Yu get “Tavani-ed”?  That looked to be certainly so as Khudyev streaked out to a two set lead and looked to close out in set 3.  Yu had other ideas as he narrowly edged out Khudyev in sets 3 and 4 and they headed into the deciding set 5.  This one was close, as neither wanted to give an inch.  They both laid back in wait, not sloppily conservative, but tactically patient and waiting for the perfect time to strike.  Yu, simply put, was just a little better and won the fifth set and match.

But we roll on.  These eight matches are now history, but more history is yet to come as we move ever closer to our finale under the lights to see who will hoist the crystal trophy.

November 26, 2012 at 6:20 am 1 comment

A new season – fall 2012

The storylines are all around us as perhaps the biggest, baddest season of Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School gets underway.  Our first night was light, as number of matches goes, but heavy with rivalry, competition, and of course, heartbreak.

The most exciting developments from round 1 involved an up-and-coming Stephen Tavani and a returning-to-glory Radu Paponiu.  Having never emerged from the first round, Tavani not only defeated an extremely competent Allan Steele in the first round, but also took down the spirited youngster Usha Kapoor in the second.  Look out for Tavani to continue his run, as he showed he’s improved, and is someone to watch out for.

More surprising, however, was the final match of the night.  Ilia Ulianitsky, who’s made major waves in the last two tournaments going to the semifinals twice in a row, came into this tournament as a heavy favorite.  Being a favorite has its perks – a high seed, more respect, and hushed silence when entering the table tennis hall.  It also has one huge disadvantage – being a gigantic target as every hungry competitor is looking to score an upset.  And on that note, in walked humbled, ragged, beat down by the hard road that’s the Colburn Table Tennis Association Radu Paponiu.  Once a two-time finalist and who-knows-how-many-time semifinalist, Radu has been traveling a long road to obscurity in the past few tournaments as he’s failed to make it out of the first or second round in over two years.  Once coined the “king of concentration,” could he actually challenge one of the CTTA’s hotshots Ulianitsky?  Paponiu came out swinging and shocked the crowd and Ulianitsky by edging him out in four close sets.

Several other stories came out of night one as well, but those stories will be saved for another time.  With round two coming up and major players like Christopher Zack, Jeremy Berry, and Timmy Yu yet to play, we’re heading for one of the liveliest tournaments yet!

November 17, 2012 at 6:59 am 1 comment

A Champion! Spring Slam 2012

Four weeks of competition, 28 competitors, and one ridiculously awesome marching band preceded this moment.  Timmy “The Upset King” Yu, the slayer of Champions, the bringer of heat, faced off against the man who needs no introduction.  Christopher Zack, the man who manhandled the winningest championion in CTTA history, Jeremy Berry, not once, but twice in the finals, has only lost to one person:  the one standing across the table from him.

Could Yu pull it off again?  Could he handle Zack’s serves, spins, keep it low enough to avoid the slams, and somewhere in there find a way to pull off a few winners?  Would Zack falter again, letting yet another tournament slide through his fingers?

In set 1, the players got a feel for each other’s game, and Zack pulled off a close 11-9 win.  But unfortunately for Yu, that would be as close as he would get.  Having trouble in every facet of the game, Zack won the majority of his points in the first few times across the net as he owned Yu with his viscous spins.  When Yu did get a decent rally going, Zack sent him back from the table with wicked loops before slamming a winner.

No disrespect to Yu, who has sent the previous tournament’s winner packing two semester’s in a row, but was simply outclassed by Zack in this one.  Congratulations to Christopher Zack, who reclaimed the Crystal Trophy and won his third CTTA championship!

April 25, 2012 at 6:37 am Leave a comment

Semifinal Night #2 – Spring Slam 2012

With the second seed Christopher Zack running the tables and making it to the finals the week before, we would see how this side fared against the reigning champ Jeremy Berry, the clear favorite to meet Zack on Championship Thursday just a few short days away.  Standing in Berry’s way were 8 trained, tuned, and talented athletes all looking to shine under the lights for the chance to hoist the Crystal Trophy.

After a late withdrawal from 9th seed Tanner Menees, an unseeded CSPA prodigy Daewon Kim stepped in as an unseeded challenger to take on the 24th seed Hanbyul “OneStar” Jang.  In the first set, both showed no mercy and pummeled each other back and forth until we were tied 9-9.  Digging deep, our unseeded challenger managed to steal the next two points and win set 1 11-9.  Not to be outdone, OneStar bounced back in set 2, charging up a 10-4 lead.  Kim fired back and went on a five point run, but fizzled out down 9-10 as OneStar sent a winner up the side.  Sets 3 and 4 were relatively close, but OneStar kept a comfortable lead in each to win the match in 4 sets to advance in the tournament.

Match 2 also featured an injury withdrawal as 20th seed Jeff Myers bowed out.  An unseeded Danielle Belen took over against the 13th seed Ben Lash “LaRue.”  Belen managed two points in set 1, as LaRue crushed her 11-2, and unfortunately fared worse in sets 2 and 3, which for purposes of respect (and a happy life for a particular sportswriter), the scores of which will not be mentioned.  LaRue went on to the round of 16 for the second straight tourney.

The evening’s third match pitted our number 1 seed, former Grand Champion and current Champion Jeremy “4-Time Champ” Berry against the strong 17 seed Eugene Lifschitz.  Lifschitz gave the Champ a run in set one, as Berry had trouble closing.  Not quite feeling his game, he was down to the 17th seed 8-9.  But as most champions do, Berry dug deep and ran off three straight points, two on fortuitous Lifschitz errors, to win 11-9.  Maybe it was luck, maybe it was fate, but the best always find a way to win the close ones.  Sets 2 and 3 saw Berry as the true beast that he is:  a Steamroller who ran over Lifschitz 11-3, 11-4 to easily close out the match.

Coming into this night, many saw our next competitor as perhaps Berry’s number one competitor.  8th seed Emil Khudyev looked to advance past one of the night’s previous winners:  the 24th seed Hanbyul “OneStar” Jang.  Khudyev has a strong serve, great return, and a nasty topspin.  He’s a CTTA newbie, which is the only reason for his relatively high seed for such a strong player, but has experienced quite a bit of success on other table tennis circuits, frequenting basements and rec rooms for many seasons.  Up against OneStar, who had such a strong showing against Daewon Kim, we waited to see if Khudyev could continue his run.  And continue he would.  OneStar had a couple of nice moments, but never scored more than 2 points as the 8th seed pounded his way into the quarterfinals.

Match 5 featured our 3rd seed Timmy Yu against match 2’s winner Ben Lash “LaRue.”  Yu, who made a splash in his debut tournament last semester by knocking off then-champ Christopher Zack in the quarterfinals, looked to make another deep tourney run.  Set 1 was a low-key affair, as LaRue jitters caused error after error as the former finalist won 11-1.  LaRue wouldn’t back down, however, and came back in set 2 matching point after point leading up to a 9-9 tie.  As we see so many times in matches like this, LaRue’s only chance may well have been in feeding off the momentum of this set to maybe, somehow, force an upset, but the key would be to win this set.  Unfortunately this, Yu did not allow.  Making the next two points to win 11-9, Yu didn’t look back and battered Lash in set 3 to advance to the quarterfinals.

The sixth match was what many considered, before the night began, a defacto semifinal match, as the winner of this stood to probably go all the way to Championship Thursday.  8th seed Emil Khudyev, the extremely tough rookie, faced The Champ, 1st seed Jeremy Berry in the night’s first quarterfinal match.  Both players’ skills were instantly evident as they treated the audience to quick rally after quick rally.  Berry, though, was a little better starting out as he got out to an early 4-0 lead, but Khudyev showed everyone why he’s perhaps the next big thing.  Khudyev rallied back, coming as close as 10-7, but couldn’t hold out as the Champ took set one 11-8.  Khudyev continued off this comeback momentum in set 2, sticking with Berry for the first 6 points as they were tied 3-3.  Berry, though, as we’ve seen so many times in the past, opened it up and ran off 7 straight to get to 10-3.  Khudyev got a few more, but Berry won 11-6.  Berry once again got running out of the gates in set three 10-4, and didn’t look back to advance to the semifinals for the eighth straight tournament.  Dominance from Berry is what we’ve come to expect, but a straight-sets win against such a strong opponent, some of us perhaps didn’t expect.  The defending champ looked indomitable heading into the semis.

Match 7 saw the two-time winner from night 1 and last semester’s semifinalist Ilia Ulianitsky, the 5th seed, square off against our 3 seed Timmy Yu.  This was a rematch, as Yu defeated Ulianitsky in that semifinal round right after defeating Christopher Zack in the quarters.    Ulianitsky managed to take one set off of Yu last time around, and looked to take three this time.  With that spirit, Ulianitsky got out to a 3-0 lead, but couldn’t hold it as Yu eventually tied 4-4.  This was a match of Ulianitsky’s placement versus Yu’s heat.  Perfectly placed low hits forced many Yu errors as Ulianitsky again ran up the score to get ahead 8-5.  But once again, Yu came back and slammed his way through to the next 6 points to take it 11-8.  Set 2 was also close, but Yu held a slight lead the entire time.  Ulianitsky had trouble keeping Yu’s heavy topspins on the table as Yu again won 11-8.  The story in set 3?  Timmy Yu.  Finding the groove, he led out 6-0 and never let up winning the set and match 11-3.

With that, we set ourselves up for a rematch of last year’s final match:  Berry v Yu.  And what a final it was.  The best of 7 match went the distance, as Yu went 7 sets with the former Grand Champ, narrowly losing in a gut-wrenching nail-biter.  Both players looked great:  Berry, off his win over Khudyev and Yu, off his win against Ulianitsky.  Both entered this match confident and ready to do battle.  As the match got underway, though, Berry seemed a little, what’s the word, tentative.  Berry wasn’t the same player as he was against Khudyev, as Yu owned set 1 taking it easily 11-5.  Could this be happening again?  Last semester Yu beat perhaps the strongest Grand Champion in CTTA history in Christopher Zack; could he knock off the CTTA’s all-time winningest player in Berry?  Set 2 was an entirely different show.  With set 1 being strategic and slow, in this one, both players had a serious need for speed.  Berry dropped the tentative play and went for the kill.  But there was a problem.  After a 3-3 start, Yu pulled away.  His play was cleaner, faster, and he kept the Champ guessing.  Berry had his moments, but couldn’t hold off  Yu as he won set 2 11-5 again and came within one set of the finals.  Berry led out set 3 once again tentative, and fell behind early 1-3, but that would change.  Forcing Yu to play his game, Berry struck hard and often and got on the board with an 11-6 victory.  Berry needed a solid effort in set 4 to force a deciding set 5.  It was an uphill battle, as everyone could feel that Yu was in much better form.  Berry needed a major momentum shift…and nearly got it.  After going back and forth a few points making it 5 apiece, Yu pulled away and never looked back.  He ran off 5 of the next 6 points to sit on four match points and finally won at 11-8.  And we witnessed history.  Jeremy Berry, who has lost exactly three matches in his career, has never been left out of the finals.  Ever.  So, thanks to  Yu, Berry will watch the championship match with the rest of us as Yu and Zack do battle on Thursday.

And for the second time in a row, the past semester’s champion will not be vying for the Crystal Trophy.  And both times Timmy “The Upset King” Yu was responsible.  Yu is 3-1 against Zack, with one match victory, so we’ll find out if we’ll have a third champion in as many semesters.

April 25, 2012 at 6:08 am Leave a comment

The Action Continues – Spring Slam 12 Night 2

1 night.  9 matches.  11 competitors.  1 finalist.  10 sent packing.  So it was with another exciting evening of Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School.

The first match of the night saw the 15 seed Ivan Wan face off against the 18 seed Radu Paponiu.  As we have seen, Paponiu, a two-time finalist, has dropped off in the last several tournaments, struggling early and failing to make it out of the first round.  Would he change that here?  Wan has yet to defeat any opponent in tournament play, so Paponiu’s chances appeared solid.  Set 1 had some nice slam rallies in it, and other than a few errors, Paponiu played well.  He sealed the set with an 11-5 trouncing of the 15 seed.  Wan would come back in the second set, however, and the two would match each other point for point until they were tied at deuce 10-10.  Trading a few more points, Wan was able to steal the crucial set to tie the match 1-1.  Paponiu again struck back, winning set 3 11-5, but this seesaw match had Wan winning in set 4.  Tied 2-2, the winner-take-all fifth set would decide.  They remained relatively even, but it was evident Wan was a little stronger.  Struggling as the match ran away from him, Paponiu couldn’t catch up as Wan sealed the match victory 11-8 and advanced for the first time in his career.

The second planned match of the night was actually played earlier in the day due to schedule conflicts.  7 seeded Titus Underwood took on 26th seeded Hugh Palmer.  Feeling great, Palmer made a good run and managed to steal the first set from the 7 seed.  Could this be a huge upset?  Would Palmer rally to reach the next round?  I was not meant to be, as Underwood steadied his game and his nerves and went on a crushing tear, easily winning the next three sets to go into the second round.

Match 3 pitted 10 seed Yi Zhou against 23 seeded Thomas Huntington.  The first few points of the first set went back and forth as they tested out each other’s style.  On one side was Zhou, who uses a finesse penhold grip, and on the other was Huntington, who doesn’t employ a whole lot of spin, but has a backhand slam that would put anyone away.  Luckily for Zhou, he picked up on Huntington’s strength early, and played small hits with large amounts of spin to Huntington’s forehand.  With this strategy, he was able to win easily in straight sets.

Up next was the 11th seed, Sang-Yoon Kim against the 22 seed Ryan Vaughn.  A newcomer to the tourney, Vaughn was looking to begin his career with a strong performance.  In the first two sets, Vaughn found himself in a big hole, but somehow climbed out.  Climbed out enough to keep it respectable, that is.  Kim was able to muster out victories 11-8 and 11-9 in the first two sets.  In the third set, though, Kim put on the afterburners and toasted Vaughn 11-1 to seal his entrance into the second round.

Second seed Christopher Zack made his Spring 2012 debut next against earlier winner Ivan Wan.  After his quarterfinal loss last semester, Zack has done nothing except train for this tournament.  After hoisting the Crystal Trophy, it becomes a life goal – a mission – to never let it out of your grasp.  As Jeremy Berry can attest, winning the trophy for the first time is sweet, but reclaiming the title is so much sweeter.  It is this that keeps Zack going, keeps his blood pumping, keeps him getting up at 4AM to his the tables practicing his forehand, backhand, and serve.  Would Wan send Zack home early as Timmy Yu did last year?  Zack hit the ground running with an immediate 11-5 first set win.  Wan, just like with Paponiu, would bounce back in the second set and hang with the grand champ to get to a 10-10 deuce.  Zack tightened up his game and took the next two points wo win 12-10.  The second set would be as close at Wan would get, as Zack pulled away early in the third and took the match with an 11-5 set three win.

Match 6 had two earlier winners facing off, where one would go to the quarterfinals.  7 seed Titus Underwood looked to continue his run against the strategic 10th seed Yi Zhou.    Underwood has a huge slam and an big game to pound and intimidate opponents.  Zhou has perfect placement and spin to throw opponents off their game.  Set 1 saw Underwood come out swinging with some huge smashes, but he had trouble keeping them out of the net.  As a result of these errors, Zhou cruised through the match, winning easily 11-2, 11-4, 11-6.

Next on the table was last semester’s semifinalist, 6th seed Kevin Lin, against off 11 seed Sang-Yoon Kim.  Kim came out with confidence after his dominating win a few matches before, but couldn’t match up well against Lin’s tennis-like clean groundstrokes.  After dropping the first two sets 6-11, 4-11, Kim made a run in set three and came as close as 7-8, but Lin pulled it together for the close and ran off three straight to take the match in straight sets.

The first quarterfinal match featured 2nd seed Christopher Zack taking on 10th seed Yi Zhou.  Not many players in the CTTA can take on Zack in a slamming match, so Zhou figured his best strategy would be to send low, spin-heavy balls to the center of the court to try to control as much of the match as he could.  Zack was too good in set 1, as he slammed off an 11-5 win, but Zhou made a splash in set 2, tying at 8 apiece.  The very next point, Zhou won taking a 9-8 lead.  After a long rally, Zhou committed a mistake that he repeatedly made throughout the match:  he slammed.  When he stuck to the strategy of keeping it low, he could hang with Zack, but missed slams got him in trouble in more than one occasion.  After tying it at 9, Zack ran off the next two points to win set 2.  Set 3 saw Zack get off to an early lead and coast to an 11-8 third set and match win.

Last week, we crowned our first quarterfinalist in Mark Teplitsky after his amazing run through the 19 and 4 seeds.  He patiently waited his competitor all evening and would meet that person in this match.  6th seed Kevin Lin would meet Teplitsky to have the right to face Christopher Zack in the semifinals.  Both players have similar styles, as they like to hit it hard and spin it little.  Many fast, long rallies splattered this match, as they went back and forth, neither wanting to give an inch.  Lin edged Teplitsky in the first set, but Teplitsky bounced back in the second.  Taking the initiative, Teplitsky jumped out to an early 3-1 lead, but Lin came back to eventually tie 4-4.  Meeting each other the entire way, Lin was able to capture the set 11-9.  Again, as he did in set two when down, Teplitsky came back in set 4 to tie the match 2-2.  Running on that momentum Teplitsky stormed out to an 8-3 lead and never looked back enroute to an 11-6 set 5 win and his first ever trip to the semifinals.

The final match of the night would determine the first finalist, who would play on Championship Thursday in a couple of weeks.  14th seeded Mark Teplitsky looked to become the highest seeded player to reach the finals in CTTA tournament history, but to do it he would have to upset the 2nd seed Christopher Zack.  Would Zack be denied the finals for the second semester in a row?  Could Teplitsky do the seemingly impossible and earn the right to play under the lights?  Teplitsky started off well, and the two were tied early at 3 apiece.  Unfortunately for the 14 seed, Zack figured out something with Teplitsky’s game and went on to take 8 of the next 9 points to secure an 11-4 victory.  Teplitsky again started off well, and combined with a few Zack errors, would come within two behind 5-7, but again Zack went on a massive run to win 11-6.  Zack’s momentum was too great and his thirst to reclaim the championship too strong, that he overpowered Teplitsky 11-3 in the final set to once again make an appearance in the finals.

With that side of the bracket done, the second finalist will be crowned Sunday, April 15.  the night begins at 8:30PM in Olive Rehearsal Hall.

April 13, 2012 at 3:36 am Leave a comment

Another Tournament Opens – Spring Slam 2012

The posters were up, the seedings out, the players ready, the stage set, and pizza (albeit late) was served.  That unique combination of preparation, desire, competition, unrelenting focus, and voracious hunger can only mean one thing:  Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School.

Eleven players stormed out of the gates, hoping to survive the opening rounds and secure a spot in quarter or semifinal play.  In recent years, however, if we can describe the tournament with one word, it would be deep.  As a result, even opening rounds aren’t a walk in the park, and no one is safe.  Of our opening 11, only 4 remain.  Such is the hard walk on the CTTA.

The tournament’s first match was actually played several days before opening night to accommodate an out-of-town competitor.  8th seed Emil Khudyev took on 25th seed Stephen Tavani.  The whole “no one’s safe” credo was particularly apt in this first round matchup.  Khudyev, a master technician, walked into the match like many 8 seeds against a 25th seed – absent caution.  And it cost him.  Tavani, playing extremely clean table tennis, took the first two sets by storm and looked to upset the 8th seed right off the bat.  Khudyev, not to go down easily, put on a rally of his own and answered with victories in sets 3 and 4 to tie the match two apiece.  The third set came down to who wanted it more.  Khudyev gave everything he had to win those two sets – could he do it a third time, or was he spent?  On the other hand, he had momentum and Tavani had his own questions to answer, like could he pull it together after having Khudyev on the ropes and failing to close?  Neither gave an inch, and after the dust settled, Khudyev was left standing, and avoided the upset.  The tournament was under way.

The first match of opening night pitted 14 seed Mark Teplitsky against 19 seed Allan Steele.  Both showed that they had game, but Steele couldn’t hold off Teplitsky’s combination of speed and versatility.  Not only can Teplitsky hurt you with his quick loops, but his remarkable ability to return the heat is also of huge benefit.  Teplitsky knocked off Steele in straight sets.

Match 2 was a mid seed bout between 16 Jacob Wilder and 17 Eugene Lifschitz.  Wilder, a longtime CTTA competitor, looked to advance into the second round for the first time in two semesters.  Lifschitz, who has experienced decent success in past tournaments just hasn’t been able to hammer home a quarter or semifinal berth.  Both had something to prove, and both gave it everything they had.  In a match that was closer than the final score will indicate, each set was close and exciting.  Lifschitz, though, found a way to pull it out each time and stole the victory three sets to zero.

Next up was 12 seed Anton Smirnov taking on the 21st seed Gabi Campos.  Campos gave it everything he had in this tough early pairing, but Smirnov seemed too dominant.  Taking the first two sets easily, Smirnov put Campos in a big hole.  In a win-or-done situation, Campos put on a late match charge, but it was not enough.  Smirnov edged him out in the final set to secure a spot in the second round.

Match four saw 5th seed Ilia Ulianitsky against the 28th seed Usha Kapoor.  Ulianitsky, who made the biggest charge last year into the semifinals as a 7th seed, looks to repeat that performance this time around.  Kapoor, an able competitor who with training and practice could put together deep tournament runs in years to come, couldn’t get it going against the strong 5th seed.  Ulianitsky rolled three easy sets to advance.

Playing in his second match of the evening, the 14th seed Mark Teplitsky showed his stuff against the 4 seed Greg “Kobe” Cardi.  Cardi has been one of the CTTA’s young guns lately with several quarterfinal appearances and one trip to the semifinals.  Last semester, his tournament was cut short when he was upset by, wait for it, Mark Teplitsky.  Even though Teplitsky has only made the quarterfinals once (after his victory over Cardi) he somehow has a very favorable matchup against the 4 seed.  Would history repeat?  Would Cardi once again step down after an early round loss?  Following a gentlemen’s trade of the first two sets, they battled it out in set 3.  The match truly opened up, as neither wanted to give his opponent the 2-1 advantage.  Cardi pulled out his 4th seed finesse to take set 3 and come within one set from another quarterfinal.  Teplitsky, however, had other ideas.  Using his fine-tuned return ability, he wouldn’t let Cardi bowl him over, and forced enough errors from the 4th seed to even the match two all.  In the winner-take-all final set, history was repeated as Teplitsky again upset Cardi and advanced into his second straight quarterfinal.

The final match of the evening was yet another rematch between 5th seed Ilia Ulianitsky and 12th seed Anton Smirnov.  When these two met two semesters ago, it was one of the highlights of early-round play.  The five-set match thrilled the crowd as Smirnov narrowly won.  After that, Ulianitsky’s play has dramatically improved and culminated with his run to the final four last semester.  That said, he never let Smirnov get a foothold and won in straight sets to advance into the quarterfinals for the second straight semester.

Opening night is in the books, but there are two more exciting nights of Championship Table Tennis at the Colburn School to come!

And the pizza will be on time.  I promise.

April 4, 2012 at 3:25 am Leave a comment

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