USA Table Tennis

At the Dec. 14-15, 1956 3-star Central Open, held in Grand Rapids, hometown boy Dell Sweeris gets a first time nod in Topics. Like Connie Stace’s father, Bob, Dell’s father, Art, is a strong Senior player at the local Club and enjoys playing in tournaments. Connie and Dell will become friends; indeed, will turn out to be quite a potent combination: they’ll marry, win U.S. Open Doubles Championships, and have two children, one of whom, Todd, will eventually become a Table Tennis Olympian.

…Growing up, learning the Game, Dell seemed to have played pretty much only locally. Though by 1961 he was the Grand Rapids City Men’s Champ, he had no Michigan Ranking in either Men’s or Junior’s. The best Michigan Junior was Ralph “Pete” Childs—indeed, from 1961 through 1965 Pete would be the best teenage player in his age group in the country. Dell, Michigan Recreation Junior titleholder, along with other Grand Rapids players, including Connie Stace, did—hooray—go off to the Big City, to New York for the 1962 U.S. Open and surely a little sightseeing. In the Junior’s Dell lost to last year’s U.S. Boys’ Champ Richard Jackson, one of Jack Carr’s protégés at the Hampton Roads’ Boys’ Club in Newport News, VA. 

 Tax time—so it seemed already for Dell in the spring of ’63, ‘cause we sure didn’t see him do much. His Junior Ranking? No. 4…in Michigan. However, in Oct., 1963, we get a hint he’s progressing when, at the Kalamazoo Open, though he can’t beat Childs in the Junior final, he does win the B’s, does a little bonding with his father Art to take the B Doubles, and with Mike Peterlein the Junior Doubles.

Then his team of Michigan Juniors, led by MVP Childs, won the NTC’s—with Dell, 6-6, holding his own.

At the Feb. 1-2, 1964 Central Open, Dell might have learned a few things from Sweden’s visiting European Champion Hans “Hasse” Alser—the more so because, after Dell beat the former Canadian Closed Champion Pranas Gvildys 3-zip, he got to play Alser in the quarter’s of the Singles. So how’d Dell do against World #8? No better, or worse, than anyone else—thirty-something total. In the Junior’s, Dell, down 2-0 in the semi’s to Doug “Tiger” Burns, Chuck’s son, rallied to win 19 in the 5th. But then, though improving, he wasn’t ready to give the precocious 15-cum-17 U.S. Champion Childs a tough match.

That Sweeris was becoming more and more serious about the Sport can be seen when he went out to Inglewood, California for the 1964 U.S. Open. In the Men’s, Dell was beaten early by Swedish immigrant, the #8 seed, Ragnar “Ray” Fahlstrom. In the Junior’s, Dave Sakai, who’d earlier eliminated Defending Champion Alex Salcido, stopped him. But he had success in Doubles. With Ralph “Pete” Childs he won his first National title, the Junior Doubles, from U.S. Junior Team member Harvey Gutman and his cousin Jeff Swersky, a Men’s quarterfinalist.

Highlights of this U.S. Open were going to be shown on TV, and for excitement the cameras couldn’t have done better than followed Dell’s Mixed matches with fellow Grand Rapids star Connie Stace, Women’s Doubles winner here with Donna Chaimson. First, Dell and Connie won a wild 19, -29, 19, -12, 19 semi’s match from Sol Schiff/Tiny Eller, the ’59 Champs; then they played a strong though 12, -20, -22, -16 losing final against Chaimson/Bobby Fields. So, yes, look for them to pair up again next year…and the next…and…

In the 1964-65 season, Dell—along with Baltimore’s Art Williams, Pennsylvania’s Dave Dickson, Michigan’s Don Ross, and California’s Lou Dubin—became a member of the National Youth Committee under Chair Percy Rochester.

Dell joined the Michigan team (Kruskie, 14-2; Jim Rushford, 3-10) that went to the Newark, Delaware NTC’s and with a 12-4 record helped his teammates to the equivalent of a 5th-place finish.

In Jan., ’65, Dell entered the Eastern’s in Rochester, N.Y. and lost to Max Marinko in the semi’s. However, he won the Men’s Doubles with Bukiet, and almost won the Mixed with Stace, but, up 2-0 on Harry Hirschkowitz/ Denise Hunnius, they faltered and lost 25-23 in the 5th.

But there would be other chances…soon. At the Mar., 1965 Detroit U.S. Open, Sweeris was beaten in the Singles by the Central Open winner, Danny Pecora, who the following month would be playing in the Ljubljana World’s. In Men’s Doubles, Dell having paired with Bobby Gusikoff, lost a –16, 21, -21, 21, -19 killer quarter’s match to Chuck Burns/Sol Schiff. But in the Mixed what might have been disaster for Dell and partner Connie wasn’t, for, after being two games down to Canadians Martin Ivakitsch/Barbara DeAbreu, they rallied and went on to win the title from Marty Doss/Leah Neuberger. As we’ll see, Dell will become quite a Doubles specialist.

The USTTA, short of cash as usual, agreed to send three men to the World’s if each paid $300 towards his expenses. As for our women, sorry, said Team Captain Rufford Harrison, but they “are quite poor on a world scale,” and moreover “of all the women and girls whom we have sent to the World Championships in the last six years, not one has learned anything that was reflected in subsequent improvement.” The USTTA’s 1st pick, Erwin Klein, 2nd pick Marty Doss, as well as Bobby Gusikoff and Bobby Fields all declined to put up a $100 deposit and so weren’t considered. Eventually the #3 pick, Bernie Bukiet, was chosen, along with Jerry Kruskie, Dell, and Alternate Danny Pecora.

In Swaythling Cup play, our Team finished 23rd. Bernie was 11-11, Jerry, 10-10, Danny (on playing only one tie) 1-1, and Dell 6-10. To Harrison, who was down on Kruskie for lacking Team Spirit, Sweeris was the “real surprise.” Apparently there was some question as to whether he should have been on the Team in the first place. But Dell, he said, “was the quickest of our players by far, and it is speed that counts these days. Dell lost, for example, against Purkart and Secretin of France, and Bozorgzadeh of Iran, but he had two good wins in our 5-4 loss to Poland.

In Men’s Singles, Sweeris did as well as possible—beat a Swiss before losing of course decisively to World #4 Koji Kimura who in ’61 had won the World’s Men’s Doubles, in ’63 the Mixed. Dell teamed with Bernie to beat a Welsh pair, then fell to the Russians Anatoly Amelin and Nikolai Novikov. Nikolai, who’d earlier been part of the reciprocal U.S.-Russian Junior Matches, would one day, for a time, be the Canadian National Coach.

Dell was quite struck at these World’s by two late-round Men’s Singles matches. Here he is (see John Dart’s article in the Aug.-Sept., 1965 Topics) describing the quarter’s action between West Germany’s “defensive marvel” Eberhard Schoeler and China’s “Magic Chopper” Chang Shih-lin:

 

“The match was brought into the expedite rule (in the 2nd game) with [Magic Chopper] Chang Shih-lin topping for 15 minutes while Schoeler chopped every one back. The German won the first two, but the Chinese got more consistent and brought the match even, and then pulled to an 11-6 lead in the fifth (game). Schoeler closed the gap but could never catch up until the score was 20-17. He deuced the game and then proceeded in thrilling the crowd by exchanging five ads. Schoeler finally emerged the winner 27-25” (3). 

Canadian Captain Marge Walden also wrote of Chang attacking furiously and Schoeler defending, but said that the German player was also very effective in interspersing his defensive play with “flash hits.” How grueling the 90-minute struggle must have been for both players. In one of the games after 10 minutes had elapsed, the score was only 2-1.” Since the tournament schedule had to be held to, Schoeler had little time to rest, so no wonder he was then beaten so convincingly by Chuang in the semi’s.

Li Fu-jung, meanwhile, had advanced to the final to meet Chuang for the 3rd straight World’s (he’d been runner-up the first two). Time magazine, in its May, 1965 account of this match that would stretch into the 5th, said: 

“…Li was the crowd favorite. Often laying back as far as 20 ft. from the table, he brought gasps of astonishment from the crowd of 8,000 as he casually returned smash after smash, biding his time until he uncoiled to slam a blur of white past Chuang for a point.” 

Edgar Clark, in his Nov., 1964 Sports Illustrated article, mentioned that, in the 1963 final between Chuang and Li, there was some talk that Li had been instructed to throw the match to Chuang. “But no one who saw the matches believed it” (E 12). Now in this ’65 final the score in the 5th was 15-all. “And then suddenly,” recalls Sweeris in that Topics article, “Li Fu-jung couldn’t seem to keep the ball very low…and Chuang Tse-tung killed the next six to win the title for the third straight time.” Noting that Li had abandoned his offense, English Team Captain Ron Craydon was quoted by Time as saying, “It seems to have been a bit fixed.”

On returning home, Dell criticized USTTA members and officers for not having “a definite plan for the improvement of U.S. table tennis.” Young players, he said, and he was already coaching a bunch of them, need to get “a good start with coaching, training, leagues, and tournaments.”

Though not on the USTTA E.C., Dell took E.C. responsibility—urged action. In an article in Topics, he said: (1) “We are financially unsound”: we cannot pay or compensate our executives or send our good players to national and international tournaments.” Said (2) Unless our E.C. “can clearly see the desires of the players they represent,” there will be no progress. Said (3) “Our players are losing interest,” especially our young players. “They feel that there is no future in table tennis” (Oct., 1965, 14).           

Dell himself, at least for a time, felt there was a future for U.S. Table Tennis, and was probably the most upbeat and forward-looking of the Association’s players and officials through the mid-‘60’s and into the ‘70’s. While the E.C. continues to think small, talks at a Meeting about a revision in the Affiliates Manual that will allow 50 club members to be charged a blanket $10 USTTA membership and $.25 for each one thereafter, Dell is urging that the “ridiculously low price of $2 for a USTTA membership be raised to “$5 or $10” so we could have some paid and therefore more responsible workers for the Association.

Meanwhile, inspired by what he saw at Ljubljana (Team Capt. Rufford Harrison said topspin players Sweeris and Jerry Kruskie learned more at the World’s “than any other [U.S. Team] that I can remember”), Dell’s play continued to improve—though it was Danny Pecora who 6-5 saved the day for the Americans in the 1965 CNE International Matches at Canada, and Pecora who won the Singles and Doubles, so I guess he learned a few things at the World’s too. At Toronto, Dell paired with Richard Hicks in the Men’s Doubles for a good win over Bukiet/Bozorgzadeh, but lost to the runner-ups, Canadian Closed Champ Larry Lee/Gusikoff in the semi’s. A tough loss in the final of the Mixed: Dell and Connie went down, deuce in the 5th, to Bukiet/Kaminsky.

At the Indiana Open, I don’t know what sort of reward the two finalists got—Richard Hicks, “by mixing high lobs with chops,” was able to repel Sweeris’s “hard drives”—but Dick Evans got $71.50 for winning the Handicap event and runner-up Don Lyons $31.50. The fact that Connie wasn’t entered here didn’t seem to bother Dell in the slightest—I mean, loyalties be damned, Sweeris simply paired with Hicks to take the Mixed (that’s Norma Hicks of course, Dick’s wife) in an upset over Shahian/Lazarus.

It was Dell’s week at the Jan. 22-23, ’66 Eastern’s. In the Singles, now 20 and last season’s #20, it was clear he’d served his apprenticeship. While Jerry Kruskie was beating Bukiet, deuce in the 4th, Dell reached the final by downing Defending Champion Marty Doss who’d earlier told a reporter he figured to have the edge this tournament playing “on my home court where I know the tables, the floor, and the lighting.”

In the all-topspin final, after winning the 1st, 24-22, and keeping his momentum, 21-18 in the 2nd, Kruskie seemed in control—as he did even after Dell had won the 3rd and 4th, for in the 5th Jerry had a 17-7 lead. Then the unusual happened—and, as I  watched and listened, it was as if Dell himself couldn’t believe what was happening. As he won point after point he’d voice not words but little high-pitched involuntary exclamations of surprise until…amazingly, he’d won 21-18 (a 14-1 run)! In Men’s Doubles, (new guard)  Sweeris/Kruskie downed the (old guard) Schiff/Hazi then Bukiet/Doss in the final. The Mixed? That went to Sweeris/Stace in a 34-point flurry over Kruskie/Hirschkowitz. So, hats off to hat-trick artist Dell.

Who turns up at the Feb., 1966 Rubber City Open in Akron, Ohio but South Korean star Lee Dal-Joon. He’s touring in the States with Richard Bergmann, playing exhibitions for the Harlem Globetrotters, and of course he wins the Singles, dropping a game to Bukiet in the semi’s, but handling Marty Doss comfortably in the final. Dell, after being down 2-1 to Dick Hicks in the quarter’s, rallied, but was beaten in straight games in the semi’s by U.S. #2, the Defending Champion, Doss. Lee/Bukiet also won the Doubles from Dell/Marty 3-0. However, Sweeris/Ann Evans were able to beat Lee/Laverne Von Willer in the Mixed.

The results of the 1966 Michigan State Closed did not appear in Topics but were printed—along with short Who’s-Who-in-Michigan-TTA bios and photos, as well as State Rankings in 17 different events—in the Detroit U.S. Open Program. Perhaps a captive audience there? Of course Sweeris and Stace dominated the major events. In the Men’s final, Dell beat Chuck Burns who in the semi’s had stopped Eddie Brennan in 5. In the Women’s it was Connie over Andrea Gerber. Connie played with Dell in the Men’s Doubles and won 25-23 in the 4th from Brennan/Leo Griner. Dell, however, did not play with Connie in Women’s Doubles, which she won anyway.

At the Mar. 25-27, 1966 National’s, Sweeris advanced to the semi’s by stopping “Best Sportsman” Houshang Bozorgzadeh, 19 in the 4th, then Bobby Gusikoff, 19 in the 3rd. Danny Pecora reached Sweeris by first beating Schiff, then Mike Ralston. Against Danny, Dell tried gamely to get back into the match, but lost three straight, 19 in the 3rd. In the Men’s Doubles, Jerry Kruskie’s “hard hitting” and Dell’s “extreme topspin” brought them the title. In the final they defeated Defending Champions Bukiet and Klein, whom Topics Editor in his write-up called “fumbling,” and said “they were frequently caught at the wrong side of the table.” Still, in winning 19 in the 4th, the usurping team didn’t exactly run away with the match. Dell and Connie, in defending their Mixed title, ohhh, came up a tad short—lost in 5 to Bukiet/Kaminsky who’d been down 2-0 to Schiff/Neuberger. 

 But think, in Part II, we’ll see Dell win more U.S. Open titles? You betcha.