2012 U.S. Hall of Fame Player Inductee
By Tim Boggan, USATT Historian
It’s Aug., 1980, 32 years ago, and the Women’s Singles winner at the Montclair, CA Open is Lan Vuong. Formerly from Vietnam, now from the Los Angeles Chinatown Club, she’s 4 and ½ feet tall, weighs 75 pounds, and is all of 11 years old. For her table tennis progress in the last two years since she’s come to the U.S. she gives much credit to Y.C. Lee and Gil Park.
Lan’s career-rivalry with Diana Gee was first evident in the 1980 and ’81 U.S. Closeds. In the first of their U-13 matches (best of three), Diana beat Lan 19 in the 3rd. But in the second (best of five), Lan prevailed—from down 2-0 and at 23-all in the 3rd. Since this 25-23 pivotal third game in Lan’s comeback match against Diana is typical of their most exciting play, I’ll take a moment to describe the climactic ending:
“Lan, a compactly-built penholder who moves marvelously into a relentless topspin attack, was up 18-17, but then served off. Whereupon Diana, all incense-stick slender, smoked in a serve return, tried unsuccessfully to do it again, then quickly caught Lam where she’s weakest, wide to her forehand....But up 21-20 match-point, Gee got her serve return too high and Vuong with her beautiful forehand cover fearlessly whacked it in. Down 22-21, Diana unflinchingly played a blistering exchange—and again it was deuce. But just as Lan had been careless with her serve before, so now Diana served an unthinking easy topspin and Lan immediately moved to seize her opportunity, quickly gained forehand control, and eventually won the game…and the turnaround match.”
At the Feb., 1984 Arizona Open, Lan became the first female and at 14 the youngest player in the 32-year history of the tournament to win the Open Championship.
However, this very promising teenager didn’t always exercise such poise. The very next month at a California tournament she showed a vulnerable emotional side. When she started serving with her racket under the table, a shouting match began which upset players on all tables. After the umpire warned Lan that such serves were illegal, she was too upset to continue and defaulted the rest of her matches. She apologized to her opponent, Mas Hashimoto, said it wasn’t his fault she was leaving, but leave she did.
If Lan thought that was upsetting, what would she think the following week when she and Lisa Gee, Diana’s twin sister, were representing the U.S. at the Cuban Invitational in Santa Clara. If, that first night, in their thatched-roof tropical huts, Lan’s teammate Quang Bui complained of the mosquitos, what awaited them their second night? More than a few bug bites. Women’s Team Captain Sylvia Rosenthal reported that, while she, Lan, and Lisa were at dinner, “our room was ‘broken into’ and both Lan and Lisa’s tournament bags were taken. Also stolen from the girls were money, a watch, a camera, playing clothes, and warm-up suits. Worse, Lisa’s one racket and Lan’s two rackets were gone.”
Thus, as the Women’s Team ties got underway, Lan was playing with a racket graciously given her by the Cuban Coach, and Lisa was playing with a borrowed type of racket she hadn’t played with in a number of years. So could the outcome still be favorable for us? In the final against the Cubans, the U.S. was up 2-1, only to have to face the fact that Lan, after winning her first match, couldn’t win her second from 21-all in the 3rd. Then…oh, we were a goner, weren’t we? Lisa, playing with that unaccustomed racket and badly blistered hands, was down 1-0 and 20-16 quadruple match-point. But, amazingly, point after point, Lisa rallied and pulled out the game, then won the 3rd, 21-18. During the last couple of points, Lan said, “I thought I was going to have a heart attack I was so excited. I really wanted to bring home a gold medal to prove that the U.S. Juniors are equal to international players.”
Lan’s excitement would continue there in Cuba—for, on a day when she was ill, couldn’t keep any food down, and, feeling weak lost her Women’s final, she did win her second gold—in Mixed Doubles with Perry Schwartzberg. That very evening, at the end of tournament play, a huge banquet was held, and for dessert—to celebrate Lan’s 15th birthday—they brought out this huge birthday cake. “It was half the size of me,” said Lan. “I really didn’t know what to say. This was the day I was so sick and really down, but everybody made me happy with the surprise.”
Later, at the 1984 Closed, Lan won the Girls U-17 over Diana, 24-22 in the 4th. Then she made the 1985 U.S. Team to the Gothenburg, Sweden World’s by coming second in the Women’s Singles to China-trained Julie Ou, whom someone began calling Julie WOW.
At the ’85 U.S. Closed, Lan looked to again get to the Women’s final. For in the semi’s against Lisa she was up 14-9 in the 5th, but then lost 9 straight and eventually the match.
Even before losing to Lisa, Lan hadn’t been a happy camper. She didn’t go to the Colorado Springs Training Camp before the Closed and said she was really disenchanted with the way players are treated in this country. In the future, she said, she will play just for herself—and not for the USA. Asked by t.t. reporter Shazzi Felstein for a specific example of what was bothering her, she said that a year ago, in 1984, she’d been given the Amateur Athlete of the Year Award, but the trophy that was supposed to come with it was delayed time after time. Twelve months later, she still hadn’t received it.
At the ’86 U.S. Team Tryouts, both Lan and her arch-rival Diana make the U.S. Team to the 1987 Delhi World’s with, as expected, perennial U.S. Champ Insook Bhushan, but Vicky Wong upsets Lisa to prevent the twins from ever playing on the same U.S. World Team.
1987 is another good year for Lan. At the Closed, before losing to Insook, she beats Diana in five to again reach the final, beats Diana to win the U-22’s, and begins a streak—at five successive U.S. Closeds—of being a Woman’s Doubles finalist… showing versatility in partnering with Lisa Gee (twice), Li Ai, Julie Ou, and Peggy Rosen.
Moreover, that year Lan has a good chance to make the 1988 U.S, Olympic Team. At the North American Trials, she loses to Diana, 23-21 in the 4th, but five-game knocks off two strong Canadians, Mariann Domonkos and Cindy Choy, then faces a third, Gloria Hsu, who in a big swing match outlasts Vuong in five. Had Lan won this match, she’d have had two chances to go to Seoul—either by beating Insook in the semi’s, or Diana in the match for 3rd-Place.
That she could beat Insook was confirmed two years later at the Pacific Coast Open after she’d had six weeks of intensive training in Taiwan. “’This is the first time I’ve won against Insook,” said the vibrant, bouncy, and enthusiastic 20-year-old. “I have never worked so hard every single point.”
At the 1989 Dortmund, Germany World’s, Lan, attacking viciously, had her best international results: she defeated the Romanian #2, Bogoslava, World #67, and, up 1-0 and at deuce in the second, almost beat Finland’s Grefberg, World #52.
Lan’s now a sophomore at California State University at Northridge. Which means that she’s about to retire? Well, now quite yet. She’s going to be the Women’s Singles runner-up to Li Ai at the 1990 Olympic Festival. Then, in ’91, finishing First Alternate (“I need more discipline”), she’ll just miss being one of the six U.S. women to play off with the Canadians for spots in the ’92 Olympic Games. After that, at the U.S. Closed in ’92, partnered in Women’s Doubles with former Thai Sportswoman of the Year, Pigool Kulcharnpises, now Peggy Rosen, the two of them, though unable to get an umpire for their important semi’s match, pulled off a -13, 22, 15 upset over Li Ai and Lily Hugh (later Lily Yip) to reach the final.
For some time Lan had thought she wanted to teach elementary school. “Train them when they’re young,” she’d said, “’cause when they grow up it’s too late to control them. My family and I are all for strict discipline. It tends to make you a better, more cooperative person.” Uh-huh. Except after dealing for some time with 3-to-5-year-old pre-schoolers, Lan was questioning whether she really wanted to be a teacher. Unlike her table tennis opponents, her very young pupils didn’t always take her seriously enough. “Now, Class, please be quiet,” she’d
say. And they’d respond, mockingly, playfully, “Now, Miss Lan, please be quiet.” As if she—or they—ever could be quiet.
Once her playing days were over, Lan dutifully accepted the responsibility of being, for two years, an Athlete Rep on the USTTA’s governing Board.
Finally, on coming into her maturity, Lan, last year, was inducted—along with those two fun rivals from her teen years, Diana and Lisa Gee—into the California Hall of Fame. Only one honor that could possibly be of more importance was to come—and that is her induction into our Hall tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Lan Vuong.