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TABLE TENNIS WORLD Interviews TIM BOGGAN

By Larry Hodges · March/April, 1996

ITTF Vice-President... USATT Historian... USATT Hall of Fame Board Member...  Table Tennis Writer... Former USATT President and Vice-President... Former Editor of USATT National Publication... Former U.S. Team Captain... U.S. Over 40, 50, 60 Champion... Author of Winning Table Tennis... Father of Two U.S. National Men’s Singles Champions... etc., etc., etc.... 

TTW: Gee, Tim, we’ve seen your table tennis resume, and figure you use posterboard for your business cards! How’d you get into table tennis originally?

Tim: In the 1930’s, growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I began playing with my father on a makeshift, soon-to-be slightly warped table-top placed over our basement pool table. As I said in my book Winning Table Tennis (l976), “I loved the lights over the table and the indefinable darkness around it, the green and white colors that seemed so clear and beautiful to me, the sound of the racket in the silence steadily hitting the ball.” I think my boyhood play in that basement was as much an aesthetic as competitive experience.

Tim, age 2 (1932) and 12 (1942).

In l940 I won a tournament at my grade school on an improvised table the nuns made atop some student desks. I still have the small cup I was awarded (minus the arms) that, many years ago when I smoked some, I used as an ashtray.

When I was in the 8th grade, to my amazement I won an all-City Catholic Youth Organization tournament. I don’t know how all those hard hitters, so impressive to me when I first entered the playing hall, lost, but I remember how in the final I relentlessly out-pushed my final opponent.

In high school I played only once in a tournament--in a City Novice event. Was I really a “Novice”? I asked the organizers. They assured me I was. I had my doubts, but not for long: I lost in an early round.

Then, quite accidentally, I discovered the USATT tournament world from a fellow student at the University of Dayton. In January, 1950, I attended my first out-of-town tournament--the St. Joe Valley in South Bend, Indiana. I lost my first match 27-25 in the 5th to a better player who was also a very hot-tempered one. When he tried to psych me a little, I responded in kind--the towel, the handkerchief, the shoelaces. We must have been ridiculous. Finally, the legendary John Varga himself came out to our table to no nonsense umpire--very fairly I remember. At the age of 19 then, I started to play in earnest. 

1953, age 23, Central Canadian Open Champion (1952 & 1953).

TTW: So you became a regular tournament-goer. What playing accomplishments over the years are you most proud of?

Tim: In the beginning I had only a stay-at-the-table push/block defense. Then, in 1951, in a tournament in Cincinnati, I quite insensitively began mimicking my weaker opponent’s eccentric forehand, and to my astonishment found I could keep snap-hitting in balls for winners. Wow, I thought, that was fun! Taking the offense was fun!

For four more seasons, I played with great fervor. At the University of Dayton, where for years I was a perpetual “student” (who would ever think I’d become a professor?), many a day I’d cut all my classes and teach beginners cum novices to block-return the steady forehands I’d roll ever harder at them. And since I’d heard that l0-times U.S. Champion Dick Miles used to practice his close-to-the-body windmill forehand with a handkerchief under his armpit, I did that too.

My advance in that clubless town was steady but slow. Dayton City Novice Champ, Dayton City Champ, Ohio State Champ, U.S. Intercollegiate Singles and Doubles Champ, U.S. #10, U.S. #7, Member of the U.S. Team in the U.S. vs. Canada matches at the CNE in Toronto (the night before, I’d been throw-up sick, was still sick, played anyway, tried hard, lost every match). During the l954-55 season (when I was an Ohio TTA V.P. under President Otto Ek) I had my best losses: to Bernie Bukiet in the final of the Illinois Open in Chicago; to Bukiet in the semi’s of the St. Joe in South Bend; to Johnny Somael in the semi’s of the Michigan Open at Pontiac; to Bukiet again in the final of the Western Open at Milwaukee; and to Erwin Klein in the 8th’s of the National’s at Rochester, N.Y. The best doubles I ever played was in the following ‘55-’56 season, my last before I retired (I thought then forever): Steve Isaacson and I for a short time dominated the major Midwest tournaments, won 4 out of 5 finals....

1966 (age 36), member of U.S. Open Team Champions from New York (with Dick Miles, Jack Howard & Fred Berchin). 

Having a good time with wife Sally, 1966.

Ten years later, I’d gotten a life--a job, wife, home, family--and at first hesitantly then with a passionate rush returned to the game. For the next five years, age 35 through 39, I was ranked anywhere from U.S. #12 to #20. And now I began to write more and more for our national publication, Topics.

In 1971, at the Nagoya World Championships, before our “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” trip into China, I entered the (Over 40) Jubilee Cup event. I remember my friend Miles talking to 3-time World runner-up, Poland’s Alex Ehrlich, about my upcoming 1st-round match with Hungary’s Ferenc Sido, 1953 World Champion, 1959 World runner-up, and the Defending Jubilee Cup Champion. Dick was telling Alex I really played pretty well (two seasons earlier I’d beaten both U.S. #4 Danny Pecora when he was defending his CNE Championship and U.S. #3 Dell Sweeris at a tournament in Hempstead, Long Island). Alex, understandably, quite dismissed me and any chance I might have against Sido. But once out there at the table, after I’d hit in that first fast, flat forehand, I could see right away in Sido’s face that he wasn’t prepared to play me and was fearful. I beat him two straight, after which the poor guy cut short his stay and ignominiously left for home, while I eventually lost in the final to former Czech World Doubles Champion Ladislav Stipek.

Ah, glory days. Everyone, regardless of his/her ability, has a story or two to tell. Of course we’ve got to move along with this interview, but I can’t resist mentioning that once, long ago, at a Detroit U.S. Open Team Championship, I was down 1-0 and 20-11 match point when suddenly a player/official I didn’t like came over. Because he had a pleasant, expectant look on his face as he sat down to watch, he seemed to me like a vulture suddenly alighting there ready to feast on my remains. Absurd, huh? But, seeing him there, I vowed to fight ferociously before losing that last point. Only, miraculously, I didn’t lose! Took 11 straight to win that game, and of course the next. 

TTW: A fantastic comeback like that you’d of course remember forever. Have you, at age 65, any recent playing accomplishments?

Tim: ...Uh, my last U.S. Championship win was in 1993 at the U.S. Open in Indianapolis. The Over ‘60’s over George Hendry who, 75 years young, at our last U.S. Closed in Vegas beat me two straight. 

TTW: Enough then about your play. How about your sons? Both of them were U.S. Men’s Singles Champions. Keeping in mind there are several more questions I want to ask you, tell us a little something about Scott and Eric.

1978 U.S. Open Team Champions, L-R: Eric Boggan, Roger Sverdlik, David Philip, Scott Boggan, Tim Boggan. Photo by Barry Margolius ©1978.

 

Tim: Oh, sure... I remember in l972 in the Tim Boggan Open in Miami (yes, that was the actual name of the tournament), I watched Scott, just turned 11, win a match from down 19-11 in the deciding game by playing non-stop aggressively. I didn’t dare root for him aloud on that occasion, for he’d already started his 10-point string and I feared to break the magic spell. Eric, meanwhile, still 8, had gone out to the table to play a middle-aged man who was dressed impeccably--had on what appeared to be a brand new sweatsuit, color-coordinated playing outfit, and spotless sneakers--and who out of his shiny sports bag had brought forth his expensive racket sheathed in a case. Eyeing all this from a seat just outside the court was the man’s wife. I still wonder what she thought when Eric beat him very badly. At that time Norizaku Fujii, 1952 World Men’s Doubles Champion, was based in Miami, and I asked him which of my boys showed the most promise. He watched each of them play for a few minutes, then to my surprise--since Scott had that beautiful covering forehand and Eric, blocking, jabbing, that eccentric grip--he said Eric....

At the l975 Houston U.S. Open, in the Parent-Child event, a Championship I really wanted to win, Scott and I were down match point in an early round to a team we figured to beat. I told Scott to just block the ball back, and I’d hit in the boy’s return for a winner. Scott dutifully blocked back the father’s serve, but I guess, being directed and not free, he tightened a bit, and the ball hung on the net then dropped back onto our side. As, losers, we turned to each other to shake hands, Scott, not in anger but in anguish, said, “Whad’ja tell me to do that for?” Why do fathers sometimes say what they say? Imagine, more than 20 years later, I still have pangs of regret over that directive....

In 1981, at Las Vegas, when Scott and Eric played in the final for the National Championship and they were at deuce in the 4th and then on into the 5th, I couldn’t make up my mind who I wanted to see win. On the one hand, since Eric had already won the Championship in ‘78, I thought it right that Scott, who’d been 2-0 down to Lim Ming Chui in the 8th’s before beating Danny Seemiller and D-J Lee, should win. On the other hand, I greatly admired Eric’s recovery from match-point down in the 4th and his stubborn, if often exasperating integrity--his through the years refusal to be intimidated by his older brother, his selfish fidelity to self. Anyway, when Scott won, 18 in the 5th, I burst into tears and didn’t settle down for quite a while. Perhaps neither of them cared themselves as much as I did about each winning the U.S. Championship?

Scott and Eric, en route to becoming professional players, both had some very painful times in the 4-5 years they lived abroad, especially in the beginning. But maybe it was all worth it. The final verdict isn’t in yet, perhaps never will be. I’m sure now, though, they must have very mixed feelings about how I directly or indirectly influenced them to spend their youth....But, well, for those 20 years, as my meticulously kept scrapbooks attest (will they ever look through them, read what’s there to read?) we did do something together. 

TTW: Any advice for other parents with kids who play table tennis?

Tim: Oh, I’ve advice, but what it’s worth is another matter. But, o.k., consider this. If you want your children to do their best, you too must do your best. (And my wife Sally and I did.) If you want your sons (or daughters) to be Champions, as I always did, don’t kill their interest in the Sport. They have to have fun--away from the table--especially with other kids. And yet they’ve got to be out there at the table to the exclusion of much else. Ideally they should be on a first-name basis with, and should practice against Champions, young and old, who’ll indulge them and encourage them to have the idea that they too can be Champions. They need to have a very high opinion of themselves. Regardless of how seriously they practice, they must play in lots of tournaments, against every conceivable style, and ideally must play every point to the best of their ability. Intensity is very, very important.

Here, in the Jan., l938 English TTA magazine Table Tennis is ITTF founder Ivor Montagu trying to define “Sport”:

“Not merely a game, nor yet solely a pure physical exercise. Rather a momentary, if make believe, exaltation of effort.”

In other words, Reality will sooner or later bring you back to necessary everyday pursuits, will it? But, for the moment, the spirit calls for an acceleration, an exhilaration that strains to satisfy the Imagination. 

Tim's 1976 book. 

TTW: That last line sounds more than a little “bookish,” Tim. But of course you did write a book, didn’t you?

Tim: Yes, but there are no lines quite like that in it. Winning Table Tennis was part of a Sports Series (compare Pete Rose’s Winning Baseball), and after I accepted the advance and spent it, I damn well had to write the book. But I couldn’t get started. I couldn’t write without being honest and write out of my own experience, but that meant I had to focus on my own somewhat eccentric game, as well as use whatever appealed to me from what others had written. Further, since my chief concern was not to be boring, I wanted to include as much anecdotal material as possible. It took me three months to find the right voice, without which I couldn’t proceed. Finally I got started with what became “Chapter Five--Serve and Receive.” And thereafter I finished the whole book inside of a month. Fortunately I had a very sympathetic editor who liked the way I wrote and scarcely touched my original manuscript. 

TTW: With the decades-long perspective you have, can you comment briefly on any combined past/present/future aspect of the Sport? If your thought is somewhat controversial, so much the better.

Tim: Well, it’s quite clear that the quality of play among, say, the top 200 male players in the U.S. in the last 25 years has continually improved, and that the still too few showcase tournaments for them have also gotten better. That’s of course encouraging. But I must say too often some very good workers fall out of favor with one administration or another, or become themselves disgusted with some administration or other, and the Sport suffers. I well understand that those making policy want people around them whom they feel they can team with. But surely some flexibility, some lines of communication and cooperation can be extended to those who’ve served well in the past so that they might in some capacity continue to serve.

More broadly speaking, I think what’s most needed in Table Tennis right now, particularly in the U.S., is audience involvement. “Table Tennis is a participation sport, not a spectator sport”--how often have I heard that. But--and this is a thought particularly for those interested in inter-city/ inter-state professional league competition--why not encourage the spectators to be the participants too--as in so many other successful sports?

Again and again in tournaments today, certainly more so than in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, say, it’s obvious that a great many spectators don’t care who wins any given match and so they applaud only when spectacular shots or, after a while, the most spectacular shots entertain them. Of course today’s super-fast, have-to-attack game is error prone, and one hardly wants to applaud a player who’s quickly given a point he’s not worked for. But, as Miles has said for maybe 50 years, the court is generally much too big, and the audience is too far away from the action. Spectators need to be boxing-ring or little theater-like up close to better share the drama.

To me it’s just absurd that sideline coaches and fellow teammates can’t yell out instructions to the players or lustily root for them, especially in a televised one table Arena setting. You’re afraid of chaos? The threat can be monitored because the inherent structure of play provides a saving contrapuntal effect. Nothing’s worse than a passive audience. To make an analogy: over the years, as Editor of Topics, I received a great many photos of players--but photographer after photographer never realized that I couldn’t use his/her picture because the uncroppable background showed very few or even obviously disinterested spectators. Such a photo, totally undramatic--like too many embarrassing exhibitions by well-meaning novices--can only do more harm than good. 

Christmas 1986, minus beard.

TTW: You were Editor of Topics (now called Today) not once but twice. Want to say anything about that?

Tim: Being the Editor and principal writer of the paper for maybe 100 issues (particularly in those days of typewriter Wite-Out) was herculean work but great fun--serious pleasure. I printed anything and everything from anyone I thought responsible. And I actively solicited material from all over the country. It was, if not a family paper, an in-group table tennis community paper, where the community was the multi-cultural world, with all its possibilities. I wanted subjective points of view, the more varied the better. I wanted a particular eye/I, an individual voice. I thought if everyone was free to say what he wanted about any topic, the many subjective responses would provide a basis for objectivity, and the truth, though it might take time, would out. I preferred writing that showed involvement, that combined reason and emotion--as the best writing does. But I see now that in my zeal for the written word I stressed too much copy and not enough photos. 

TTW: The USATT fired you as Editor not once but twice--isn’t that right?

Tim: In 1983, after 13 years of very conscientious but sometimes very controversial service, I was fired as Editor in a very secretive, underhanded way...which, though I was very angry over all the cowardly deception, would not do anyone any good (least of all mellow me) were I to recount the details again here. I fought back as best I could by starting a new and well received magazine (for which I’d built up in one season well over 900 paid subscribers, the great majority of whom were regular tournament-goers who knew me and trusted me), and then by running successfully for the USATT Presidency.

Without pointing a finger at any particular administration in the 30 years that I’ve been writing table tennis articles, I think it’s almost a given that a free press is not much liked by the resident officers in power. And with some good reason, for in such a democratic press not all is gospel, though some people are apt to think so. Also, what one says at any one moment shouldn’t really be held as his/her definitive word forever or perhaps even for a short time. There’s always dirty linen and very likely much more of it when it’s never aired in public. Readers of all persuasions realize people not only have differences of opinion but make errors. Mistakes are not so hard to forgive, particularly when acknowledged. But who wants their elected officials to practice secrecy, for secrecy breeds corruption.

Later, in 1990-91, another administration hired me back, this time as Co-Editor (and principal writer) with Scott Baake. With both of us the paper was a labor of love, and we worked well together. But we were not cost-cutting conscious and we needed to be better budgeted and have our budget enforced by some caring liaison E.C. member. That didn’t happen. But though I was very disappointed on being fired, especially after we turned out a really fine issue on the ‘91 Chiba City, Japan World’s, I wasn’t angry. 

TTW: You speak of being USATT President. You were elected to that office three times?

Tim: Yes. My first term contribution (and here I was helped by a number of my co-workers and supporters) was (1) to provide the early and mid-l970’s impetus for foreign competition to come to this country and (2) to work at increasing the prize money in tournaments for the top players--those players who generally speaking have worked the hardest and whom the others, and certainly the “outsiders,” if we’re to have a Sport, must be entertained by. Later, I strongly encouraged my own sons and others to live abroad so as to seriously become part of the table tennis world that we’d so long been isolated from.

During my very abbreviated second term as President, I continued to work as a full-time professor, to write for and edit the paper (a 40-hour a week job itself in those days), and to champion my sons to tournaments on weekends...until my wife, Sally, who for months and months had been acting as an unpaid USATT Secretary, was very near a breakdown (I’d come home on a weekend or even a weekday to find she’d left me maybe a dozen notes, some of them detailing at length what the caller had wanted). Spontaneously I resigned both the Presidency and the Editorship, and after Sally and I both cried for two weeks, we reached a compromise where I continued on as Editor of the paper...and then, because I deeply cared about the players, I did fund-raising for them and Captained them to the ‘75 Calcutta World’s.

Ten years later, during my third Presidency, I kept trying as hard as I could to ignite someone, anyone, on or off my E.C., to help me make something happen in the Sport. I remember Jimmy McClure saying as we were about to go to a Meeting I’d called, “We don’t know what we’re doing.” He was right, but I for one didn’t know what else to do but struggle. I didn’t want to be merely a hold-the-line, caretaker President. But we had no money unless we touched some of the $1,300,000 principal that I’d from the beginning agreed should be in a Foundation set up by Jimmy to safeguard it. So without money there was a kind of what’s the use attitude and little enthusiasm.

When I was defeated for reelection by someone I was sure wouldn’t struggle as I did to try to make something happen I was disgusted with table tennis and some of the people in it and left the scene--again I thought forever. But two and a half years later I was back, and since then I’ve found maybe half-a dozen different ways of continuing to make a contribution, all the while, for better or worse, reinforcing my seemingly inseparable identity with the Sport. 

Hard at work during tournament, February, 1996. Photo by Stephen Yeh, ©1996.

TTW: So that brings us up to the mid-’90’s. I know that now you’re on the ITTF Executive Board as Vice-President for North America. What exactly is expected of you?

Tim: In a manner of speaking, I’m paid to attend meetings, to understand what the discussions are about, to talk if I have something to say, to take (if only for my own satisfaction) careful notes, and to write (when such are needed) occasional Reports. (Right now I’m writing my annual Report to the ITTF on what’s been going on this past year in North America.) What am I paid? Well, a vanity payment of course, and for a few days I dine well and see a little something more of the world. So far the meetings have always been in places that door-to-door involve long, wearying hours of solitary travel--to Japan, China, Taiwan, Cyprus, and, this May, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s a very good idea for the ITTF to have varied geographical representation in its inner circles though, for then disparate voices can be heard. The Federation really is democratic, and I can be heard. Take as an example that which I’m most pleased about. The Ogimura administration, Ogimura himself really, was very much against any umpire at any world title competition being more than 60 years old. But, speaking on behalf of the USATT, I argued against this ITTF Handbook Directive and I was listened to, and with indispensable help from my colleagues I was able to get the Directive rescinded. So I’m sure any number of our USATT Match Officials appreciated me representing them. 

TTW: So this work forces you to keep aware of what’s currently happening at the same time that you’re preoccupied with the past as USATT Historian. How are you coming along with your History of U.S. Table Tennis?

Tim: I’m one-month close to finishing the first draft of the first volume (l928-39). But though I’ve still more interviews to do, I’ve by now a very solid base of 400 or more pages as to what in general actually happened during those years--with every single fact or opinion in the book documented. I try to be as careful as I can because I know how easy it is to make errors. I see them in my own writings and in the writings of others, and untruths always bother me. Since perhaps my biggest problem is that I’m compulsively thorough--everyone and everything seems of some importance to me--I keep a line attributed to Voltaire in front of me, a perpetual bookmark as it were: “One should always aim at being interesting rather than exact.” I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t want to be so scholarly as to be unreadable. Another big problem I have is to find the right tone. Because I’ve written different chapters at different times, I don’t always like the voice I hear. Even some of my most recent lines are dreadfully stiff. Of course I’ve no assurance that anyone will ever read this multi-volume work, I’ve no prospects for a publisher. Perhaps, though, since Table Tennis is an Olympic sport, libraries might want it. It’s not important that I write for any hypothetical reader; there’s no profit for me in that. The “right” reader, whoever that might be, will share enough of my individual voice to make his/her reading worthwhile. Anyway, as soon as I get this first volume in shape I’m going on with the second one (l940-52). I expect it to be much easier to write than the first.

There are a couple of other aspects to my role as Historian. I find myself writing more and more obituaries--which are making me more and more aware of my own mortality. Also, as I’m the USTTA Hall of Fame Board Member who is best equipped to do research on various candidates for the Hall, I prepare articles, photo posterboards, and slide-show presentations on the inductees. Increasingly, too, I’m getting more and more calls from both USATT members and outsiders for information on past players. But all of this is o.k. with me, I like the work. 

TTW: Tim, we both know this interview has got to come to an end, so one last question. In this issue you have a “Tournament of the Month” write-up. Would you comment just a little on that?

Tim: I thought readers might be interested in my write-up of this “Holiday” Open that occurred 25 years ago. Like anyone else with my varied background I’ve run tournaments--from a Dayton City Championship back in the ‘50’s to an every-table-barriered -off classy Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. Concord Resort Hotel Championship in the ‘80’s. But this New York City one was so uniquely personal that I’d certainly want to include it in any compilation I’d ever put together called “The Best of Boggan.”

What mixed feelings I’ve often had in my 40-years-involvement with the USATT. How many times have I thought, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses [ways] of the [table tennis] world.” But such moods pass. And now again I feel that what I do--even this Interview, for which I thank you, Larry--is valuable. 

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