Jan. 15. Aurora, Il, just outside of Chicago. The Aurora Cup, a four-star international table tennis tournament. As a nationally ranked player, I have grown accustomed to traveling to play: Chicago, Beijing, D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, Houston. But due to not playing for three months because of a fractured leg suffered in cross country and the tournament being my first in six months, I was especially jittery going into my games.
Preparation. Recovery from the injury decreased my practice time to four weeks before the tournament. For those weeks, I trained two hours a day at my club with professional coaches. My training sessions consisted of footwork, requiring me to move from corner to corner of the table, and situational drills, which imitate certain shots in a game. But compared to playing five hours a day for several months, which is what I usually do before tournaments, my preparation was inconsequential. The injury had other effects: at the beginning of my recovery, my legs could not handle the pace of my footwork, while my arms felt like brittle Ramen noodles.
Moreover, my cardio-respiratory ability dropped to an all-time low, and I would breathe heavily after intense rallies that lasted more than five or six shots. Despite my initial struggles, my agility improved over the weeks and I began to regain my “touch,” which led to hitting more shots. By tournament time, I felt comfortable with hitting longer rallies, albeit nervous because I was not in the best physical shape.
Travel and Weather. Even before the tournament started, my trip was rocky. The Uber my mom and I called took an extra ten minutes to navigate the winding roads of the Westminster campus. When we finally stepped into the airport, we only had half an hour before the plane departed. But my nerves settled when I heard Creed Beavers shout out a familiar “Alby!” as we frantically rolled up to the airport gateway, me carrying my portly sport bag.
Coincidentally, my friends in the 3D Printing & Architecture Janterm were going on a field trip to Chicago and on the same flight. I was soothed with familiar people around me and especially when they gave me their best wishes for the tournament.
When I finally stepped out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, a surge of wind immediately blew past my face, threatening to shove me off course. Each following surge of wind felt like an ice dagger, penetrating my double-layered jacket until I could not move. My ears froze like ice, and I felt like I was walking on a cloud because I could not feel my feet. Although I was initially excited to see Chicago’s architecture, at the moment the temperature, which reached single digits, convinced me that Chicago was absolutely the worst place to be.
Seeing familiar faces. But when I plodded into the table tennis venue, which boasted more than forty tables and held hundreds of players, I realized that this was just another tournament, like the hundreds of other tournaments I had played in the past. When I saw one of my coaches in the past, who left to coach in Texas two years ago and used to play on the Chinese national team, I gave him a warm hug. I also saw some of my friends who I had played against in past tournaments. We reminisced about the games we played, when we were in middle school. Over the years, we had grown from innocent beginners to more mature, skilled players and people. After we chatted, we proceeded to hit before our first event at six pm: U-18 boys.
A bad start. I was the second seed, so I had high hopes for placing in the top three. In my preliminary group, I wiped out the bottom two players, but the third person was a defensive chopper, who converted all topspin loops into heavy underspin. I had not played with a chopper for over a year, and my loops were devoured by his heavy underspin. I lost in the fifth game on deuce, and I was furious because I was only two points away from winning.
The next day in my morning event, Open Singles, I suffered a similar fate. Against my first opponent, I lost 2-3, even though in the fifth game, I led 4-0. My fifth game letdowns were continuing into my second day, and I had to end my nervous breakdowns.
Making quarterfinals. In the second event on Saturday, U-2300, I began to worry less about results and more about my level of play. After advancing through prelims, I faced a player who complained and cursed after every shot he missed or lucky shot I made. His badgering made me nervous, and my hands began to tremble. I missed a few easy high shots, but blocked out all the distractions and won 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals.
In the quarterfinals, I won the first game, but my opponent, who had trouble returning my serve, called for an umpire to assess its legality. The referee penalized me several points for not tossing the ball high enough. The momentum shifted. He won 3-1. At the end, I was disappointed because I allowed the presence of the referee to distract me.
In my final event, U-2400, after I advanced out of prelims, I faced a player who had beat several players higher rated than me. Sore and tired from my previous matches, I was behind 0-2. Knowing that this could be my last match, I put away all my fear of losing and attacked every ball I could get my paddle onto. I started giving my opponent drop shots to prevent him from attacking, and I placed my shots carefully, sending him scurrying all around the table. I tied the match, and in the fifth game, I carried my momentum into a 6-2 lead. After a couple more counter-loops, I snatched the win.
In the quarterfinals of the event, I took the first game quickly. In the second game, I led 10-7, but after I missed several challenging shots, my opponent won 14-12. Following that game, he defeated me in two more close games 11-8.
When the last shot finally dropped, I felt both relieved and disappointed. While I knew that I gave my best, I remembered the little mistakes that cost me matches.
Even though the force was not with me, I was proud that I pushed through to win a few clutch matches.
For now, I will safely tuck this chapter of my story in the journal sitting on my desk– and start preparing to write a new one.