Table Tennis: The 67-year-old maestro gives youth a chance

Mike Rowbottom visits table tennis's equivalent of Wimbledon
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Sadly, the 62nd English Open table tennis championships lacked an outstanding performer yesterday.

Tournament organisers already knew that the defending champion, Kong Linghui of China, would be absent, plotting tactics for the retention of his world title in March. But where, officials wondered, was Gordon Chapman?

The 67-year-old from Worcester Park, Surrey, had surprised himself and others on Tuesday by winning all three of his preliminary singles matches against players more than 40 years his junior. But his name was scratched from the list of qualifying matches taking place at the cavernous Kettering Arena this week before tomorrow's first round proper.

Chapman had had to go home. "I wasn't prepared for staying over in Kettering, and I couldn't drive back up in time for my match at nine in the morning," he said yesterday, adding rather defensively: "I had some other things to do."

One of his next fixtures is a regional veterans tournament in Kettering. He has already booked his accommodation. "You could say I have seen the error of my ways," he said with a chuckle.

Chapman may have been missing, but the Arena - accommodating 12 matches at a time - teemed with activity as a strong international field and the best of British veterans and juniors strove for advancement in a tournament which is to table tennis what Wimbledon is to tennis.

The drawing power of the English Open, first held at the London Club, Baker Street, in 1922, had been strengthened by its inclusion in the International Table Tennis Federation's Pro Tour, which was established last season. As well as $50,000 (pounds 30,000) worth of prize-money, qualification points are at stake for the lucrative ITTF finals.

While that may not be sufficient to attract the likes of the Chinese so close to the biennial world championships - which will be held in Manchester, their first British venue since 1977 - it has assured the event of a strong field headed by last year's world No 1, Jean-Michel Saive, of Belgium.

Main domestic interest centres on Britain's No 1, Matthew Syed, the shaven- headed 26-year-old whose unusual and exciting defensive tactics cause the sport's aficionados to come over all misty-eyed.

Syed, however, was an uneasy spectator yesterday as he pondered whether to have a local anaesthetic to ease the same hip injury which caused him to miss the last two British Opens.

"It's very important to me to play after what has happened in the last two years," he said. "There would be a lot of disappointment for home supporters if I pulled out again."

Disappointment, too, for BBC's Grandstand, which plans to televise the event live on Saturday and would dearly love the top Briton to feature in his projected second-round match with Sweden's Peter Karlsson.

For many of those so strenuously involved yesterday the second round proper is likely to be a match too far. For 19-year-old Gemma Schwarz, England's No 8, the event offers an invaluable opportunity to widen her international experience. "It's important for us younger ones to learn how to play against foreign competitors," she said after losing her initial qualifying match to Cecile Ozer of Belgium.

But at this stage the Open offers different things to different competitors. Nigel Eckersley, one of Britain's leading veterans, is simply revelling in the atmosphere. "Realistically I won't qualify," said the 44-year-old from Lymm in Cheshire. "But if I can get away with winning a couple of matches I will have done well. One of the beauties of table tennis is that you very rarely get injured. If you keep yourself in reasonable shape, there is no reason why you can't go on to your seventies." As Mr Chapman will attest...