Tong Sheng (“Jack”) Huang

By Tim Boggan

            I’ve gone through 25 years of USTTA magazines, and what’s so amazing to me is that, as a Coach, Jack is practically INVISIBLE to most of the Membership. Unlike, say, Richard McAfee, he doesn’t write anything about his work (or get someone to write for him), and neither do his peers or pupils. Were it not for Larry Hodges publicizing his years and years of coaching achievements to the Hall of Fame Selectors, he’d have remained relatively unknown to them. Only in the beginning, when he was a PLAYER, and so automatically featured in tournament write-ups, did he get deserved attention. I thought there’d be much more info on him available to me than there was. Anyway, I’ll summarize here what I and others, especially Larry Hodges, wrote about him.

            What’s generally quickly culled from his background in China is, give or take, this: He was a member of the Chinese National Team from 1976-83 (was right there on the scene when China won both the French and Scandinavian Opens). He was third in National Singles competition in ’77, ’79, and ‘81. He was the Head Table Tennis Coach of Gun Xi Province. He has a wife, Yun Li, and a daughter, Xiao Dan (later Dana) Huang, when, unaccompanied by them, he came to the U.S. in 1989. (First his wife, then his daughter, would later join him.)

            In Nov., 1989, he was on the winning Brother-sponsored team at the U.S. Open Team Championships (USOTC’s) in Detroit. His teammates were: Cheng Yinghua, Xu Huazhang (son of Chinese TTA and later ITTF President Xu Yinsheng), who’d be in the States for some years, the visiting Xiao Zheng, and U.S. Men’s Champion Sean O’Neill. They beat a young team from Great Britain in the final, 5-1.

            On the Mar. 23-25, 1990 weekend, Jack, committed at least until June to being a Colorado-based practice partner for our young Olympic Training Center athletes, easily won the Open Singles at the $2,000 Wisner Open.

            The following week, Jack (his nickname was said to be “pure American whimsy”) was in Baton Rouge for Power Poon’s 15th Louisiana Open where—no April Fools’ joke—he pulled in more than a few bucks. Won, without losing a game, the Open Singles from 1986 U.S. Champion  Chartchai “Hank” Teekaveerakit and a rapidly acclimating Huazhang Xu; won the Over 30’s from defending Champ Danny Seemiller; won two side events; and lost deuce-in-the-third in both the Men’s and Mixed Doubles. It’d be good if he could forehand-attack a tournament every week, huh?  

            At Poon’s 16th Louisiana Open, Jack, the Defending Champion, again won the Open and its $1,000 first prize. Though Jack’s been troubled by tendonitis for years, often wears a wrap-around and has the Sports Medicine people at the Olympic Complex ice his arm almost daily, he still plays so well that he had little trouble with the field, including in the final Jim Butler who’s been training with him in Colorado Springs (and beating him in friendly matches). Jack also won the Over 30’s and the Doubles with Teekaveerakit who in their Singles semi’s couldn’t handle Jack’s serves. In May of 1991, Jack was the highest rated male player in the country (Cheng Yinghua wasn’t listed).

            By fall of 1991, Cheng, Huazhang Xu, and Jack were all living and coaching in the Potomac, MD area and were competing for the $1,000 first prize at the $7,100 Southern Open in Greensboro, NC. Cheng won, but Jack had the dubious distinction of losing—to Xu, deuce in the 5th in the quarter’s—the most exciting match of the tournament.

            The draws for the Opens had gotten much tougher. A former Yugoslav Team member, the two-sided power player Darko Rop, was beginning to make his mark on the circuit, and two Chinese-trained players, one living in Canada named Johnny Huang who’d just returned from beating Ma Wenge and Mikael Appelgren in the World Cup, the other, David Zhuang, who’d settled in New Jersey. Huang has a shakehands hitting game with pips out for blocking and pummeling the ball on both forehand and backhand. Penholder Zhuang has snap forehands and jab blocks that, like Huang, will win him many Championships in the years to come.

            The fifth and final match for the Championship was a rematch of last year’s between Jack and Joe Ng. Last year, Jack won the first game and, up match and Championship point, was serving in the second before losing in three. Larry Hodges said Jack’s weakness is that he doesn’t have a lot of power and if Joe, the best lobber in North America, plays a tactical variety of defense Jack can’t get through him. At deuce, Jack misses an easy put away, jumps in frustration, and ends up losing the match.

            At the 1992 Butterfly Potomac Open, the top four seeds are: 2783 Cheng Yinghua, 2706 David Zhuang, 2647 Huazhang Xu, and 2643 Jack Huang. In the one semi’s, it’s Cheng and Jack. Hodges, reporting, says “Cheng is just too good. The match starts up with some incredible rallies, but Cheng is always one shot too good. The rallies are so good, in fact, that some think it’s an exhibition, but not to this reporter—just great play.” Cheng wins three straight.

            Next to the last weekend in Aug., 1992, at the $7,000 Macy Block-sponsored Sun TV Open in Pittsburgh, Jack defaults his Open semi’s match with Cheng and splits the Over 30’s with him. Cheng is described as Jack’s “business partner [at the National Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg, MD]/practice partner/longtime teammate.”

            That November the National Center, having run its first tournament three weeks before, hosted visiting Olympic Men’s Doubles Gold Medalists Wang Tao and Lu Lin of China, and prominent U.S. players were part of both serious and exhibition play. Given the honor of playing the last one-game exhibition for the crowd were the Center’s co-Coaches Cheng and Jack. Hodges said, “Their arsenal of skill and trick shots had to be seen to be appreciated. Suffice to say, the crowd alternated gasping and laughing.” Cheng and Jack would give professional exhibitions—one, for example, was at a halftime Washington Wizards home game before 15,000 spectators.

            At the Oct., 1992 Southern Open in Greensboro, NC, the Open final featured a particularly engaging exhibition between the two. One example from Hodges’ write-up: “After Cheng loops 10 backhands in a row to Jack’s block, Jack lobs HIGH into the air—practically a smash straight into the air. Cheng smashes over and over, faking a drop shot each time, and Jack keeps smashing balls to the ceiling until finally one goes long.” Cheng wins $800, Jack $500.

            Teammates Cheng and Jack are on different teams at the ’92 USOTC’s. Headline for Hodges’ article: “China Dominates.” How could it be otherwise? In the final, the Chinese team of Chen, Huazhang Xu (now attending college), three-time Chinese National Champion Wang Tao (World #11), and 2439-rated back-up Hung Pham defeat the Potomac team of 1988 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion Chen Jing (Janet Chen), David Zhuang, destined to be six-times U.S. Closed Men’s Champion, and Jack. After Zhuang, match-point down to Japan’s Yukinobu Nakata, pulls out a match that would have put Japan in the final, Jack takes the deciding fifth match from lefthander Hirokazu Kojitani. This win made it five consecutive Team finals Jack had been in. Jack also contributed greatly to Potomac’s 5-3 quarter’s win over the USA team by beating (after losing to him the last two times) Darko Rop and Sean O’Neill. In the final tie, Jack, with his team down 2-0, paired with Olympian Gold Medalist Chen Jing to win the doubles, but it was a pyrrhic victory, for China had to lose to make sure the concluding Wang Tao-David Zhuang match would be played for TV.

            The May, ’93 Potomac Open comes around, and Jack is still holding his own with the U.S. best—he survives his quarter’s match when Xu, up match point, gets a winning pop-up point, but fails to convert; then loses a hard-fought -21, -25, -19 semi’s to Zhuang. We’re hearing a good bit about Jack’s play because Larry Hodges, now the Director at the National Center, is writing up the tournaments he’s in.

            Ditto for Jack holding strong at the June 13th (Sunday before the U.S. Open) New York City’s Mammoth Club warm-up tournament. Jack beats visiting Japanese looper Yoshihiko Taira, then Sean O’Neill, then  (before losing to one of the world’s top 40 players, Ilija Lupulesku, 1990 European and U.S. Open Men’s Doubles Champion and 1988 Seoul Olympics runner-up with Zoran Primorac) faces David Zhuang. He wins this semi’s—and how!

            Yep, I’ll give it a go-ahead paragraph: “David is about to serve for the match. But Jack just won’t quit. 20-16…17…18. The crowd has come alive. David seems to be dying. He’s getting soft, tentative…while Jack has just banged in David’s serve! The spectators are wild. And now a long slow point…won by Jack! The crowd explodes! And—unbelievable—Jack wins still another point! ‘QUIET!’ roars the umpire. Perhaps it’s this yell more than any other that unnerves David. He serves into the net! Has lost 7 straight, the game, and the match! It’s surely within recent memory his most dramatic and difficult to endure loss. Watched, as it happens, by another Zhuang, the Guest of Honor, three-time World Champion Zhuang Zedong.

            Two months later, Jack, having knocked out John Onifade, is playing another semi’s against David—this time at another $7,000 Sun TV Open in Pittsburgh. Different match from their last two thrillers: “Jack simply dominated with his backhand drives, loops and blocks, keeping pips-out penholder David tied up blocking. Though Jack loses the final to Cheng, his four-game win over Zhuang further solidifies his lead as the second highest-rated player in the U.S.

            There’s high praise repeatedly for Jack as a PLAYER—but what about his livelihood as a COACH? The USTTA magazine just isn’t interested in promoting him in that role.

            Will Jack be in his 6th straight final at the 1993 USOTC’s? Yes, but his fellow teammates—Cheng, David, and Hung Pham—can’t win against China’s Janlibo team of Xu, Herson Go, and Chinese superstars Ma Wenge and Chen Zhibin.

            In May. 1994, at the St. Joe Valley Open, Jack and Danny Seemiller played a nail-biter of a quarter’s match, Danny having come up with a strategy he’d used before to defeat Jack. Here’s Larry Hodges to explain: “Over and over, Dan would serve short, drawing Jack over the table. Jack would usually push short, Dan would flip this ball with the antispin side of his racket, usually to Jack’s wide forehand. Jack would loop it, and Dan would block the ball soft and dead with the antispin again—and then switch to his inverted side to attack Jack’s next shot, which was either a weak loop or a push.”

Danny was up match point in the fourth. Moreover, Jack had then very uncharacteristically popped up a ball, gave Danny a head-high hanger, close to the net. But Dan, caught off guard (how often does a 2650 player pop up a ball that weakly?), stumbles for a second as he moves in, and, rather than making the easy smash needed to win the match, is only able to push his return. Then he has two more ads, but can’t get the clincher, loses that fourth game and the fifth as well.”

In the semi’s, Jack played the visiting Swedish professional, ranked #9 in Sweden, Kayode Kadiri, and, not surprisingly, since Jack hadn’t trained for about a decade, he didn’t figure to win, especially when , as Larry said, “Jack failed to successfully return Kayode’s serve over and over, practically spotting him half the game this way.” At least Jack took him into the fourth before being KO’d—which was better than David Zhuang did in the final.

Still another USOTC final for Jack and his National Table Tennis Center teammates, David and  New York’s Abass Ekun, a last-minute substitute for Xu who’d hurt his arm. How did Jack’s team get there? First, in the quarter’s, against the Butterfly Women, Jack helped his team to a win “with tactical consistency and powerful forehands” to defeat Gao Jun (World #3 and U.S. Open Women’s Champion) and Amy Feng (World # 59 and U.S. Closed Women’s Champion).

Now in the semi’s against the Slovakia Strojar Malacky Club team, the tie is 2-2 tied and it’s Jack vs. Patrick Marek in the decider. In the third and final game, Jack is down 16-12…then up 20-16! Only, no, it’s not over…17…18…19. But then Marek can’t return one last loop and—talk about a jumping jack!—Destiny’s strings propel Huang into his onrushing teammates’ arms and they half-pull, half-carry him in triumph all around the court.

Finally, at this tournament, there are at least a few words about Jack as a COACH. Playing for the Young Guns against Japan II—the Japanese women—Potomac, MD’s favorite son, Sunny Li, had a chance to be a 9th-match hero. Up 1-0 and 12-4 in the second against Komaki Kawasaki, he seemed to be right on target. But then what happened? Sunny, who knows how to win—he’s the U.S. U-14 Junior Olympic Champion—suddenly lost his momentum. “Why?” Tim Boggan, covering the matches, asked Jack Huang, his coach. “Kawasaki changed her serve pattern,” he said. “She began serving to Sunny’s backhand, and Sunny didn’t adjust, didn’t get ready. Then, when he was match-point up, he had a backhand to win, but hit it too tentatively. If he’d have struck it strongly, boldly, it would have gone in—and his team would have been a winner. Of course, being so young, Sunny continues to need power, but that’ll come as he progresses. Meanwhile, he’s doing pretty well, don’t you think?” An upbeat mentor, wouldn’t you say?

Also, uniquely, there is a May-June, 1996 article in the USATT magazine—in both English and Chinese!—by Jack on “The Forehand Loop” that’s been translated by Marianne Yeh.

Maybe now we’ll hear something about Jack’s everyday life as a coach. After all, he’s aging—as you can tell from his 1997 U.S. Open Over 40 win over Seemiller.

He didn’t do so badly several months later at his first U.S. Closed either. “The oldest of the seeds at 41 (#4 seed), he showed the quickness of a much younger man. He looped and dropped his way through the fine defense of Derek May, much to the delight of the large and appreciative audience.” He also defeated Danny Seemiller in both the quarter’s of the Open and the finals of the Over 40’s. Also, he helped his partner Cheng accomplish the “hat trick” by taking the Men’s Doubles with him over Seemiller and Zhuang (thus balancing to some degree his Open loss to David). “With Jack’s ability to set up shots and control the table, Cheng was free to dominate from both wings.”

When, 10 years after his arrival in the States, Jack receives his 1998 USATT Coach of the Year Award, he does finally get a little press (better not miss that half-page article in the USA Magazine though, it’ll be years before there are a few write-ups of several of his other students—Jack’s daughter Dan or Dana (the 2001Junior Olympics Under 18 Girls’ Singles Gold Medalist), for example, or Barbara Wei (the 2001 Junior Nationals Under 14 Gold Medalist in Girls Doubles and the Silver Medalist in Singles):

“Jack currently teaches four junior classes each week, with about 15 players in each class. Jack’s students have had extraordinary success. For much of 1998, students of Jack’s (Sunny Li and Jessica Shen, future Olympic hopefuls) were the top-ranked junior boy and girl in the U.S. Sixty percent of the national junior singles titles since 1992 (36 of 60) have been produced by Jack and his fellow coaches at the Center, now named the Maryland Table Tennis Center (MDTTC). Fifteen of his players will be participating in the Junior Olympics in August. Jack currently coaches over 40 hours each week, much of it with many of the best junior players in the U.S.

“As a service to the community, Jack has provided discounts for coaching disadvantaged students. He has been instrumental spreading Chinese coaching methods and introducing many new coaching techniques to the U.S. in over 50 training camps and over 10,000 hours of private lessons since his arrival in the U.S.”

By 2014, thanks to Jack’s hard work and being championed by Larry Hodges, we learn:

“Nobody,” said Larry, “in the U.S. has put as many hours into table tennis over the last 25 years as Jack. I doubt if it is even close. He coaches seven days a week, taking one week off per year. (You read that right; he coaches seven days a week, week after week.) He normally coaches 8-10 hours/day, but during the summer, when kids are out of school, it’s far more. That’s over 60 hours a week.

“MDTTC juniors have won about half the gold medals and half the total medals at the Junior Olympics and Junior Nationals over the past 20 years. In all, these 140+ juniors have received over 1200 medals, including over 450 golds. (This includes multiple medals for doubles or team events.)”

In 2014, Jack was again named Coach of the Year for his Developmental work with Juniors. Jack is the primary coach of the precocious standout junior Crystal Wang. Among her achievements, as Hodges points out: “She made the 2014 USA National Women’s Team—at age 12 years, 14 days, the youngest in history. She won the Under 22 Women’s event at the Nationals at age 11, the youngest ever. She achieved the highest USATT rating ever for a 9, 10,11, and now 12-year-old—among girls or boys.”

That’s proof itself of Jack’s ability and deserved induction into the 2015 U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame.