Locals make table tennis a couples activity with strong showings at U.S. Open

Two local couples are more than husband and wife - they're mixed doubles partners at the highest levels /

David and Donna Sakai are something of a celebrity couple in the world of American table tennis, Hall of Famers as comfortable putting on halftime exhibitions in front of NBA Summer League fans in Las Vegas as they are training while family members look on in the basement of their Bowie home.

“We call it the Green Room,” David said Tuesday, referring to the 40-foot-long space that features a Plexiglas window from behind which their five daughters, as well as their son-in-laws and grandkids, can watch without getting in the way of their two- to four-hour practice sessions.

The Sakais, who celebrated their 68th birthdays five days apart this year, have more than 150 championships between them, including together in mixed doubles. While they each were drawn quickly to the game as children, their attraction to each other was far from immediate.

Recalling the first conversation they had as 17-year-olds competing in the 1964 U.S. Open in Inglewood, Calif., David said he approached Donna, already considered one of the rising stars of the women's game, about playing together in mixed doubles.

“She said, ‘I don't think so,' and I asked her, ‘Why not?' and she said, ‘I don't think you're good enough,'” recalled David, whose first career appearance in a junior men's final that week paled in comparison to his future wife making the women's final while helping win three other two-player events.

“I said, ‘One day, honey, you are going to beg to play with me.'”

It didn't quite work that way.

“We didn't like each other for a long while,” he said. “I actually dated all of her girlfriends [who played competitive table tennis].”

Their paths separated, and by the time they found each other again, each had been married and divorced. It was 1980 and David had moved with his three daughters to Maryland from Asia, where he was captain of a U.S. table tennis team competing in Taiwan and South Korea.

At a local tournament, he renewed his acquaintance with Donna, who had two daughters. She had recently begun playing again after stopping during her marriage, mostly because her first husband did not play at all and she was busy raising their girls while working for AT&T.

“As that marriage deteriorated, I kind of got back into the sport,” Donna said.

David understood, and after they got married he didn't push his new wife to get back in the competitive grind.

“It's a sport that requires lots of time. Many times, it would be in most cases, the women become like golf widows, so to speak,” said David, who owned a graphic design and printing company in Washington.

While they would eventually begin to dominate mixed doubles once they turned 60, winning “four or five times in the last six years” according to David, Donna said that playing with or being coached by her husband is not always great for their relationship.

“He's had to buy me a few pieces of jewelry over the years if he's been mean to me,” joked Donna, who retired from Verizon in 1999 to devote more time to her family and her sport. “When you're going after some type of national title and you've trained hard, you want to win.”

Charlene Liu of Clarksburg can testify to that. Liu, 63, teamed this month with her husband, Changping Duan, to reach the semifinals of the over-60 mixed doubles at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas for the second time. That came the same week that Liu won both the over-50 and over-60 individual women's titles, beating Donna Sakai in the latter.

Liu, who immigrated with her husband to the United States from China in the mid-1980s, when they were both doctoral candidates, can relate to the Sakais' experience playing as a couple. But Liu said her worst experience in mixed doubles came when she once played an event in her native country with her coach.

“I was very nervous because I didn't [want to] mess up my coach's game,” Liu said. “Playing with my husband, I feel more relaxed because he's my husband and I can miss how many I want.”

Liu said they settled down in the Washington area and eventually started coaching their 11-year-old son, James. Liu said she stopped playing competitively for more than 15 years as she pursued a doctorate in sports psychology. But her husband, who was working toward a doctorate in exercise physiology, “never stopped playing.”

The couple saw the interest of the local Chinese community in playing table tennis, and they invested in the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg.

Liu said her game peaked while her son was in high school, but once he moved out, her skills began to decline. Only as she got older and started competing again in the over-50 and then over-60 age groups did Liu start to find success again.

Not that she can't give younger players a good game.

“At the age of 63, I can still compete with the young men in their 20s, but I have to work hard,” she said.

Donna Sakai, whose older sister, Barbara Kaminsky, is also a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, said despite dwindling numbers among women playing the sport compared with men, “the disparity level has decreased. The top women are very competitive with the top men.”

The Sakais, who reached the semifinals of the over-60 mixed doubles in Las Vegas, are now watching two of their grandsons, ages 11 and 18, come over from Barcelona, Spain, to compete in big U.S. tournaments.

“Very fulfilling, very rewarding to have the grandchildren to have as much passion in something as we did,” said Donna, who also reached the over-60 women's singles, over-60 women's doubles and over-65 women's doubles finals. “Hopefully it will be a big part of their lives and something we can share.”

Not that the Sakais are ready to wrap up careers that began more than a half-century ago.

“Speed and quickness are key, but timing is so important,” said David, who helped win the over-65 men's doubles and was a finalist in the over-65 men's singles and over-60 men's doubles. “As you have a lot of experience, I can play with a lot of the young guys. At the Olympic and national level, they're too strong. But just under that, I've been very competitive. If you're very experienced and play all the time, you can. We say it's a game for the ages.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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