The number one ranked US player from 1988 to 1998, Cheng Yinhua began his professional career at age twelve in Chengdu, China. Over the course of his career, he’s matched many of the greatest contemporary players in the sport and coached on two continents.
Today, we’d like to profile Chen’s career and style of play. While not the flashiest or best-known player in the game, he’s a living example of the international character of today’s table tennis community.
The Accidental Shakehand
Cheng Yinghua’s first exposure to the game was through a physical education teacher in Chengdu province. The two played regularly, enjoying each other’s company and the game. It was this teacher who gave Cheng his first paddle – a penholder racket, in the predominant Eastern style – which young Cheng shortly lost. The only available replacement was a shakehand-grip paddle, leading to Cheng’s lifelong preference for shakehand play. This accident of early training would determine much of the shape of Cheng’s later career.
He moved to a table tennis training school at the age of twelve, drawing a government salary and training with almost every waking moment (two hours daily were devoted to outside academic pursuits). Competition on the Chinese Men’s National Team followed, with a respectable showings at the Chinese Elite Championships and a 1983 victory in the Finland Open.
His shakehand style proved unpopular among the professional Chinese table tennis establishment, which unfairly capped his advancement in that country despite a winning record against formidable players such as Waldner, Seemiller, and Wen Chia Wu.
In 1988, Cheng took a position with the USTTA as a practice partner for the national team. This led to a US-centric career and eventual citizenship; Cheng won the US Men’s Singles Championship four times, the US Men’s Doubles Championship three times, and the US Mixed Doubles Championship five times. Twice, in 1983 and 1995, Cheng won the US Open Men’s Singles Tournament. Counter to popular wisdom regarding the peek age of table tennis athletes, Cheng went on to win the US Nationals twice over the age of forty- once at age 46 in 2004 and again in 2006. This final championship win was against one of his own students, Han Xiao.
Today, Cheng coaches in the US Nationals and plays for the US Men’s National Team. With generations of students in both East and West, Cheng may yet prove to be the most enduring and influential figure in the sport.
Cheng’s Style of Play
Cheng plays in a modified two-wing looper style, one of the more popular styles in the upper echelons of competitive play. Putting heavy topspin on the ball allows a player to give serious speed to the ball, while dropping it closer to the net than the power of the stroke – and an opponent’s intuition – would suggest.
Two-wing lopper players range from three to eight feet from the table; Cheng has shown himself to be comfortable anywhere in this range, adjusting his stroke length to suit the changing conditions of play.
Cheng’s personal style is quite aggressive, executing powerful topspin attacks with equal speed and power from both fore- and backhand. His versatility and aggressive play routinely befuddle opponents, as Cheng is able to work at a range of distances and from either side of the paddle, with few of the typical strategic weaknesses of shakehand-style players. Possibly, this is due to his first decades in China, playing shakehand against mostly penhold players. Without developing Eastern flexibility to match the power of his more typically Western style, Cheng could have been easily out-played by his early rivals.
Ironically, it was likely Cheng’s Chinese experience as a professional practice partner which developed his famed versatility and aggression. His role was frequently to train Chinese players by mimicking the specific style of Western contenders they would face. Cheng was able to become Waldner, Klampar, and other famed Western players.
As Cheng’s most important contribution to the game is through his coaching, we thought it would be best to close our profile by sharing a few videos of his American coaching career. (Videos of his time in China are seemingly impossible to find- if you have any to share, please contact us!)
Here, Cheng coaches young table tennis hopeful Matt Winkler in forehand strokes and topspin returns: