An Interview with Ashu Jain
By Tim Boggan
Titles/Rankings: U.S. #2 Under 22 … Former Junior Olympics Under 22 and Under 18 Singles Gold Medalist … Former ranked U.S. #1 for Under 18 and Under 16 … 1998 Eastern Open Collegiate and U2500 Champion …Two-time U.S. Junior Team Member … Millcreek Open Champion (Oct. 2, 1999, Erie, NY) … current rating: 2498.
TIM: Ashu? Jain? What kind of names are those?
ASHU: Actually, my legal first name is Ashoo, but I write it the way it’s always been written, Ashu. I was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and, as you might assume from my last name, my family members are Jains. That is, we belong to the Jain religion, and though I myself am not religious, I am a practicing vegetarian, as my parents and grandparents were before me.
TIM: And you came to the U.S. for the table tennis opportunities here?
ASHU: Be serious. My family immigrated here – on Independence Day, 1990 – when I was 11. We came for a better lifestyle – in terms of convenience and cleanliness, and especially for a brighter future. We stayed with my aunt who was living in Edison, N.J., and eventually, through an acquaintance, we found the Westfield Club. I’d started to play table tennis with my father in India, but, really, it was my older brother Deepak – he’s about to graduate from Cornell – who was much more excited about the Sport than I was. In fact, my early coaches at Westfield were always much more intent on coaching Deepak than me, because they thought me lazy. Now it’s Deepak who’s not so interested in playing, whereas I am.
TIM: I myself didn’t want to bring it up, but I did hear that you sometimes had a motivational problem.
ASHU: Yes, in the past, in some tournament matches I??e tried very hard and others I’ve barely played. I have to fight against such fluctuations.
TIM: But now we’re to take you more seriously? Why? Because you’ve had some recent successes, and want to get better and better?
ASHU: Well, I won the Under 22 Junior Olympics back in ‘98, and my rating has been on the rise since – even though I’m an Engineering/Physics student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and President of and Resident Coach of Novices at our Wolverine T.T. Club. Also, at the ‘99 U.S. World and Pan-Am Team Trials – this was before my knee surgery in late May for a severely torn cartilage – I went 18-in-the-5th with David Zhuang. Then just recently, after my training trip abroad, I had encouraging wins at the Macy Block Open in Pittsburgh.
TIM: Ah, yes. Your training trip. That would be the one you took to Romania for three weeks in August. Stayed at a resort hotel, didn’t you, with young maidens in skimpy clothes cavorting about?
ASHU: All perfectly respectable. I went to Romania, to a place called Constanza to train, to improve my table tennis. I was lucky to stay at the 4-star Mamaia Beach hotel – the Hotel Jupiter – at $10 a night. I had a roommate – Lee Bahlman, from Grand Rapids, about a 2100 player. He was very helpful – always woke me up (I’m not a morning person). Before I left the U.S., some friends of mine teased me. They said, "The country’s so poor that the maids at whatever broken-down hotel you’ll stay at will steal everything you’ve got." But the maids even did our laundry for us – and the maidens on the Beach and everywhere else were nice too. Romanian girls are beautiful!
TIM: Absolutely ridiculous. You’re gonna be a good player – and train like this? And Bucharest – what was the night life there like?
ASHU: C’mon, I was in Bucharest just one night. It’s congested, lots of people on the streets, like in New York, but it’s a cleaner, less polluted city than New York. I did NOT go to Romania to be a party animal.
TIM: Alright, I believe you. But why Romania? How did you decide to go there?
ASHU: Coach Jon Bosika, who runs an Athletic Center – a sports club-like place – in Davison, Michigan, arranged it. At first I was reluctant to go, thought, for instance, there might be a language problem. But I was surprised to find that just about everyone spoke English, and that the U.S. influence was very strong – in movies, clothes, music. As I was waiting at the airport for Jon and his daughter Mimi to arrive, I met an attractive girl, and we got to talking and she offered to show me around Constanza. But later when I phoned her, she wasn’t at home, and then I got involved, and I never saw her again.
TIM: Got involved, eh? I think it’s time you told me and our readers just what your daily table tennis training was like.
ASHU: O.K. I’d wake up. Then I’d go to the beach, where I’d run a mile or so, then do sprints. There were three coaches at the Training Center – Head Coach Filimon (his son, Andrei, a Romanian National somewhere among the World’s top 125, had a good 5-game win over Italy’s Yang Min at the Eindhoven World’s); Jon; and a fellow named "Pete" who gave me excellent multi-ball practice, improved my footwork and balance, and in general encouraged me. It was Jon, though, who helped me the most.
TIM: How so?
ASHU: Well, before, I was mostly into countering – I felt I could counter with anyone – and so would let my opponent attack first and feed off his pace. But Jon forced me into a more aggressive game. He set up drills where I’d serve more short balls to take the offense, open first, and quickly counter-loop off the bounce. I worked at trying to learn and practice shots I wasn’t good at – like flipping serve returns.
TIM: This training went on for how long each day?
ASHU: We had two sessions – morning and evening. In between, I had time for napping and tanning. And I just happened to meet Coach Filimon’s niece Alina on the beach. She was playing cards with some friends. "Oh," I said casually for an opener, "what game is that?" ... "How do you play it?" ... She laughed when I told her that because of my dark color, someone had confused me for a gypsy. Turns out people sometimes mistook her for a gypsy too, because her skin was almost as dark as mine. I went out with her, and continue now to correspond with her. Too bad Romania doesn’t have AOL!
TIM: I take it you weren’t practicing or playing with her at the Training Center?
ASHU: No, but, besides my roommate Lee, there were other players there with me. Mimi Bosika of course. Scott Endicott, an 1800-1900 player, from Detroit. And a girl named Ute – not an Indian, but she’d been in the U.S. for a year or so, I believe as a nanny, and was now about to go back to Germany, where she plays in a league. Also two guys I spent a lot of table time with – about 2500-2550 – one a lefty with phenomenal serves. And two girls I played with – Lariss (2400) and Iluda (2350). They kept complaining that none of the guys from the U.S. were able to match their touch, their practiced movements, their consistency, stroke for stroke.
TIM: And with all this training and practice play you weren’t used to, how’d you hold up? Did your knee give you any trouble?
ASHU: The muscles tightened, gave me some discomfort – but no real difficulty throughout the training. I did have a problem with the food, though. Vegetarianism seems unheard of in Constanza. I had fruit, cereal, pizza, and some other things that gave me the "runs" for a couple of days. That, and I guess the fact that EVERYONE smoked cigarettes there, gave me a little fever and a severe headache, so I had to miss one practice and one physical workout. Also, in the beginning at the Training Center, only sparkling water was available, and I hated having to gulp the carbonation to quench my thirst. But then we found a place that sold natural water and we bought that in bulk.
TIM: So, alright, three weeks of the good, the bad, and the beautiful – and, congratulations, you had the guts to try something different. Now, do you think all this made any difference in your table tennis game? You spoke earlier, after returning to the U.S., of your – surprising? – wins in that late August tournament in Pittsburgh?
ASHU: Well, surprising in that I don’t think I played well there at all – and yet I beat Barney J. Reed, Peter Zajac, T.J. Beebe, Philip Lim, Paul David, and Sharit Pandit. I don’t mean to sound cocky – all these players are always threats to me, and they didn’t play that well either ?C but I really think I’m better than all of them.
TIM: I believe you. But our readers ... Perhaps you?? care to elaborate?
ASHU: I beat Barney with serves. Actually, in Pittsburgh my serves were key against everyone – even Cheng Yinghua, whom I lost to but sometimes played decently against. My serves are by far the best part of my game, and they must rate with the best in the country. I really owe thanks to my friend Dylan Martis who first made me see the importance of good serves. I don’t think after going to Romania my serves are better than they were before, but I’m placing them better now. Cheng must have mishandled half a dozen of them per game. I liked the non-slip playing floor in Pittsburgh, but the conditions were very fast there, the ball skidded, and, since it seems to me Cheng plays a simple, soft game, I had nothing to lose in going all out against such a favorite.
TIM: As you must know, there’s a fruit drink in Romania, made from plums, called "tuica." I wonder if you brought any of that back to your University of Michigan Wolverine friends. What’s the expression? ... It puts hair on your chest.
ASHU: Go ahead – be flippant with me. Imply I’m a cocky stud. But I get the last word. My grandfather said of me, "Ashu’s like a horse that starts late in the race, but comes back to win it."