The Magnificent Magyar

Published : Oct 08, 2005 00:00 IST

Victor Barna's remarkable record of 22 World titles speaks volumes of the great player. Not only that, he brought grace, flair and dignity to the game, which he also popularised.


WITH a fantastic collection of 22 world titles — including five singles crowns — there can be little doubt that Hungarian Gyozo Victor Barna is widely considered the greatest table tennis player of all time.

Barna was TT's first superstar, being an integral part of the early years of the sport in the 1920s.

He also travelled around the world, popularising TT with his amazing, athletic and acrobatic style of play. In that sense he was not only a superstar, but a pioneer, a visionary and a missionary in the cause of his beloved sport.

Born in Budapest on August 24, 1911, Victor showed early proficiency in football. But the gift of a TT set to his childhood friend Lazlo `Laci' Bellak on his 13th birthday shifted his focus. Bellak would go on to be known as the greatest player never to win the world singles crown. Together Lazlo and Barna spent endless hours playing against each other and soon became highly proficient.

Years later he would say, "The very first time I took a bat in my hand, I knew that this was the sport for me."

TT was as much of a craze in Budapest in the 20s as was football and the city was full of clubs where Victor and his friends played day and night. His first tournament was in 1925. He finished third in the junior singles for which he was awarded a small bronze plaque.

Over the years Victor would collect over 2,000 prizes — but the very first one he received always held pride of place in his heart.

Two years later he was crowned national junior champion, beating Mike Szabados 21-15, 23-21 in the final.

That same year the first world championships were staged in London with the Hungarians making a clean sweep of all the titles. It was the start of a golden era for the `Magnificent Magyars'.

Barna would have been an automatic choice for the second world championships in Stockholm in 1928. But the Hungarian Federation introduced a rule that no player under-18 could represent the country.

He got his chance when Budapest staged the third worlds in 1929 after finishing second to Szabados in the national selection trials.

Hungary swept past Austria in the final of the team event to make it a hat-trick of Swaythling Cup titles.

Barna was the star performer and thus started as the favourite for the singles title. But it was England's Fred Perry who turned out to be the surprise winner. By the '30s Perry had switched to tennis and would win Wimbledon three times in a row.

Barna and Mike Szabados had to be content with the doubles title, the first of eight for Barna, six of them partnering Mike. But Barna's moment of glory would not be far off.

Berlin staged the world championship in January 1930 and the teenage sensation from Budapest made it memorable with his first singles crown.

Fittingly his opponent in the final was his childhood friend `Laci' Bellak whom he beat in straight games. Barna and Mike also retained their doubles title and once again Hungary made a clean sweep of all the titles up for grabs.

In his early years, Barna often lost because of his weak backhand. But by now he had developed his backhand flick as his most potent weapon.

It was a shot of elegance, yet deadly in its effect and became his trademark over the next decade. Once the shot had been executed — his opponent stood little chance — its sheer pace and accuracy meant it was almost always destined to win its protagonist the point.

The world of table tennis now looked up to its new young champion. TT was still in its infancy and it was hoped Barna would take it forward and spread its popularity around the world with his dynamic style.

It was a lot to ask from a teenager. But Barna was up to the task. He brought grace, flair and dignity to TT and already by the age of 19 was keenly interested in the future of his beloved sport.

The '30s were the golden age for Hungarian TT with Barna acquiring a seemingly invincible aura. He won the singles crown five times in a row while Hungary was also undefeated in the team event in this period.

His greatest moment came in the February 1935 Worlds at Wembley, England, a country he would represent (and also coach) at the Worlds after settling down there after World War II.

Barna won all four titles — singles, men's doubles (with Szabados for the sixth and final time), mixed doubles and team. But just two months later, tragedy would strike in Nantes, France.

The car he was driving skidded on a wet road and somersaulted three times. The other occupants escaped with scratches. But Barna had broken his right arm.

A series of operations followed. But Barna knew the bitter truth. "With that crash went a part of my game never to return," he would say.

There had been 20 titles before the accident, but just two after. And he would never regain his singles crown. His last title was the men's doubles with Richard Bergmann at Cairo in 1939.

His final appearance came 10 years later in English colours at Stockholm. Barna's last ambition was to be part of an English winning team. But it was not to be.

His adopted country lost in the semi-finals to holders Czechoslovakia while in the singles Barna was beaten in the first round.

Barna twice toured India, the first time in 1938. TT was in its infancy in India and the TTFI could only offer hospitality and gate money — that is if any could be collected.

Barna and Bellak decided to take a chance and they certainly cashed in. They played in Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta and the tour was such a success that in every city the halls were packed to capacity.

As a result they made a financial windfall and in gratitude donated the Barna-Bellak Cup which till this day is the symbol of supremacy in the team event at the National championship.

Barna was hugely popular in India with his skills as well as trick shots and clowning which the crowds loved. There can be little doubt that the 1938 visit helped hugely in popularising the game in India.

The second visit in 1949 was not such a success as Barna fell ill. Still, he made a huge impression moving one player, Bengal state champion Samir Chatterjee to comment: "About Victor the only suitable word I find is `Superman'. During this visit Barna also conducted coaching camps which proved very successful.

Barna had joined the Dunlop Sports Company in 1946 as a consultant and continued travelling the world in this capacity after his playing days were over. It was during one of these tours on Feb. 27, 1972 that he succumbed to a heart attack in Lima, Peru.

No player since has even come close to his remarkable record of 22 titles at the World championships. It is a record likely to stand forever.

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