27/02/2024
Norwich, GB 4 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DIANE ROWE, aged 90

THE QUEEN OF TABLE TENNIS

Born in Marylebone, London, Diane’s parents were Ronald Rowe, an accounts clerk, and Edith Delany. Twenty minutes after her birth, a twin sister was born, named Rosalind.

Diane was always known as Di and her sister as Ros.

They had an uncle, Vivian, who was a noted amateur footballer who played for Brentford and Wimbledon. Their father had also turned out for Brentford.

For Christmas Day, when the twins were 14, they had hoped to be given bikes. They were disappointed therefore, to be given table tennis bats and balls. Nevertheless, they started playing on the kitchen table and found that they loved the game.

Very soon, the kitchen table was damaged, and other furniture was being destroyed, so their father bought the girls a proper table tennis table.

Table Tennis (courtesy Days of the Year)

They practiced for hours on end. Ros was right-handed and Di was left-handed.

They then joined a local table tennis club, and very quickly were beating not just the girls but also the boys.

Later, they joined the West Ealing Club where they were coached by Ken Craigie, a former England player and highly respected coach.

The girls began to win trophies. Ros was the first to be successful, but Di won a tournament immediately afterwards. As well as competing in singles competitions, they partnered each other in the doubles.

They soon became Middlesex Junior Champions.

Twins at the table (courtesy Alamy)

Ros was the first to be capped by England, for a match against Czechoslovakia in November 1949 when she was just 16. Di followed her into the international team in early 1950.

In April of that year, they entered the Daily Mirror Championships and won both the girl’s and the women’s’ competitions. Diane won the singles. The finals were played at the Royal Albert Hall in front of a crowd of 4,500, including the Duke of Kent. The competition was televised.

Diane’s prize was to be coached by the great Viktor Barna, the most respected coach in Europe (and himself World Champion in 1932 and 1933). Naturally, she took her sister with her – and their game improved significantly. Barna changed Di’s playing style, from defensive to aggressive attack.

Barna encouraged the girls to tour Belgium, the Netherlands and France, so as to experience continental styles of play.

Despite having no world ranking, the twins were entered for the 1951 World Championships, held in Vienna. Although they were unseeded, they reached the doubles final.

There, they played the Romanian duet of Angelica Rozeanu and Sari Szasz, regarded as the best players in the world. It was a thrilling final, going to the full five sets, but the twins came out as champions. The final is still regarded as one of the greatest table tennis matches ever played.

“We were like a machine – in perfect harmony.”

Not only were the twins the first (and only) unseeded players to win the World Championships, but they were also the youngest champions, a record that they still hold.

Di and Ros returned to the UK as sporting heroes. Their flight home arrived at Heathrow at 5am and they were astonished to see massive crowds, journalists and photographers there to greet them. Ros said to Di, “Is it really happening to us?”

It took the girls a couple of hours to get out of the airport. When they finally got home, their mother said, “Come in. You must be tired. I’ve got the kettle on for a nice cup of tea.”

Reminiscing about their achievement, Di said, “Looking back, no one thought we had a chance in Vienna. We were not even seeded. My main memory of the night was the cheers of encouragement from British forces in the audience.”

The twins became instant celebrities. The Eagle Sports Annual named them the sports stars of the year, alongside Stanley Matthews and Stirling Moss.

Nevertheless, the twins were still amateurs and needed to work for a living. Both of them became secretaries.

They were invited to Sweden to put on an exhibition match in the Royal Palace. The 4-year-old Prince Gustav, raced around the room, retrieving tennis balls. He is currently the King of Sweden.

In 1952, the twins were runners up at the World Championships, held in Bombay, and then second again in Bucharest in 1953.

They then went on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. It was a 3-month trip as they sailed both ways. The return journey changed their lives. Rosalind met Dr. John Corbett, her future husband.

In 1954, the World Championships were held at Wembley, just a ten-minute drive from their home. The twins got to the final again.

This was played on their 21st birthday, April 14th 1954. There was a crowd of 10,000 present.

Their opponents were fellow Britons, Kathy Best and Ann Haydon. The twins won the final and were presented with the W.J.Pope Trophy (World Championship) by the Dowager Lady Swaythling. Di said, “Looking back on this special day, it was the overwhelming feeling that we were destined to win the title. However, we were more than aware that our British opponents were first class and not to be taken lightly.”

Ann Haydon was eventually to become Di’s doubles partner for a short while, before changing sports to tennis and winning Wimbledon in 1969, under her married name of Ann Jones.

Ann Haydon-Jones (courtesy Wikipedia)

The twins reached their fifth successive world championship final in 1955, held in Utrecht, being runners up again.

They also released a book entitled ‘The Twins on Table Tennis’.

That same year, Rosalind got married and immediately retired from table tennis. She was 22. She went on to have four children, worked for Dunlop (specializing in table tennis equipment) and became a scratch golf player.

Di continued with table tennis. She was to have two long-term doubles partners, Mary Shannon/Wright and Jill Rock/Mills. Her mixed doubles partner was British champion Johnny Leach (himself a world champion).

In 1966, Di met German table tennis player Eberhard Scholer (known as Ebby), and they married. They went to live in Dusseldorf. They had two children, Cindy and Christian.

Eventually, Diane represented her adopted nation of West Germany.

She once played in an international match for West Germany against England. Her opponent was her doubles partner, Mary Wright. They both found it a strange experience.

Diane retired from table tennis in 1973, having amassed over 400 caps for England (and some more for West Germany). Her career was one of astonishing success. As well as the two world championships with her sister, she had been solo world champion twice (with eight silver medals and ten bronze) and had been English Open Champion on 19 occasions. She won countless other titles and medals.

Upon retirement, Diane replaced her mentor, Viktor Barna, as President of the Swaythling Club International (SCI) and after serving many years became Honorary President. She also coached the sport until 1997, producing many German champions.

She was given the International Table Tennis Merit Award in 1993.

In later years, Di briefly worked for Butlins, presenting the Boy and Girl of the Year award, sponsored by the News of the World.

Diane was inducted into the ETTU (European Table Tennis Union) Hall of Fame as well as  the English equivalent.

Her twin, Rosalind, died in 2015.

Diane developed cancer and died in Dusseldorf. At the time of her death, she was the oldest surviving world table tennis champion. Her husband, Ebby, survives her.

Table Tennis England said, “English table tennis has evolved as a result of the history Diane gave us. Thank you to Ebby and her family for allowing us all to share in Diane’s life. Global table tennis will always be indebted to her for her unfailing dedication. She will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.”

Her former doubles partner, Mary Wright, said, “Di was my mentor. She was 100% loyal both to her county, Middlesex, and to England, and represented both with pride and honour. Always immaculately dressed and scrupulously fair, and a fighter until the last point was won or lost. She also had a great sense of humour and was a world champion at drinking PG Tips tea, whenever she could…I feel very proud to have been her partner and friend for many years.”

RIP = Racquet’s Incredible Partnership

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