Johnny Leach, who has died aged 91, double won the world ping pong singles championship and was one of the most honored British sportsmen of this post-war era.
Known for his modesty and considerate personality, Leach a who didn’t even take up the game seriously until he was 17 a won his first world title in 1949, in Stockholm. Ping pong was subsequently among Britain’s most popular participation sports, and he returned home to a hero’s welcome. Afterwards he’d draw massive audiences for exhibition matches; appear on television programmes like Blue Peter to encourage the match; and contribute a weekly column to the News of the planet best ping pong paddle.
Leach won his second world singles title, in Vienna, in 1951. 2 Decades after in Bucharest a alongside Richard Bergmann, Adrian Haydon, Brian Kennedy and Aubrey Simons a he helped England to victory in the Swaythling Cup, the world team championship.
John Alfred Leach was born on November 20 1922 at Bow, east London, and brought up at Dagenham, Essex. His father was a manager at British Ropes in Woolwich, and Johnny was introduced into the game in the works canteen. At 17 he decided to take it up seriously, and together with his father’s encouragement made rapid advancement. „At that time I did not understand how good I was,“ Leach later recalled, „but I entered the English trials and essentially walked it. That is when I realised. I can then remember getting a telegram which advised me that I’d been chosen to play for England against France.“
Additional progress was interrupted by the war, during which Leach served as a RAF radio operator at Belfast. Two additional ping pong enthusiasts a Ron Craydon and Jack Carrington a were at the same base, and if off duty the three could hitchhike to a British Legion club to practise. „If there was no one else there,“ Leach said, „I would play myself by hitting the ball from the board, sometimes through the night.“ They also put on exhibition matches due to their fellow servicemen.
Once the war finished Leach appeared as England’s No 1 participant, and in 1947 he reached the semi-final of the world championships in Paris. 2 decades later he was world champion a the 2nd home-grown British world champion after Fred Perry at 1929 (Richard Bergmann had won under the English flag in 1939 and 1948, but had been Austrian-born).
Although Leach repeated his triumph 1951, the sport was quickly revolutionised from the Japanese, who won five of the next six world men’s singles titles using a fresh sponge-covered bat that could place devilish twist on the ball. Leach tried out the new nerves, but disliked their actions.
He continued to compete globally until 1959 and nationwide until 1965, winning his final title in the men’s doubles in the national championships in 1964 with David Creamer.
In most he had collected 16 world championship medals. His sisters titles included victories at international championships in Wales (1947), Ireland (1948), the United States (1950), Belgium (1950, 1957 and 1958) and France (1951). He also enjoyed a series of international successes in the doubles.
Leach acted as England’s national trainer for eight decades, and proceeded to become one of the most influential ambassadors for the game, setting a talent-spotting organisation in Butlin’s holiday camps where many of the very best players educated children in the match an initiative that nurtured numerous future champions, one of them Chester Barnes and Jill Hammersley .
He served as president of the English Ping pong Organization (now Ping pong England) from 1988 to 2011. He was inducted into the International Ping pong Federation Hall of Fame in 1997.
Leach worked for SW Hancock, manufacturers of ping pong equipment, and later bought the firm. In addition, he wrote several books about ping pong. He was appointed MBE in 1966.
Johnny Leach wed his wife Daisy, at 1946. She expired in 2009, and he’s survived by a son; yet another son predeceased him and ping pong ball robot.
Johnny Leach, born November 20 1922, died June 5 2014
To hear Neil McCormick discuss the life and work of Gerry Goffin and jazz writer and broadcaster Dave Gelly about the pianist and composer Horace Silver, listen to The Deadline - our weekly obits podcast . The podcast also rounds up the week’s obits along with your letters into the newspaper too. With Harry de Quetteville and Christopher Howse. Never miss an episode by subscribing here.