27 Dec 2019

Local tournaments full to capacity, in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, for table tennis it is boom time and there is no evidence whatsoever that the situation is likely to wane; quite the opposite.

A major reason is through downright hard work since the year 2000, they have enjoyed unmitigated success; the year a certain Adriana Diaz was born.

by Ian Marshall, Editor

Playing on home soil, in front of adoring fans; in early February, Adriana Diaz emerged the winner at the Universal 2019 Pan America Cup in Guaynabo. Later in the year in August she won the women’s singles title at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am very happy with my performance at the Pan America Cup but I think that my best performance was at the Pan Am Games. There was a lot of pressure during the Games, four medals to play for and Olympic Games qualification. I’m very happy that I won three gold medals and one bronze and qualified for Tokyo. I think I played really well, I was very focused. The atmosphere was incredible, a lot of people from Puerto Rico were in Lima, I enjoyed it so much.” Adriana Diaz

National Olympic Committee support

Present on both occasions, more than making her presence felt, supporting to the hilt was Sara Rosario, President of the Puerto Rico National Olympic Committee; understandably she was delighted with her star athlete.

“The year 2019 has been of great success for Adriana. Her participation at the Pan American Games, Lima 2019, was a golden one with a total of three gold medals (individual, women’s team and women’s doubles) and a bronze medal (mixed doubles). Only 19 years old she has achieved an impressive career record with major wins at international level, she has climbed significantly on the ITTF ranking and is already an Olympian (Rio 2016 and Buenos Aires 2018). We foresee an impressive future!” Sara Rosario

In addition to securing women’s singles gold, partnering elder sister Melanie, the women’s doubles title was gained. Also, with Daniely Rios completing the line-up the top step of the women’s team podium was reserved.

Medal haul in Lima

Three gold medals in Lima, there were also three bronze medals. Melanie reached the women’s singles semi-finals, Brian Afanador achieved the same feat in the men’s doubles partnering Daniel Gonzalez and in the mixed with Adriana.

Notably later in the year Brian Afanador and Adriana Diaz struck gold, they won the mixed doubles title at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Paraguay Open.

The results meant that Puerto Rico departed Lima at the top of the table tennis medal table, more gold than any other nation, finishing ahead of Brazil, the United States and Canada. Likewise, they finished on top of their country’s medal table in term of sports; three times as many gold medals and twice as many medals in total as their nearest rivals. They ended matters ahead of basketball, wrestling, bowling and boxing.

The toughest match

Wins in hard fought contests but was the most difficult match of the year for Adriana Diaz the one in which she did not play?

In women’s team final against Brazil at the Pan American Games, fixtures organised on the Olympic Games format, after four matches, matters were level. Adriana and Daniely had completed their matches; they could only sit and watch in hope as in the crucial decider Melanie Diaz faced Bruna Takahashi.

She lost the first two games, in the third she saved five match points, before securing the next three (3-11, 6-11, 17-15, 11-9, 11-6) to send Puerto Rican supporters into delirium. Gabriela, the second eldest sister after Melanie, sitting in the tiered seating leapt so high, she stated a clear case for being included in the high jump squad for the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games.

“It was really hard watching my sister play Bruna, we were losing at first so we were more than worried; then she played amazing. She came from 0-2 down to win the match. We couldn’t believe it, it was amazing.” Adriana Diaz

Melanie the heroine

Throughout the year, notably competing in the Uncle Pop 2019 Women’s World Cup in Chengdu, Adriana has been the star name but on that memorable August day in the Peruvian capital city she was upstaged by Melanie.

“Bruna was leading in the match; she was having no problems. I just tried to find something that could make things a little bit harder for her, after the second game I had nothing to lose. I kept trying things, mostly I wasn’t focused on the score. My teammates were amazing and never stopped cheering for me, they all did an amazing job in the previous matches and my dad too. I couldn’t have done this without them and their support.” Melanie Diaz

Major triumphs for Adriana and Melanie who time and again put their father, through agony; I can assure that when it is your daughter is playing it is far different than when the player is no relation.

Star coach

However, at the end of the year there was just reward for his unstinting efforts; in Zhengzhou at the ITTF Star Awards evening, Bladimir Diaz received the “Star Coach” award.

“This prize means to me a great personal conquest and to Puerto Rican table tennis. The fact that other people in sport evaluated my performance as a coach during the year and nominated myself is an honour. Winning was just amazing.” Bladimir Diaz

Star coach and make no mistake they are star names in Puerto Rico; they transcend the boundaries of their own discipline, everybody knows about the table tennis players!

Celebrity status

Walk along the main street in San Juan, the capital city, the street where you find the major department store, Walmart, the shop that sells everything from lollipops to car tyres, you will find electric billboards at the major road junctions that show Bladimir and Adriana; Melanie and mother Marangely Gonzalez (in Puerto Rico, the wife keeps her maiden name).

“It’s amazing, we never imagined this. Puerto Rican people now follow the sport, they cheer for us and they are very interested in our performance and tournaments. The way they show their appreciation means a lot to us. The opportunity of being faced with several commercial campaigns is a great achievement not only on a personal level but for our sport. We are grateful to our country for the recognition and support. It presents a great opportunity, also a great deal of responsibility.” Marangely Gonzalez

Good governance

Success and a major reason is that behind the achievements of the likes of Adriana and Melanie Diaz alongside their male counterparts Brian Afanador, Daniel Gonzalez and Angel Naranjo, winner of the cadet boys’ singles title at the recent United States Open, there is sound management led by a husband and wife team of the very highest integrity.

Ivan Santos, the President of the Puerto Rico Table Tennis Federation and Leticia Castaldo, the Secretary set the standard, take a bow, it is well-earned.

Bladimir and Adriana, the electronic sign in the main street in San Juan (Photo: ITTF)
General News Adriana Diaz Melanie Diaz Daniely Rios Bladimir Diaz Marangely Gonzalez