A table tennis hall in the heart of Vienna’s 8th district is probably the world’s oldest. The hall, at Lange Gasse 69, dates back to the 19th century – when men played table tennis in tail-coats. With more than a hundred years of history, it was where several Austrian world champions trained and played.
This was where one of the most-known world champions, Trude Pritzi, learnt and revolutionised table tennis. In her career, Trude won 14 world championship medals – five golds, two silvers and six bronzes.
Aged 17, Trude Pritzi made it to the finals of the 1937 World Table Tennis Championship in Baden, Germany.
Her match against the reigning champion Ruth Aarons from the United States was defensive. Pritzi and Aarons played for 100 minutes with their extensive and exhaustive rallies forcing the jury to abandon the game and vacate the championship.
This was the first and only time such a decision was taken in competitive table tennis. The judges wished that table tennis be seen as an active and energetic sport, rather than merely defensive.
In March 1938, a few weeks before the Anschluss when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Pritzi won her ‘first’ World Championship Gold Medal in Wembley, London – without losing a single set.
After the Anschluss, at the 1939 World Championships in Cairo, Egypt, Pritzi played for the team of Nazi Germany. There, she won four World Championship medals including silver in the singles and gold in the doubles.
After World War II, Pritzi resumed playing for Austria – winning a bronze and gold medal in the singles and doubles competitions at the 1947 championships in Paris. Her last world championship medal came in 1953 – a bronze medal as a member of the Austrian team.
In 2001, 33 years after Pritzi’s death, Pritzi and Aarons were posthumously named ‘co-champions’ of the 1937 championship by the International Table Tennis Federation.
In the days before World War II, Pritzi spoke of feeling like a professional sportswoman and continuing to play. After the war, Pritzi mentioned in interviews that she ‘was completely exhausted that many of her colleagues had to flee’.
Richard Bergmann was one of them. He had played in the same table tennis hall where Pritzi played and won an individual gold medal in the 1937 World Championships as well as a silver in the doubles competition. At 17, Bergmann was the youngest person to win a single world champion title – an accomplishment he still holds.
In 1938, following the Anschluss, Jewish Bergmann, like many other outstanding Jewish table tennis players, fled Vienna and went to London. Competing from then onwards for England, he won 16 medals over the remainder of his career – including two golds in the singles and doubles competitions at the 1939 World Championships.
Both Richard Bergmann and Trude Pritzi were just 17 years old when they won their first World Champion titles, with both beginning their careers at that same Viennese table tennis centre – a centre which continues to this day.