I can’t imagine leaving San Diego because Stellan Bengtsson is here. He is a former world champion of table tennis, the youngest ever at 18. Even the Chinese were scared of him.
“You can’t wrestle the ball,” he says. “In the tightest moments during a match, your arm has to be the most relaxed.” He tells me this repeatedly because I often try too hard. How else am I supposed to play if a table-tennis legend is watching every one of my strokes?
Back home in Serbia, when my coaches would compliment a player, they would say, “He plays like Bengtsson.” Now, I train with Bengtsson. He moved here because of his wife, a native San Diegan.
Table tennis is Stellan’s profession, passion, and obsession, but in this country, it is disrespected and looked at more as a drinking game than as a sport. But, he does enjoy the California sun and the year-round tanning by the pool, which Sweden couldn’t offer.
Since table tennis is not featured on any of the TV channels, most Americans don’t know and don’t care that one of the world’s greatest athletes is a coach in Balboa Park. In many parts of the world, he’s a legend. Players from Sweden, Denmark, and even Australia have come to San Diego only to see Stellan. One day, I see him crossing Park Boulevard. Stellan limps — he has a new metal hip — in front of the clueless line of cars. I roll down my window and yell out his name. A humble smile and a hand in the air are his typical responses.
His approach is always to be serious during practice, but away from the table, it’s completely acceptable to make duck noises and entertain people with some very unprofessional magic tricks. A ball miraculously appears out of his mouth after he has his back turned. We don’t feel entitled to say anything other than “Wow.” The old videos of Stellan’s matches show his amazing athletic ability, his funny bowl haircut, and, as his wife would say, “a nice butt.” Bengtsson coached two world champions following his own title. He never yells and has an ability to explain patiently every part of the game in his Swedish accent.
All of his table-tennis tips are logical, but I would never be able to figure them out on my own. “For the forehand topspin, you have to chew the ball and spit it out.” Stellan admits that he heard this from the Chinese.
“Keep the elbow in front and the center of gravity on both feet.” He isn’t annoyed by repeating this simple advice almost every time we practice. Once, when he is giving me a ride home from Balboa Park, I ask him what his family said after he won the world title.
“Well, I’m pretty sure they thought it was neat.” He gives a half-wink and a smile. Those Swedes are crazy, just like the Serbs.
I’ve played table tennis since I was six. In Serbia, practice was seven days a week, and during summers it would be two or three times per day. Tournaments and leagues would occupy the weekends. Being late or not coming to practice would be punished with skokovi, which is Serbian for “the jumps.” Our coach, Preda, who was very athletic but was missing most of his front teeth, would often yell, “Cows! You move slower than my 100-year-old grandma!” I was scared of him. There were four girls on our team, including my sister Mina, but I was the only one who took our coach seriously. Mina enjoyed the tournaments, especially when she lost. Then she could look at the cute boys. She also read palms with the other girls. In our town, Novi Knezevac, there wasn’t much to do, except swim in the polluted Tisa River with dead fish. I am thankful for my dad, who brought me to the table-tennis gym.
San Diegans are not fond of this sport, which makes it hard for the youngsters to start competing. Older citizens play it because many doctors agree that table tennis is the best physical activity to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Baby Boomers play it because they’ve seen Bill Gates and Warren Buffett do it. The local teenagers, the Asians, and I play it because we love it. We are lucky to have Bengtsson as a coach.
Stellan says that if I moved as fast as I talked, I would be a world champion by now. I can’t try out for the U.S. National Team until I become a citizen. But I keep serving, blocking, and smashing that orange ball. It was at the Balboa Park Activity Center that I met people who helped my family. Through another Serbian man, my dad found a job, not precisely in his field, but good enough. Also, I got many free donuts from a man I called Baker Lay, a very nice Vietnamese grandfather who recently passed away.
People ask, “You play ping-pong? Are you a professional? Wow. So, you, like, go far away from the table and swing?”
I’m not a real professional, since I don’t earn much through table tennis, maybe a little prize money from tournaments. But I’ve been playing for 12 years.
Bengtsson encourages me by saying, “You would’ve made the national team last year if you were a citizen.” He smiles. “That sucks, dude.”
I was born in Yugoslavia. Or Serbia. It’s the same country, just continually cut up into smaller pieces. The southeastern region of Europe definitely put fear
into the whole world throughout the centuries. Small nation, with vicious people. Now, when I introduce myself to San Diegans, there are a number of responses. One is “Oh, you guys started World War I.” No…it wasn’t solely our fault. We just burst the war bubble. Still pretty bad, especially because my town has a street named after Gavrilo Princip, the guy who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
Another response: “Awesome! You guys have white tigers!” No, I’m pretty sure that’s Siberia.