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.
Living in a town of 8000 people was…calm. Old ladies sat on benches in front of their homes, spitting shamelessly on the grass, gossiping, and waiting for our respectful head nods as we passed. They would also look out for kids that had lice and report directly to the child’s parents. Old videos that Grandma sent over in January remind me of the bad hairstyles and the maroon-colored clothes that for some reason almost everybody wore, fashion leftovers from the Tito regime. It also reminded me of how loud, hyper, and round I was then. “Brana, stop it, you were elegantly filled,” says Mama. She really did think that. During a mandatory physical checkup in fourth grade, the stocky nurse disagreed.
Udji unutra, debeljuco. Or, in English: “Come on in, you little fat girl.” She yelled out my weight in front of all my classmates.
They wanted to put me on a diet, but no, no, no, Mama Vlasic didn’t agree. She steamed off to the doctor’s office and gave her a lesson. The truth is that in Serbia, especially in our town, if you don’t fit weight and other such requirements, your name remains on the gossiping agenda. Our village was a bit blunt. That’s the case with most small towns. Mama claims that I stopped hunching over six years ago, the moment we stepped off the airplane at Lindbergh Field.
Stellan came to San Diego in 2007. I never knew what he looked like. His name sounds tall and haughty, but he isn’t. Short build, hair slicked back, and O-shaped legs. Still, he looks cool. But his Swedish background also gave him a potatolike nose. Right away, he started training me and the other San Diego juniors. Before, we were practicing mostly on our own.
The first day he told us: “There is always more time than you think. Come back to center and watch the ball.” My arms became stonelike, and I kept looking at him. Soon that changed, but the amount of respect I have for him is reasonably massive.
I wasn’t even born when he became the world champion in 1971. The video of his match in Nagoya, Japan, is on YouTube. When I watch, I notice Stellan’s famous backhand serve, which I also use in my game. His focus breaks through all the tension. After he wins the last point, he shakes hands with his opponent, runs over to his coach, and then remembers to shake hands with all the referees. The people in his corner raise his arms in the air. He walks to the podium with his head humbly lowered. This moment changed his life, and as he says, “My hobby becomes my profession.”
As long as I had table tennis and many friends around me, it was all good back in Serbia. I didn’t mind where we lived. My sister imagined what it would be like living in California. Mama knew that education is the only way to success, but not in Serbia. She finished law school, and as a judge her paycheck was only worth $2 per week, thanks to the hyperinflation of the early ’90s. That would be enough to buy ten eggs. The following week it would pay for only two eggs. Later, she became a lawyer in private practice. We weren’t exactly rich, but with all those diplomas, life had to be better somewhere else.
By 1999, NATO was bombing Serbia, thanks to our “hero” Milosevic. He claimed that he invaded Kosovo because it is srce Srbije, or the heart of Serbia. Milosevic was also ordering another round of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. and its allies tried to make him stop, but we were the ones suffering. This period I remember vividly. The only object worth bombing in our village was a yellow, rusty bridge. So, we weren’t in much danger. But the air-raid sirens were brutal. They would announce the curfew around 8:00 p.m., at deafening volumes. Protests were occurring in Serbia’s streets, but I missed most of them because of practice. Coach Preda wasn’t very enthusiastic about protesting against Milosevic, for whatever reason. My family was safer than people in the capital of Belgrade, and other cities, so cousins would come and stay at our house. During this period my sister and I decided to “protect” Grandma and often stayed with her. There were many soldiers walking around our town. Mina told me they were good-looking. I was confused about why they were sleeping in our school gyms. Milosevic was overthrown in 2000 and sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands. Sadly, he died of natural causes during the trial.
Serbia hasn’t recovered from these low blows. My country is still not a part of the European Union. But we are proud of Nikola Tesla, the brilliant scientist whom Thomas Edison ripped off; barbecues with pljeskavica, our version of the hamburger; and our actors, such as Rade Serbedzija.
We arrived in San Diego in 2004, fresh and confused. I said goodbye to my second love (after table tennis), a boy named Rasha. Oh, it was emotional. Later I discovered it probably wasn’t love since it happened again a couple of times after him.
My American cousins took me to the Balboa Park Activity Center. More than 20 ping-pong tables! Heaven. It was just odd that they were filled with mostly older Asian men. My sister quit playing. I continued practicing with Dad, until Bengtsson came to San Diego.
“Watch the ball and play point by point,” Stellan says.
Tournaments are much different here than in Serbia, since I compete mostly against males. The first rounds are mentally tough, especially when playing against grandpas with strange paddles, whom I have to beat. Taking every match seriously is important. Some of the male opponents say, “It’s not fair that you are wearing a skirt.” Their jokes used to make me feel uncomfortable. But if I’m limited to mostly playing men, at least I can look like a girl. I also benefit from this, because competing against men, who are my level or higher, improves my strength. Girls usually play more tactically. Now, I don’t even notice who is on the other side of the table.
Making the 2016 Olympic Team is my dream. Stellan thinks that I have a good chance if I keep playing. During the 2008 San Diego Open, I beat Crystal Huang, an older, more experienced player who went to the Olympics later that year in Beijing. It was my biggest win so far, but I would still be disqualified from the 2012 Olympic tryouts because I am not a citizen. Our green-card applications have been in process, returned, rejected, and ignored. We keep trying, and I know that by 2016 something has to change. I will at least be able to try out for the Olympic team. I just want to play.
I like Stellan’s view on this. “I don’t want to become an American citizen,” he says. “The green card is all I need. Don’t tell this to my wife.”
I need the citizenship so I can compete in Rio de Janeiro.
In Serbia we did live in a bigger house, and my parents had meaningful jobs, but if we’d stayed, I wouldn’t have met Stellan Bengtsson. Also, there I wouldn’t be allowed to hope. It would be too risky.
U Americi mozemo da zivimo samo dan po dan; nikad se ne zna sta ce se desiti sutra. This is my dad’s theory about life: “In America, we can only live day by day; it’s impossible to plan what will happen tomorrow.” His hair is graying and wrinkles are multiplying around his eyes and mouth, but he still looks like Robert De Niro. They have the same nose, but Dad has a very confident soup belly.
My father has a work visa but speaks no English. Mama speaks English but only has a dependent visa. They’ve gone through a number of jobs since the great leap to America. Mom turned into a babysitter, and Dad took on jobs as a warehouse manager, kitchen installer, and a salesman with loud, broken English. They both pretend to have forgotten about their Serbian law and engineering diplomas. That damn immigrant irony.
As another Serbian table-tennis coach always says, “Why make it simple, when it can be complicated?”
Through table tennis I’m learning about life. In April I failed my behind-the-wheel test at the DMV for the second time. A couple of hours later I went to ping-pong practice.
Feeling that DMV-low, I enter the Balboa Park Activity Center. Jené helps me set up a table. All the others are full. Tuesday nights are busiest. Jené is a cool lady who used to do stand-up comedy and now owns a pet-sitting business. She wears the nicest outfits and admits that she forgets everything she learned the day before. Then, Mr. Brader, an accomplished chemist and a table-tennis fanatic, gives me a high five. I start playing with Daryl, who will make the 2012 Paralympics team, and then Stellan comes by and makes fun of me for driving 15 mph in a 25 mph zone. At the end of practice, another player and I decide to hit balls as high as we can toward the ceiling. By the end of the night I forget about the morning’s useless tears. This is not the first time that practice has given me amnesia. It works like magic.
It’s true that during a match I often yell out unladylike words in Serbian. That happens if I forget to spin on the forehand, if I don’t let the ball bounce on the flip, or if I use my backhand at the middle of the table. Stellan has learned what those Serbian words mean. U picku materinu. These I will not translate.
Mama was my coach for a couple of tournaments when neither Stellan nor Dad was there. Her advice wouldn’t exactly be about game tactics or suggestions about my technique. As a child, Mama hated taking PE classes and cried hopelessly before the mandatory runs. So she would work on the mental part of my game. Raising my self-esteem is her profession.
She would tell me between games, “No mercy! Play for Tesla and for our river Tisa!”
Surprisingly, it works. First I laugh, thinking that compared to Stellan’s usual advice, this makes no sense. Then I decide that I really need to prove that I am from the same country as Tesla.
Mama claps so loud, it unmistakably resonates in my head from across the gym. When people congratulate her on my win or ask where we are from, they also wonder why she is so tan. Mama’s response is “I have high blood pressure.”
During the 2009 U.S. Open Championship in Las Vegas, I had a reality check. The 36th-ranked player in the world, Romania’s Elizabeta Samara, beat me 3–11, 6–11, 3–11, and 4–11. I had to sit down in a chair and think. I had never thought about quitting before, but the match reminded me that the level of play outside American borders is much higher. I think that with hard work anything is possible. Stellan was coaching me during the match, but I was too nervous to follow his lead. After it was over, he said: “It’s okay. She is a professional player, and now we know what to work on for the future.” This tournament is my only chance to compete against international women. I never gave up, but her confidence killed me. From this match I learned that I need more quality in my game and that I need to be decisive with my shots. Dad thinks those are also my weaknesses in life.
After the match, my cube-shaped Mama said, “At least you don’t have red nails like she does.” Ljubica Vlasic wasn’t joking about this.
That night Mina, a couple of friends, and I went to Ellis Island, a karaoke bar east of the Las Vegas strip. Since mostly locals go there, IDs are unnecessary. Good thing since I was only 18. The day ended with some John Legend duets.
Last year, Mama came home with a newspaper clipping. There was a picture of Susan Sarandon holding a paddle. The actress had opened up a social club for ping-pong in Manhattan. I couldn’t believe it. They were calling my passion a “new hot celebrity sport”? It doesn’t resemble the table tennis I’ve played my whole life, but any kind of publicity is good. Soon after, the California version of the club opened. It’s called Spin Hollywood. I have to go see that place, but first I’ll check with Stellan. If he is coming along, I wouldn’t mind walking the red carpet with him.