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Paddles of Fire

A Chicago entrepreneur and a Serbian sports legend aim to bring table tennis out of the basement. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics this year would be a good start.

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Chicago's best hope for Olympic glory in Athens this month could be a 36-year-old Serbian guy who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Ravenswood. Ilija Lupulesku is rarely recognized in Chicago, but from time to time he's reminded that he used to be a superstar, a legend known by a single name.

"Last winter I was with my wife and daughter at this restaurant on Irving Park," says the 36-year-old four-time Olympian, who won a silver medal at Seoul in 1988. "These three Serbian guys kept looking at me. Finally, this one guy comes up to me and says, 'Lupi, it is you?' I say yes. He says he recognized my face, but couldn't believe that Lupi was in Chicago. He waited to see what hand I would drink my coffee with. People in Yugoslavia know I am a lefty."

But Lupi's sport gets so little respect in the U.S. that most people don't even refer to it by its proper name. "'Ping-Pong,'" he says contemptuously. "I don't know where that name come from. Amateurs play Ping-Pong. Professionals play table tennis."

Anyone who catches more than 20 seconds of Lupi's physics-defying spins, sniperlike serves, and 100-mile-per-hour smashes has to concede the point. But there are those in his new country unable to imagine that a Ping-Pong player can be an athlete, much less an Olympian. The "trash-talking basement player" is the worst of the lot, says Lupi. "Maybe they beat friends in their basement," says Lupi, "but they think they can play with me?" A few months ago Lupi was obliged to educate one such challenger at the Union Station Multiplex, the health club where he occasionally trains. "He couldn't even return my serve," says Lupi, shaking his head. "I tell this guy, 'We can play for one year, and you won't take maybe one point.'"

Asked if he has a table at home, the top-ranked table tennis player in the U.S. snorts, "No, I don't have a table in my basement." After pounding forehands at the tiny Park District gym in Kenwood where he practices several times a week, Lupi explained why he needs to get back to Europe to train properly for Athens. "It's not professional here," he says. "Nobody practices like pros. Here they practice every day, but just once a day--that's not enough." Last week Lupi flew to Belgrade to make his final preparations for the games in a more disciplined atmosphere.

"The problem is they cannot live on table tennis here," he adds. "There is no money, no leagues. They go to school. They have to work. This is the problem."

Lupi has no such outside commitments to distract him. He's never had any career other than playing table tennis, and now he hopes to become the first full-time professional in the U.S. "Everyone in Europe ask why I come here," he says. "They think I'm crazy."

Throughout much of Europe, table tennis holds its own against regular tennis as a spectator sport. National league teams play in field houses in front of thousands of cheering fans; major tournaments are broadcast to millions. The best players are millionaire celebrities: the winner of the 2003 World Championship, Werner Schlager, was named Sportsman of the Year in skiing-mad Austria, had his face put on a stamp, and became the pitchman for a leading energy drink. As in other sports, stars past their prime can make good livings as coaches.

Most professional players demonstrate their gifts at an early age: Lupi won his first tournament at 10. At 12 he was practicing four hours a day, and by his midteens he was playing internationally, missing weeks of school at a time but earning an income well above the Yugoslavian average.

But he didn't become a national celebrity until '86, when he paired up with another teenage champion, Zoran Primorac. The partners quickly became one of the world's top doubles teams, leading the Belgrade team Partizan to its first national championship in 20 years and taking the international circuit by storm. Between '86 and '91, Lupulesku and Primorac won medals in all of the world's major championships, including a silver at the Seoul Olympics in '88. "We win all the time," says Lupi, "and after each championship we were on TV or newspaper for a month. We became very popular." And prosperous too: at 20 Lupi was one of the country's best-paid athletes, with a personal trainer and a three-bedroom apartment in a swank Belgrade neighborhood. "It was the best time of my life," he says.

The good times came to an abrupt end in April of '91. In Tokyo at that time for the doubles world championships, Lupi and Primorac anxiously monitored news broadcasts about mounting political turmoil at home. "No one had any idea what would happen," says Lupi. The two Yugoslavians took the silver in Japan, but months later their country was ravaged by bloody civil war. The ethnic conflict meant the end of a team favored to win the gold in Barcelona in '92. Like the nation itself, Yugoslavia's table tennis organizations disintegrated; after the war, the newly formed Croatian Table Tennis Association forbade Primorac, a Croat, from playing with Lupi.

As a star athlete Lupi was largely insulated from the war. He was called up for military service, but this was a formality: he reported for duty a week late and was honorably discharged the week after that. He and his first wife, Jasna, who was also a star player, continued to train and to compete abroad, Lupi playing with various new doubles partners. Lupi considers his performance at the '97 European championships in the Netherlands one of the highlights of his career: at the peak of Serbia's ostracism by the world community, he won medals in men's and mixed doubles. "It was amazing to hear the Serbian anthem being played then," he says. "I was so happy."

By 2000, however, Serbian table tennis had badly deteriorated. The prize money had dried up, and the best players had left for other countries. Lupi's personal life had also changed: having divorced Jasna in '97, he married again in 2000. The following year he and his new wife, Zuzana, were expecting a child. Looking over his options, Lupi decided it was time to emigrate. "I love my country," he says. "But I have to take care of my family."

The standard move for someone in Lupi's position would have been to join a team in the well-financed German league, but in 2001 Lupi got a phone call from Jasna, who was remarried and living in Chicago. Jasna told Lupi about a Chicago businessman who had a proposition for him.

Robert Blackwell Jr. is an entrepreneur who'd made his fortune in technology consulting and real estate. A table tennis fanatic and a gifted amateur player, Blackwell had chaired the advisory board of Chicago's Ping-Pong Fest in 2000, but wanted to do more to bring the game up from the basement. To that end he'd devised a plan straight out of the Vince McMahon playbook: "Extreme Ping-Pong." With better marketing, better players, sleeker equipment, and sexier uniforms, he reasoned, the sport could be developed to its full potential in America. To make this happen Blackwell was preparing to invest millions in his new company, Killerspin, which would manufacture paddles, balls, tables, and apparel. Like Fila, Nike, and other sporting goods giants, Killerspin would sponsor teams and tournaments to build brand awareness.

Blackwell, who'd studied tapes of Lupi's championship performances, wanted him to lead Team Killerspin, a branded squad designed to show Americans the speed, power, and wizardry of the game. "I knew Lupi would be the best player in the country if he came here," says Blackwell. "And I knew he had the right personality--he'd be great doing exhibitions and working with kids."

Though some of his fellow players were incredulous, Lupi decided to accept Blackwell's offer and take a chance on life in a country that had no professional leagues. "The salary was good," says Lupi, "and I always liked America. It's a chance to start something new, to change the game here."

Having Lupi on the team gave Killerspin instant credibility, making it easier to recruit other top players from around the world. As Blackwell had hoped, the squad immediately dominated U.S. table tennis, winning the North American Team Championship for the past two years. And Killerspin is using more than athletic virtuosity to sell the sport. The team's uniforms are sleek and formfitting, and female players sometimes wear midriff-baring tank tops. The distaff side of the team, it must be said, is very easy on the eyes: one player, Biba Golic, has been called "the Anna Kournikova of table tennis."

Lupi believes the Killerspin strategy is already paying off, improving the quality of the American game and raising its profile. For proof he points to ESPN's intensive coverage of Killerspin's Extreme Table Tennis Championship, which brought 16 top international players to Chicago last December. "This has never happened before," he says.

Just the same, it's important to an aging star like Lupi that the American game reaches the tipping point of mass popularity sooner rather than later. Professional players typically begin to fade after 35. The oldest player ever to win a gold medal was 26.

"My future is in coaching," says Lupi. "That's how I will live for me and my family." After the Olympics, Lupi plans to return to Chicago to build a club with seven or eight tables. He's convinced that before long, enough Americans will develop an interest in serious table tennis to make such an establishment profitable. "Very few use coaches here," he says, "but coaching is important in this game. I give you a few lessons, and you will see. You will beat your friends."

Athens is key to Lupi's ambitions. The U.S. has never won a medal in Olympic table tennis--in fact no American has ever made it past the second round. Winning a medal would heighten awareness of the game and boost Lupi's value as a coach (he currently charges $50 an hour). But he acknowledges that he's facing strong competition--China's team this year is reputed to be phenomenal. "It's not 100 percent that the Chinese will win," he says. "I think it's more like 99 percent."

However long his chances for a medal might be, Lupi remains hopeful. "Look at what happened to the U.S. basketball team in Indianapolis," he says, referring the supposedly unbeatable American "Dream Team" beaten by Yugoslavia at the 2002 World Championships. "Sport is always surprising."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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