Ilija “Lupi” Lupulesku was born Oct. 30, 1967 in Uzdin, Yugoslavia. He began playing table tennis at 9, and credits Coach Jon Bosika for convincing him to pursue a career in table tennis rather than soccer.
As a 16-year-old, Lupi won the first of his back-to-back European Youth Doubles Championships with his lifelong friend Zoran “Zoki” Primorac. Soon, at the Hungarian and Yugoslav Opens, they were winning not Youth Doubles but Men’s Doubles. In 1986 at the European Championships Lupi was runner-up in the Mixed with Gordana Perkucin.
His success as a teenager is echoed later when, in an interview he gave in Chicago, he has this to say:
“Young players need to practice hard, as much as four hours a day, and also do something for physical conditioning, for speed. After one year of training [being grounded in the fundamentals], young players need to compete in tournaments….You need to face many different players because if you do not face players with different styles, it is very hard to become a good player yourself….”
1987 provided a breakthrough for Lupi. At the Czech Open, he was a triple-crown winner. At both the Mediterranean Games and Hungarian Open he won the Mixed with Jasna Fazlic. It was with Zoki, though, that he nearly did the seemingly impossible—almost won the Men’s Doubles at the Delhi World Championships. In the quarter’s, they beat China’s World Champion Jiang Jialiang and his partner, then the next year’s Olympic Champion Yoo Nam Kyu and his partner, 22-20 in the deciding 3rd, and then, having reached the final, ohhh, they had China’s Chen Longcan/Wei Qingguang double match point down, only to lose.
1988 proved a strong follow-up year. With Primorac, Lupi won the Men’s Doubles at the U.S., Yugoslav, and French Opens. He also won his first European Mixed title—with Jasna. But though Lupi and Primorac were thrilled at reaching the final of the Seoul Olympics, they were again thwarted by that same Chinese pair who’d beaten them at the Delhi World’s, Chen Longcan and Wei Qingguang..
Although Lupi won the 1989 Hungarian Open (in the semi’s over Fan Yi Yong, whom we’ll see later in the States, and in the final over England’s Carl Prean), he was never recognized as much for his Singles play as his friend Primorac was, but some considered him the best doubles player in the world. And it’s not hard to see why. In 1990, he and Zoki won the Doubles at the European’s over ‘89 World Champions Jorg Rosskopf/Steffen Fetzner. They also won at the U.S. Open, knocking out the strong Swedish teams of Erik Lindh/Jorgen Persson, and Jan-Ove Waldner/Mikael Appelgren.
But again another disappointment—though how can it be otherwise when you have so many wins? At the 1991 Chiba, Japan World’s, in the Swaythling Cup final, the Yugoslav Team that had beaten Sweden 3-zip earlier, lost to them in a 3-2 final. Lupi, in a grittily-played, tie-ending match, fell in the 5th to that year’s World Champion, Persson.
But at least there was a rebound of sorts—at the U.S. Open, Lupi and Men’s Singles Champion Zoki did again win the Men’s Doubles—and perhaps they indulged in a little avenging satisfaction, for they beat Chen Longcan and his partner.
1992 brings Lupi new partners. He marries “Glamour Girl” Jasna Fazlic who’d been the Yugoslav National Champion the last four years and had just won the European Women’s Doubles with Perkucin who’d earlier shared an Olympic Bronze Medal in Doubles with her. Jasna told interviewer Sheri Soderberg Pittman that 800 people came to their wedding—said Lupi’s family liked big weddings. But now there were big problems too—typified by Primorac’s inability to attend this wedding.
The Yugoslavia-Croatia war has started, and Lupi may have a Rumanian name but he represents Yugoslavia, while Primorac represents Croatia where the bombs are falling. No longer can Lupi and Zoki play doubles together. But they both can and do play at the Olympics. There Lupi and his new Junior partner, Slobodan Grujic, the two of them already Hungarian Open Doubles winners, upset Appelgren and Waldner from down 20-17 in the 3rd, before losing to silver medalists Rosskopf/Fetzner. At the U.S. Open, where Lupi and Jasna are more or less honeymooning, Lupi loses in the semi’s in 5 to China expatriate Johnny Huang now playing for Canada.
At the ’93 U.S. Open, Lupi, the #2 seed who’s entered as an IFP (Independent Federation Player), meets arch-rival to be, David Zhuang, in the round of 32! Some Draw, huh? Down 2-1 in games, David leads 20-19 in the fourth—but Lupi gets a net dribbler to deuce it. Then, much to David’s disgust, Lupi gets a 2nd net to take the ad…and win the game and match. But then he’s stopped in the semi’s by Zhenyi Wang—like David, another formidable ex-Chinese star, presently playing for Japan.
In 1995, at the Tianjin World’s, Lupi has 12 wins in a row to help his Yugoslav team reach the quarter’s. He’ll later tell interviewer Ed Hogshead that he got leave from his mandatory one-year service in the Army to play in China. “Athletes,” he said, “received special treatment and did not perform normal military functions…they had opportunities for training and competing.”
By 1996 Jasna’s marriage to Lupi has ended and she’s moved to the U.S. Lupi, however, would return to Yugoslavia.
In 2001, Jasna, a U.S. citizen since 1989 (back in ’84 the Lupuleskus had gotten their Green cards), introduces Lupi to Chicago’s Robert Blackwell. In the 5-years since he’d been out of the States, Lupi had picked up another European Championship—the Mixed Doubles with Otilia Badescu of Rumania. And a new life partner—his wife Zuzana with whom he now has an 18-months-old daughter, Leona. The family settles in Chicago, with Lupi representing Blackwell’s innovative Killerspin Table Tennis Co.
Lupi admires the company’s professionalism—their intensity in trying to do things that haven’t been done before: such as putting professional-play-for-pay ENTERTAINMENT on TV before millions of viewers. In Yugoslavia, Lupi had only one job—to be a player. Here, with Killerspin’s emphasis on marketing, he has to be “an athlete, an entertainer, a trainer, a salesman, and a businessman.” He doesn’t have much time for favorite pastimes—like fishing or playing soccer. .
At the 2001 Columbus Buckeye Open Lupi loses to Fan Yi Yong, 31-29 in the 5th. Fan, he says, is currently his toughest U.S. opponent—a smart player with an excellent backhand. However, Lupi and Killerspin friend Sasa Drinic take the Doubles from Fan and Dan Seemiller. Later, at the North American Team Championships, Killerspin players Grujic, Karakasevic, Kreanga, Drinic, Lupi, supported by Killerspin President Blackwell, win in grand fashion—they don’t lose a game from the quarter’s on.
At the 2002 St. Joe Valley Open, Lupi beats Fan in the semi’s, but is then beaten by Kara in a 9th-game final. However, since the two of them in a recent photo look like they can be playful, don’t be surprised by what happens on one of their last points:
“…Karakasevic on the far end of the table gradually works his defensive play left. Then, lobbing increasingly sliced sidespin as Lupulesku moves left netward, Kara hops the barrier into the unused but tabled adjacent court, and still returning balls works his way round the far side of that parallel table, pausing for a moment to lean on it while waiting for Lupi’s soft topspin. On receiving that, he returns the ball in a direct line from table end to table end, whereupon Lupi, opposite, lobs the ball back high over his head onto the far end of the table so that Kara, sprinting back round the adjacent table, and hopping back over the barrier to his staring position, can get to it. Then, as Lupi retreats for the expected smash, Kara deftly drops in a winner—and the crowd of course goes wild.”
Whether he’s player, exhibitionist, trainer, or coach, Lupi’s leadership job is to make sure that Killerspin, with an investment in 2002 alone of a million dollars, wins titles. After winning the U.S. Open Elite Singles and Over 30 Championship, Lupi tells Larry Hodges his strength is in his control. A mid-distance looper, he can vary the spin and place the ball well. He’s also good at lobbing, flipping, and is able to step around and hit his forehand. A big advantage is that he can use his wrist to change the direction of the ball at the last moment.
Killerspin players (Lupi, Kara, Johnny Huang, Geir Erlandson, and Mark Hazinski) again win the North American Team’s. Since Lupi’s now become a U.S. citizen, he’s eligible to play in the National’s. And play he does—wins the Over 30’s from Sean O’Neill and the Men’s from Zhuang.
Lupi says that, since he’s good against pips, he likes to play David. But he also says that David’s a very good player and that it takes lots of energy to beat him. Energy apparently that Lupi didn’t have at the late-Dec. $25,000 Killerspin Open just after the National’s. Why? Because, he says, his whole family had come down with the flu before the Closed, and he’d been concentrating to the extreme on that Blackwell tournament—“the best the U.S. has ever held.” Lupi lost to David, and there was quite a bit of testiness between the two of them—not over David’s what-goes-up-must-come-down serve but over a contested point. Lupi has some consolation in teaming with Sweden’s Singles winner Jens Lundqvist to take the Doubles from Zhuang/Fan.
Four titles for Lupi and Killerspin at the 2003 National’s. In the Men’s Singles, runner-up Hazinski helped Lupi out by clobbering Zhuang, and in the Men’s Doubles David himself, as if there were no hard feelings between them, paired with Lupi for the win. Jasna and Lupi were of course compatibly victorious in the Mixed. And Lupi was in such good spirits that he added the 30’s title too.
In 2004, Lupi qualified for his fifth Olympics. But at the National’s he looked like he’d gained weight and was slower, and lost to Zhuang 11-9 in the 6th.
By the time of the 2005 National’s, Lupi was sharper. Playing in Germany had given him focus. His team was in 1st Place, and he and Kara had the best Doubles record in the League. “Winning depends on practice,” Lupi had said. So Kara helped him prepare for the National’s—they practiced twice a day. Lupi felt good at returning the 3rd ball, felt he could get into a rally. Being able to return ball after ball would give him a psychological advantage. “Go to Lupi’s backhand,” someone had said, “and he’s 2950. Go to his forehand and he’s 2650. But, regardless, he has a great table game and won’t give you a free ball.” Sure enough, Lupi was back winning the Closed Singles, and the Doubles with Mark.
At the Mar. 3-5, 2006 Arnold Fitness Weekend at Columbus, Ohio, the ESPN Invitational Matches featured Lupi playing an exhibition with former Doubles partner Primorac. Ed Hogshead describes how at one point, “Lefthander Lupulesku was forehand looping to Primorac, when, after about seven power loops, Primorac countered to Lupulesku’s backhand catching him off balance and fading away from the table. But Lupulesku, with his back to the table, hit a backhand overhead kill shot for a winner! The entire audience stood up and exploded with applause—even the other International players were shaking their heads in disbelief. Primorac looked at the umpire and put up two fingers to indicate that he thought the shot was worth two points, whereby the umpire complied.”
At the 2006 Closed, Lupi, noticeably tired (because out of shape?) again lost to Zhuang (who’d certainly now become his toughest U.S. opponent). Larry Hodges wrote that “David is very comfortable against Lupi’s style, and has a long history of beating lefties, often with angled cross-court blocks to the forehand followed by down-the-line blocks to the backhand. ‘David loves to play Lupi,’ said David’s wife and coach, Joannie Fu. ‘But I don’t think Lupi likes to play David, not with all the tricky shots David does.’” Lupi says he does tricky shots too. But there weren’t enough of them this year. However, there’s always another year, isn’t there? Just 12 days before the 2007 National’s, Lupi was in the hospital—with kidney stones. First time he was ever sick, he said. But the crisis passed—and Lupi won his 4th National Singles Championship and his 4th National Doubles title with Hazinski.
In 2008, Lupi of course continued winning tournaments. But, enough—I think you all get the idea how deserving Lupi is of the honor we give him tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome our current National Champion, Ilija “Lupi” Lupulesku to our esteemed Hall.