Jasna Rather (nee Fazlic, formerly Lupulesku) was born Dec. 20, 1970 in Foca, a town in Bosnia not far from the Montenegro border. Following in the footsteps of her uncle and older sister, always an important influence in her life, she began playing table tennis at age 8, maybe got a Christmas present of a racket? At first, she told interviewer Larry Hodges, she didn’t really like table tennis and would sneak away from the training hall to go next door where trainees were into Karate and Gymnastics. But then at 10 she won a table tennis tournament and thereafter—how she liked winning!—was caught up in the sport.
The family, wanting more table tennis and educational opportunities for Jasna, moved to Zagreb, Croatia (like Bosnia, another part of a then united Yugoslavia), and there Jasna became a member of the famous Mladost Sports Club. Her teenage years were spent going to school and being immersed in table tennis. “I don’t think I ever had a weekend off, she said. “There was constantly some kind of play going on (Yugoslavian league and tournaments, International Opens, European League, European Cup, European Championships, World Championships, Olympics, Balkan Games, Mediterranean Games, Invitational tournaments, 15-day National Training Camps…).” Preferring to trust her own I-want-to-win instincts rather than any rote instruction, she followed her own training regimen—which meant three hours a day practice was quite enough. For Jasna, it was always necessary “to stay mentally fresh, to keep the desire to fight.”
By 1984 Jasna was a member of the Yugoslav National Team, and by 1987 was representing her country at the New Delhi World Championships. Yep, she was good—good enough the next year at 17 to be the #1 European Qualifier for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. And good enough once there to win a bronze medal in Women’s Doubles with Gordana Perkucin. (Four years later, she and Gordana would prove their Seoul finish was no fluke by winning the Women’s Doubles at the European Championships.)
Following her success in Seoul, Jasna paired with Ilija Lupulesku, 1988 Olympic Silver medalist in Men’s Doubles, to win the Mixed Doubles at the 1988 European’s. More gold followed in 1991 when Jasna won the Women’s Singles and Doubles at both the Mediterranean and Balkan Games. Also, in the last (1991) National Championships ever to be staged in the former Yugoslavia, Jasna, complementing her already roughly 20 Yugoslav National Championships in Singles, Doubles, and Teams, added, in a clean sweep, four more National titles—bringing honors to Mladost, Lupi, her Women’s Doubles partner Branka Batinic, and of course to her singular self. She also acquitted herself well in a rare appearance at the U.S. Open—defeated Taipei’s Xu Jing before losing to World Champion Qiao Hong in the semi’s.
That summer, Yugoslavia was breaking up—the Serbs and Croats were at war. And Jasna, who’d gone to Sarajevo to train with Lupulesku whom she was dating, had not returned to Zagreb and her family but in fact had married “Lupi” at a wedding which she said 800 people attended. Conspicuous by his forced absence was their friend Zoran “Zoki” Primorac, who’d been Lupi’s runner-up Doubles partner at the Seoul Olympics. He was Croatian and, since he was with his team at Zagreb, didn’t feel the “traitor” onus pinned on Jasna by others when she’d moved to Novi Sad and continued with her husband to represent Yugoslavia.
Jasna was troubled, she said, “by the way politicians manipulate everyday people,” bringing about the unsettling consequences of War. In 1994, after she and Lupi had been in the States and applied for their U.S. Green Cards, she was back in Europe playing for a club in Brussels. But she became disenchanted with table tennis, and eventually she and Lupi divorced—amicably. Thereafter, she went to Japan, where she’d been earlier, and contracted to play for a club in Osaka. She liked the experience—except for the required excessive practicing. “Everyone is different,” she said. “Some players can train more than others; for me it became sheer torture, and I didn’t want to play table tennis anymore!”
So, where to now, and why?
Turns out that Bob Allshouse, who was the Director of the now defunct Olympic Table Tennis Training Center in Davison, MI, arranged a scholarship for Jasna and, though she said, “I disliked school as a child,” from 1996-2000 she became a serious student and graduated from Oakland University in Rochester, MI with a BA degree in—of all things (“I hate politics”)—Political Science.
In Dec., 1999, Jasna, no longer a Yugoslav but now a Croatian citizen, became a United States citizen as well—which meant that she was now eligible to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team. And on diligently organizing a training schedule while studying for her teaching certificates, she soon got much of her old Championship form back and qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
She also qualified to teach Geography at a high school in Irving, Texas. She liked teaching. However, in the summer of 2001, she accepted—thanks to new University President Hal Jeffcoat—a scholarship to attend Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth with the intention of pursuing a Master’s degree in Education, which she would eventually attain. As she said in a Larry Hodges interview, “I could see myself teaching and maybe have a positive effect on some troubled kid’s life.”
But as a student/athlete she was of two minds, and decided that what would make her happiest was playing high-level table tennis—she could pursue academic excellence later. Of course as a U.S. Team member she’d already had a number of successes—Women’s Doubles winner at the 2001 (and also 2005) North American Championships, at the 2001 and 2002 National’s (with Gao Jun), and at the 2003 Pan Am Games (again with Gao Jun, for years the country’s invincible Champion). Now in Dec., 2003, her two-winged looping/hitting play (with emphasis on a point-winning backhand), gave her an initial National Singles Championship (against many-time runner-up Tawny Banh).
Since she was playing well, the ITTF Pro Tour beckoned, and Jasna found a European base. She signed to play professionally for a German club near Saarbrucken. This worked out very well for her—and not only because of a strong 2003-2004 second half-season of 16 wins, three losses. She was a natural—attractive, friendly, intense and dramatic, a great crowd-pleaser. One who, win or lose—and NO-O-O, she didn’t like to lose—the home crowd could identify with.
Her unique service motion always drew attention. “It is quite deliberate,” said Table Tennis Illustrated. “The racket starts at almost head-high before she bends her elbow and wrist with the racket traveling around the outside of the ball to create sidespin with either a degree of backspin or topspin, depending on the timing point.” Jasna herself said, “The serve is ugly—but difficult to flip, attack, or top; 90% of the time it’s perfectly short, so opponents can’t do much with it.”
Jasna has long been a table tennis traveler, and, though living in Europe, was commuting to the U.S. for trials and tournaments. She came to the 2003 Dec. National’s and won all three events—in Women’s Singles over her friend Tawny (who’d just beaten her in the quarter’s of the Pan Am Games, and who three times before in the National’s had been runner-up to Gao Jun), in Women’s Doubles (with Tawny), and in Mixed Doubles (with ex-husband Lupi). In fact, from 2001 through 2010, Jasna reached the finals of these three major National Championship events a total of 18 times, most recently last year in Women’s Doubles with Judy Hugh. Six of these finals were in Singles competition—twice she won, most spectacularly against Crystal Huang in the seventh in 2005, and four times she lost—to China-trained elite world-class players Gao Jun and Wang Chen.
How does she explain her success? “I’m not the kind of player who analyzes everything the way most people do,” she told interviewer Hodges.” Does that mean she doesn’t tape her matches and study them? If so, that seems odd, for, by her own admission, she’s “a movie and TV freak,” is always screening others. “I don’t have special tactics against anyone,” she said. “I go and play, and just feel it. I guess I’m able to make instant decisions while playing games. You can’t ever totally predict what an opponent will do, so you’d better be ready to have quick answers. And I do try to be ready. If I really care about winning a match, then I fight like an animal, and have 200% of my head in the game.”
Here’s that Table Tennis Illustrated interviewer quoting her again, “‘Sexy clothing attracts girls to play sports. Wearing a skirt and feminine top I feel better; you don’t dress like that just to try and seduce the boys!’ she said with a wry smile. ‘I’m happy with myself, I feel good about myself, I want to look good, to feel good, dress tastefully but wear a sleeveless top if I want to, then I’ll play better.’”
By 2006, another, her fourth (2004) Olympics was behind her. She had qualified not only in the Singles but with Whitney Ping in the Doubles—they’d run it out from 8-all in the 7th against the mother-daughter pair of Lily Yip/Judy Hugh.
By now, Jasna was back at Texas Wesleyan in earnest—and of course winning everything possible at the National Intercollegiate’s that year, including a Mixed Doubles win with 2001 U.S. Champ Eric Owens. She was also certified as a U.S. National Coach, and in 2007, when she won her third Collegiate Singles Championship, she began sharing the title of Head Coach at Wesleyan with Keith Evans. Perhaps, since her mother was a teacher and her sister, a professor, it’s not surprising that, despite more than a quarter-century of playing competitively, she so contentedly settled into her academic surroundings.
In that same Hodges interview 10 years ago where she said as a teacher she hoped she might be able to give needed help to kids, she also said, “It would be good if one day I can find a husband and create a happy family.”
Ladies and gentlemen, as I speak, Mrs. Jasna Rather is about to give birth to her first child. She sends us a tape, thanking us for the honor bestowed on her tonight. Please welcome her to our Hall.