Day 9, August 23 - The ITTF’s First-Ever Competition Manager Zlatko Cordas Reminisces
“The players and coaches realized very fast that the Pro Tour was an excellent project and that I would protect their interests 100%.”
What influenced you to pick up the game?
I start to play when I was five-years-old in a small village near Zagreb in Croatia. At that time all the kids played soccer in the summer and table tennis in the winter. We had a small playing hall with two tables. The hall was too small for any other sport, therefore, there was not a choice to start any other sport. Of course there was no coach. I learned everything by watching the older players.
When I was twelve my family moved to Zagreb and I started to play for the club where Dragutin Surbek played. We played together, in two different clubs for 14 years.
At what point did you and our dear friend and author of Table Tennis Legends Zdenko Uzorinac meet and develop a friendship?
Zdenko played in Zagreb but in a better club. As a young player I had the chance to play against him, unfortunately he beat me almost every time. Surbek and I moved to his club after he stopped playing. Zdenko was a fantastic man. I learned not only a lot about table tennis from him, but also, what is more important, about life.
What may be news to many people is that we met a LONG time ago, when you visited Disney’s, the club where I spent a great deal of my youth. Where did you and Zdenko go on that tour and what impact did it have on you?
Our US/Canada tour was organized between Zdenko and his very good friend from San Francisco Mr. Hershkowich. After the 1973 WTTC’s in Sarajevo we organized a 10-day tour in Croatia for the US team. For that Mr. Hershkovich sent us two tickets for San Francisco.
We stayed about 7 days in San Francisco. Than we started to move from city to city until our last stop in New York where we were guests of Tim Boggan and his family. We stayed usually 3-4 days in each city. We played for travel expenses and our accommodations. But during those 40 days we had a chance to see and learn a lot about table tennis in the USA as well as about the country. Yes, I remember you from our visit to Minneapolis. We did an exhibition in a big shopping mall. To play in a shopping mall was “culture shock” for us.
From New York we left to Toronto where I stayed for a month. This two-month tour changed my life. I realized that another way of life existed. One year later I received an offer from the Canadian Association to be their national coach. I accepted and my life changed completely. Fortunately for the better.
What were your peak moments as a player?
I had the privilege to play on the Yugoslavian national team with Dragutin Surbek, Anton Stipancic, Istvan Korpa, Eduard Vecko and Milivoj Karakasevic. All of them were world class players who were better than me. I played at all WTTC’s from 1963-1973 but I did not play a single match in the team competition. I was always #4 or #5 on the team. Finally at the 1974 European Championships I started to play for the team. Surbek and Stipancic had been #1 and #2. Karakasevic or I played in the third position.
We won a few bronze medals at the WTTC’s and silver medals at the European TT Championships. At that time Sweden was unbeatable with Hans Alser, Kjell Johansson and later Stellan Bengtsson.
My best world ranking was between 20 and 30.
During the 1974 European Championships I received an offer from Canada. I stopped playing at the age of 26 when I was at my best and headed to Canada.
You first met Adham Sharara in 1974 when you were appointed Canada's National Coach with a 3-year contract. Adham later served as your assistant coach at the 1977 Commonwealth Championships and 1977 World Championships. Adham then hired you again in 1981 to be the National Training Centre coach in Ottawa, with a 1-year contract. Did you have any inkling that both of you would later go on to fill such prominent roles in the ITTF?
In September 1974 the Canadian team went to Japan for a training camp. Adham was a member of the team. Of course neither of us dreamed at that time what would happen 15-20 years later.
The coaching role I think most of us picture you in was, however, as the National Team coach of the DTTB, the German TTA. I believe you were Jorg Rosskopf’s coach when he took home the bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Were you also the coach when Rosskopf and Steffen Fetzner won Men’s Doubles at the 1989 WTTC’s in Dortmund? What were your feelings to be at the helm, so to speak, when those victories occurred?
I was under contract with the German Association from June 1986 until the 1997 WTTC’s in England.
Here is how it all started. Because of bad results and a bad relationship between the best player and the Head Coach, the German Association asked me to be in charge of the national team’s competitions. Practically I was in charge of the team at tournaments. For daily practice the Head Coach was still in charge of the team. I had a part-time job coaching; my full-time job was with Joola as their Promotion Director.
At that time all of the table tennis world was laughing about that situation. After one year nobody was laughing any more. In my 10 years of coaching on the German team’s bench, we won two bronze medals at the WTTC’s, and a silver medal and a few bronze medals at the European TT Championships. In Men’s Doubles, Jorg Rosskopf and Steffen Fetzner won the World Championships, a silver Olympic medal and the European Junior Championships. Rosskopf won the European Championships and an Olympic bronze medal. These are only the most important results. That was a fantastic ten years. It was my privilege to work for the German Association under the leadership of Hans Gäb and Eberhard Schoeler, head coaches Charles Roesh and Eva Jeler, coaches Istvan Korpa and Klaus Schmmitinger and the German national team players. Of course I had a special relationship with Rosskopf and Fetzner. Until today they are my best friends.
A huge turning point in the professionalization of table tennis happened when Adham Sharara contacted you about becoming the ITTF’s first-ever Competition Manager in 1997. Many people in the Countdown series have already acknowledged the enormous contribution you made during your five years in that role. Can you share a couple of stories about that period of your life and how you helped transform the image and presentation of our sport?
The five years I worked as the ITTF’s Competition Manager was a very exciting time. Adham had a vision of the Pro Tour Staff and each person’s duties: Anders Thunström (marketing), Christian Veronese (TV production), Peter Jansen (press officer) and it was my job to make Adham’s vision a reality. Within five years the Pro Tour was well established. Of course during those same five years, the presentation at the WTTC’s and Olympic Games improved tremendously also.
There are so many stories from that time. I would like to remind you that during those five years the following important changes happened:
- prize money increased considerably;
- TV coverage got bigger every year;
- the time-out rule was introduced;
- the points needed to win a game changed from 21 to 11;
- change from small to bigger ball;
- service rule was amended; and
- there was a change in the Swaythling Cup team competition to the best of seven games.
All these important changes had been previously tested at the Pro Tour level. Recommendations were given to Adham and he oversaw the “political” part to change the rules.
It was a privilege to work with you during that time. You knew what standards you wanted to meet and, let’s be honest: exceed. I found you always to be caring, thoughtful and helpful. How did you go about taking on this challenge?
Adham first explained to me that he would like to change “International Open” tournaments into a Pro Tour system as well as what the final product was supposed to be. I realized that would not be easy, but the possibility to have a table tennis Pro Tour was so exciting.
It was clear to me that I couldn’t succeed on my part without the full support and co-operation of the best world’s players and national team coaches as well. Remember that in May 1997 I was on the bench of the German team competing against these players and coaches and in September 1997 I was the first ITTF Competition Manager.
The players and coaches realized very fast that the Pro Tour was an excellent project and that I would protect their interests 100%. At that time Europe was very strong, I will mention only some of the biggest names like Waldner, Persson, Saive, Gatien, Rosskopf, Primorac, Schlager, Samsonov, Korbel, and Kreanga. I apologize for anyone I missed mentioning. They supported the Pro Tour concept 100%. I discussed all changes and ideas with them and their coaches. That generation of European players deserves big credit for the development of the Pro Tour, which is now known as the World Tour, and World Title events leading up to the standards we have today.
For sure you remember, that was during your time as USATT President, how we built up the US Open in Fort Lauderdale from a local event to one of the best Pro Tours; and, for the players, it was one of the most popular Pro Tour tournaments.
Thank you. Can you offer some words of encouragement to associations who would love to jump on board as hosts of a World Tour but are still trying to figure out how to get there?
My advice to associations who would like to organize a World Tour event is to contact the ITTF and ask for the advice and help of the Competition Department staff. They will put you in the right direction. It is not so complicated to organize a World Tour tournament if you follow the Competition Department directives.
I am very proud to have been a part of the development of the World Tour, World Championships and Olympic Games over the last 20 years.
I would like to mention for me a very important point. One of our primary goals was to develop the Pro Tour to the point that players who decided to be professional table tennis players could earn enough prize money to cover their travel and accommodation expenses, plus be able to put something on the side. Unfortunately we are still not at that point. Prize money is much bigger now, but only the top players benefit from the existing prize money distribution system.
The next major transition for you was when the Qatar TTA hired you to produce the World Championships in 2004, which you did and then you stayed on since then. Could you share some background on that?
The QTTA contacted me in 2002 with a request to help them organize the 2004 WTTC’s in Doha. The original arrangement was to be in Qatar from January 2003 until the WTTC’s in February 2004. After that I was supposed to return to the ITTF.
Unfortunately in January 2003 my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Of course I decided to stop traveling and canceled my plans to return to the ITTF.
The QTTA was satisfied with my work organizing the 2004 WTTC’s and they made me an offer to stay in Qatar. From an initial plan to stay there 16 months, I have already spent 12 years in Qatar. I have an excellent relationship with QTTA officials, especially with the President Khalil Al-Mohannadi. I will never forget his support during the last year of my wife’s fight with cancer. I am really honored and proud to be his friend.
Proof of our mutual trust is that for the last ten years I have worked for the QTTA without a written contract. A hand-shake agreement is more important for both of us.
With Adham Sharara’s presidency coming to an end in less than 10 days, how would you describe his legacy?
I think in previous interviews all aspects of Adham’s legacy have been mentioned. I am sure he will be remembered as the most influential President in the ITTF’s history.
I would like to make one observation from the point of view of the players. It is very difficult to become a top-class international player. Twenty years ago, after all compromises about having an official education and a social life, spending hours training and months traveling to tournaments, it was impossible to answer questions about what it meant to say: “I am a professional table tennis player.”
After twenty years of service to the ITTF, Adham made it possible for many players to say: “I am a professional table tennis player” and to be proud about their profession.
For the benefit of table tennis, I sincerely hope that Adham will continue for a long time to work for the ITTF in his new capacity as Chairman.
Thank you, Zlatko. As I mentioned previously, it was a pleasure to work with you during that time period. Many people in the Countdown series have expressed their appreciation for the enormous contribution you made to our sport as the ITTF’s first-ever Competition Manager.