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In Memoriam - ZORAN KOSANOVIC (1956-1998)

By USATT Historian Tim Boggan

Zoran "Zoki" Kosanovic, 1978 Yugoslav National Champion and, after emigrating to Canada in ‘79, for several years perhaps the best player in North America, rivaled only by Danny Seemiller and Eric Boggan, died Feb. 4, 1998 of a massive heart attack while playing soccer. Like his ‘70’s Yugo teammate, Anton "Tova" Stipancic, who just a few years ago also suffered a similarly fatal attack, he was only 42.

Andrew Giblon, a Kosanovic-coached Canadian Maccabiah Team member, phoned to tell me the startling news. Zoki, still so sports-minded--he not only played soccer but squash, tennis, and golf as well--and who in the years I knew him always prided himself on his remarkable physical fitness, had collapsed on the playing field while his 13-year-old son Sasha was watching, had then been revived, but only momentarily, before succumbing. Former Canadian star Derek Wall, who also called me, said he’d heard that Zoran, so active he never felt the need for a check-up, had a 90% heart blockage.

How terrible for his still young widow Darinka--accompanied by son Sasha, and 16-year-old daughter Tanya--to sit grief-stricken in that same St. Siva Serbian Orthodox church in Toronto she and Zoki were so happily married in almost 20 years earlier. Giving the poignant eulogies were Zoki’s friend and fellow competitor, many-time Canadian Champion Errol Caetano, and Darinka’s brother Mike Jovanov (whose family-supportive father George was formerly Ontario TTA President). Among the well-known Canadian table tennis personages present in addition to Giblon and Wall were ITTF Deputy President and CEO Adham Sharara; long-time Canadian International Joe Ng; and John Nesukaitis, father and coach of Canada’s famous sister players of years gone by, Violetta, Flora, and Gloria Nesukaitis.

Zoran, who at the time of his death was doing building-renovation work, had not played seriously competitive table tennis for perhaps a decade, but Giblon told me that for the last three years he’d been managing soccer and table tennis programs at Upper Canada College, a private boys’ school. Coaching, like playing, had always meant a lot to Zoki. He was a proud man, and an intense one, and, as he demanded much from himself, so he did from his pupils. Like any passionate, ever-purposeful but sometimes frustrated player/coach with a demon or two to subdue, he wanted to see his all-out efforts rewarded.

As a youth, Kosanovic had worked hard to prepare himself to be a world-class player. In 1973, when only 17, he’d participated in his first World Championships--at Sarajevo. There in the 8th’s of the Men’s Doubles, he and fellow Yugoslav Zlatko Cordas, who in the mid-’70’s would be the Canadian National Coach, received a presumably enlightening lesson in losing to the defending World Champions, Hungary’s Istvan Joyner and Tibor Klampar.

By the 1975 Bombay World’s and the ‘76 European’s (in which he lost 19 in the 5th to the formidable Czech Milan Orlowski), Kosanovic was good enough to be playing an occasional tie for the very successful Yugoslav National Team--at that time the best in Europe.

In 1977 he was more an integral part of that Team, playing 10 matches in all--and, as the Croatian historian Zdenko Uzorinac tells us, showing a tempestuous desire to win. In a crucial tie against the eventual runner-up Japan, with the score 4-4, Zoki, on being down 10-8 in the deciding 3rd to Inoue and losing an unlucky point, banged his racket into the floor so hard that he was left with only part of its handle. However, since he didn’t have a back-up racket, and since the one he broke resisted immediate efforts to mend it, this was one of those times where his intensity more hurt than helped him. But it was also here in Birmingham, in the second round of the Singles, that Zoki upset the famous Li Zhenshi who with Liang Geliang would go on to win the first of his World Men’s Doubles Championships.

Although many observers thought that Li "dumped" that match, they had to admit that in post-World’s play, Zoran showed he was worthy of his World #29 ranking. He won the May, ‘77 inaugural Norwich Union Canadian Open in Montreal, beating in the quarter’s Germany’s Jochen Leiss, World #19 and winner the next week of the U.S. Open; in the semi’s South Korea’s Kim Wan (after being down 2-0); and in the final his teammate Surbek, World #5 (with whom he also won the Doubles). Off court there in Canada he might have been playing another game. Hearts? Certainly his fellow Yugoslavs enjoyed playing "Black Cat" (the Cat was the Queen of Spades and the A-K-Q-J of hearts carried the variant penalty of not 1 point but 6-5-4-3 points respectively). In any case, Zoran was never one to just sit around the Hall watching someone else’s matches. In between rounds, presuming the tournament hotel was nearby, he often went back to his room to relax.

By the end of the ‘78 season, Zoki as the new Yugoslav Champion had improved his world ranking to a career high of #26--though at the ‘79 Pyongyang World’s he had no chance to beat China’s Huang Liang in the Singles.

Two months after marrying (Sept. 29, 1979) and taking up residence in Toronto--and this despite the fact that his old Club reportedly offered him $2000 a month to remain in Yugoslavia, plus the guarantee of an $800 or more a month job for his wife Darinka who’d graduated from the University of Toronto with a law degree--Zoki and (Mike Jovanov, Errol Caetano, Derek Wall, and Alan Heap) his Max Marinko Professionals team (named of course in memory of the great Yugoslav International and later 9-time Canadian Closed Champ) won the Detroit U.S. Open Team Championship. In this round robin competition Zoki didn’t lose a game.

But in April of 1980, though he won the Eastern’s over Danny Seemiller, Kosanovic was lamenting, "I’m only playing about 20% of what I should be. It may appear that I’m playing very well but I’m not."

Though Zoran rightfully worried about his world-class game deteriorating now that he was often isolated from formidable competition, in May he successfully defended his Norwich Union Canadian Open, last played in ‘77. In the quarter’s he beat Attila Malek, who six months before had won the U.S. Closed; in the semi’s England’s #4 Bob Potton (in 5); and in the final Danny Seemiller, who a few months earlier had beaten ‘67 World Champion Nobuhiko Hasegawa in the Western Japan Open.

At this point in his career, Zoki is undefeated in North America. For some time now he’s been following a daily routine. Whether there’s a tournament coming up or not, five early mornings a week, he practices with Canadian Junior Champ Joe Ng before they both go off to school--Zoki to his 9-3:30 classes in English where, earphones at the ready, he listens to himself and his teacher and watches himself talking before his peers on a closed TV screen. Later in the day, especially if there’s an upcoming tournament, he practices with Wall and Caetano, and (134 last time out) he’s just started to play golf with them on weekends.

Preparing for the June U.S. Open in Fort Worth (though not knowing they were going to have to suffer through a 113 degree heat wave there), Kosanovic and Ng are doing a drill. Having access to a big box of balls adjacent to the table, they would hit non-stop forehands to one another for 90 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds, then resume their forehand play, then rest, etc. Soon, according to their stop watch, Zoran’s heart beat went to 180, then, after a short interval, came down to 90--a good recovery rate. But Joe’s went up to 140, then, after a short interval, went...further up to 150! Zoki was scared.

At Fort Worth, through the quarter’s, Kosanovic continues his streak--is still unbeaten in North America. The visiting Koreans are impressed by Zoki’s footwork and particularly his backhand loop. His forehand loop’s not bad either: once, going after a net ball, from down on one knee he curves a wide return around the net post and catches a corner edge. Zoki says if he beats Sweden’s Mikael Appelgren in the final he’s going to buy a whole new set of Jack Nicklaus clubs (though he already has a perfectly good MacGregor set). But in the final, Appelgren, who’s destined to be the next European Champion, stops him in 5.

Still, through my $2500 Nov. Concord Resort Hotel tournament in N.Y.’s wooded Catskills ("a fun place to run," Zoki says), he remained unbeaten in Singles by a North American player--though in the final he was extended to 19 in the 4th with Danny.

From Jan. through May, 1981, Kosanovic went back to Yugoslavia to train--some said to overtrain--with his Yugoslav teammates for the World’s. During the Team ties at the Championships in Novi Sad, he reportedly tripped climbing over a spectator’s floor chair, fell, landed on his neck, and almost slashed his jugular vein.

On arriving at the mid-June 1981 Princeton U.S. Open the day before the tournament after a long flight from Hong Kong where he’d played in the Norwich Union Masters, he and Caetano promptly lost in the Team’s to Scott Boggan and Ricky Seemiller (the first U.S. player to beat him). In the Singles, after again knocking out Kim Wan, Zoki, like many another player, was badly confused by World Singles runner-up Cai Zhenhua’s play. (Which side was his anti? As Cai stroked the ball, Zoki had no flash of color to help him, couldn’t tell.)

As this U.S. Open tournament wound down, the USTTA protested Kosanovic’s inclusion in round robin play with Caetano, Danny Seemiller, and Eric Boggan to determine who would be the North American Champion eligible to play in the World Cup. Zoki had been out of Canada for five months, was not eligible to play in the Canadian Closed, and had represented Yugoslavia at the World’s--but ITTF President Roy Evans made a personal decision allowing him to play. Eric beat Zoki and Errol, but lost to Danny; Zoki, though losing to Eric, beat Errol and Danny (who also lost to Errol). Since at that time the two-way tie was not broken in a head-to-head manner, Kosanovic’s 2-1 (5-2) record was better than Eric’s 2-1 (4-4) and so in July Zoki took the long trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

On his return home he conducted his Windsor/Detroit Coaching Camp, which because of the summer postal strike in Canada I’d agreed to take entries via Topics for. "Coach in Training"--that was the rather strange title he was given by, if not the CTTA, the Ontario TTA in their official sanctioning of this $400-per-student Aug. 4-15 learning experience.

In the U.S. vs. Canada International Team Matches at Toronto over Labor Day weekend, Kosanovic labored to beat Ricky Seemiller 26-24 in the 3rd, then lost to both Eric and Danny. What was happening? One thing sure, Zoki was not a National Hero--the Championship trophies went to the U.S. He was 25, something to worry about--maybe his game was deteriorating. And yet, a fighter, a professional, he recovered--won the $600 Singles over Eric and Danny. "Zoki has this long loop follow through," said Caetano, "so he can go all the way around on his stroke or can deceptively angle it off sometime before. This means that if you’re not used to playing him he doesn’t even have to hit the ball hard to win the point because you’re faked out, and even if you do just get your racket on the ball, it’s got so much spin you can’t handle it."

Zoki may have been based in Toronto, but he certainly got around. Now he was in Bombay for the Commonwealth Games, and though he couldn’t represent Canada in the Team event he won the silver in Men’s Singles (beating the strong Hong Kong player Chiu Man Kuen), and in Men’s and Mixed Doubles.

At the sun-and-swim Kingston, Jamaica Lovebird Open in late May of ‘82, Kosanovic lost in the final to Eric Boggan. Then a week later, at the ‘82 Norwich Union Masters in Toronto, perhaps slow to recuperate from his Jamaican vacation break, he finished dead last. "C’mon, Zoki, win a match!" I kid him along the way. "I can’t," he jokes back. "I’m already three years in Canada."

It was said that Kosanovic had to be physically perfect to be really good, and so sometimes his much vaunted footwork, his defensive topspin lobs, and his attacking loops were not as effective as they were at other times. But although Zoki may have been a little humiliated at his poor results at this Masters Championship, he was never cowed. "Watch the spin!" some spectator yells out as Kosanovic loses still another point. Hearing him, Zoki stops play, turns to the audience and calls out to the unidentified voice, its unseen owner, "Who are you to say such a smart thing to me? If you’re so good, you come down here and try to play." But the guy knew better than to make a fool of himself.

Zoran had put on about 15 pounds since he’d become Ontario Provincial Coach (not Zoki but his friend Cordas was now back as the Canadian National Coach). And perhaps he was losing heart? "Most psychologists in Canada," said one who understood Zoki’s problem, "feel there should be no individual stars in Canadian sports. So they’re teaching the kids in schools that it’s not important to win, that what’s important is to be a healthy human being, and winning is merely a by-product. With this negative mentality, you’re going to produce fewer and fewer champions."

No wonder Zoki, who managed his Woburn T.T. Club in a Fitness Center, had difficulty finding young players willing to work. As a strict coach he knew very well that 13-18-year-olds wanted to be late to training and practice, wanted to talk and chew bubble gum while they played. Of course he didn’t like all those young U.S. players either--all of them trying to protect their rating while they learned, ever conscious in match after match that they’d better play safe, not risk the loss of rating points.

So, should Zoki stay home and try not even to think about playing, about coaching, about the fireworks, or should he come to the July 4th weekend U.S. Open? He had, as I say, strong recuperative powers--didn’t lose heart easily. To Detroit then, and with grunting determination, he scored perhaps his greatest tournament triumph--downed in succession Dell Sweeris, B.K. Arunkumar, the Swede Lars Franklin, Eric Boggan (who’d beaten him in the Team’s), and, in marvelous sweet revenge, European Champ Appelgren, 19 in the 5th.

Zoki started off the 1982-83 season in the Sheep and Swine Building at the Canadian National Exhibition tournament in Toronto. There to the accompaniment of rabbits being loudly auctioned off in the background, he prevailed over Caetano in a 5-game final. Then, however, he lost both the Eastern’s and the North American World Cup Qualifier to Eric Boggan who’d just returned from his remarkable showing at the Seoul Open where on reaching the final he was beaten by Swedish prodigy Jan-Ove Waldner. At the Canadian Open, playing his 4th weekend in a row, Zoki lost in the Team’s to Danny and in the Singles to the Japanese Ogino. Afterwards, at the USOTC’s, though he contributed the maximum three wins, including a remember-me one over Atanda Musa who’d taken the gold from him last year in Bombay, his Ontario Team partners Ng and Caetano couldn’t help him produce a winner, and Ontario lost 5-4.

Still not eligible to play in the Team’s for Canada at the Tokyo World’s, Kosanovic had to content himself with beating the previous year’s Latin American Champion Claudio Kano of Brazil before losing to Belgian Champ Remo de Prophetis.

At the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, Zoki lost in the final of the Team’s to Danny. After which in the quarter’s of the Singles, down 2-0 and 6-0 in the 3rd against the perennial Chinese Taipei Champion Wu Wen-chia, Zoki looked as if he were going to self-destruct. But something inside made him fight to recover and somehow, despite moments of self-disgust, he survived. Conscious that he hadn’t been in training for this tournament, he then lost to the eventual winner Eric in the semi’s.

Immediately thereafter the Chinese arrived in Canada for the Butterfly Canadian Championships (in which Zoki beat Danny) and a three-city Tour. Regardless of the occasion, Zoki did not upset two-time World runner-up Cai Zhenhua or World #3 Xie Saike.

That summer, at the open-24-hours-a-day Ontario Table Tennis Center, a 16-table facility located in what used to be a soft drink factory on a property owned by 1982 Ontario TTA President Ned McLennan, Zoki did his thing. For six mornings a week he worked with his pupils, stressing physical rather than technical development (that would come later). His star madman student was Manitoba’s Derrick Black, who, embarking on a lonely, private, and ultimately futile 8-year plan to become one of the world’s best players, gave up a $385 a month subsidy at the Ottawa Training Center and came to Toronto so he could play with Canada’s highest level players--Kosanovic, Ng, and Caetano. Derrick spent his days working out at Zoran’s "pop shop" and just plain working at the tire shop next door so, as he said, "I can eat (though apparently not lunch, for on his lunch hour he played table tennis). Also, to simulate the appropriate world-class effort, he and Kosanovic practiced with leg and double waist weights on.

Someone said that the regular early morning hours of Zoki’s Coaching Program not only kept the juniors going, they kept Zoki going. Witness that day when there was no one around for Kosanovic to practice with. After a while Zoran said, "I’m gonna ask one of my juniors to practice with me." The kid was ecstatic.

The 1983-84 season marked the beginning of the end of Kosanovic’s memorable playing career--though he would return to win the 1987 Eastern’s. At the CNE, he and Caetano won the Doubles (as later that season they would win a minor two-man team tournament in Detroit). But in Singles play he was taxed to the extreme. In the International Matches he’d no sooner outlasted Ricky Seemiller 29-27 in the deciding 3rd than, unbelievable, he dropped a marathon mirror match to Danny, again 29-27 in the 3rd. Then, in the semi’s of the Singles, he lost what some saw as a career- turning match, 28-26 in the 5th, to his most promising practice partner, young Joe Ng who would soon be the Canadian National Champion. Up match point, Zoki erred, pushed the ball into the net, and followed by banging that ball down on the table so hard it came back up, trampoline high, as if some part of Zoki himself were soaring, disembodied, away.

"Kosanovic lost," said Zoki. "Now Canada is happy."

Whatever bitterness Kosanovic felt about his place, or lack of it, as a player, as a coach, in Canadian table tennis, he had such heart he could not be thought finished, even by these heartbreak CNE losses. Later, in Power Poon’s $8,000 Louisiana Open, he rebounded to beat Danny and come second to Eric. This, the last major U.S. tournament I covered in my last (Topics-succeeding) 1983-84 Timmy’s publication, was nearly the last of Zoran’s major tournaments. In this issue there’s a picture I took of Zoki, his brother-in-law Mike Jovanov, and Errol Caetano when we were a foursome that summer of ‘83 on a Toronto golf course. I think of it now. The picture is posed: Zoki, bent over, supposedly having just putted, has dropped his putter as the ball sits on the edge of the hole, refusing to go in. The caption reads, "Tough luck, Zoki."

I don’t know if Zoran would have preferred being remembered as a player or as a coach. But either way it was his sense of purpose, his intensity, that always came through. See him with his "Ontario Senior Men" (if you weren’t a junior, you were a senior) at the ‘83 Detroit USOTC’s. Zoki wasn’t playing? What was the matter with him? Oh, more physical trouble. He had tendonitis in his wrist. For 10 days now it had been all bandaged up, and for maybe another 10 it would still be numb. Too much practicing--that was one confidante’s answer as to how it happened. Now, presumably because of the injury, Zoki’s hair was getting longer, he was growing a beard, and taking some strong pills ("like I was in the skies sometimes...ha, ha...a nice feeling...ha, ha").

But don’t think he wasn’t very much at the ready--for replacing his racket was a very large notebook. Yes, he was coaching and, oh, oh, being more than a little disagreeably erupt in his arguments with an official or two--all in his usual intense manner. And I must say, so coldly passionate, so single-minded in pursuing his job was he--which of course was to get his team to win--that he himself might have been playing the tie.

Ng, up against the Nigerian Titus Omotara, had lost the 1st and was near hopelessly 9-1 down in the 2nd. So? "Feet! Feet! Feet!" Zoki began shouting from the bench...."C’mon, Joseph, let’s go! First one must be on the table!"--and damned if Joe didn’t come back to win that 2nd game. Now, more advice. "When this guy serves with his backhand down the line," said Zoki, "you’ve got to return the ball with forehand sidespin, then step forward into his return with forehand spin. Got that?"...And later, "Joe! Your feet aren’t moving!" Final score? 22-20 in the 3rd for Ng/Kosanovic.

My own notes on Zoran have turned into pages, and I have to stop. The best ending I can find for this little show of homage to him is going to come from someone else--from excerpts from an article in my last Timmy’s by Sangita Kamble, who speaks not only for herself but others. It’s called "A Gift"--and, Zoki, I hope that, in the lines I’ve resurrected here, it’s heart and soul as satisfying a eulogy to you as you could ever wish for:

"...Zoran’s day begins when most of us can be found in a deep sleep. His day ends while most of us are caught up in the midst of a dream. Yet this man never seems to tire. Day after day, week after week, he continues to smile on the gloomiest days, to hold his head high through the strongest storms....

Zoran spends much of his time with his "kids." His "kids" are like his own family--as he is part of each of ours...almost every weekday, as well as each weekend.

...As a coach Zoran is unbelievably patient. He understands each hardship of each player. He feels our sorrows and celebrates our joys. He cares. He goes out of his way to help us. He has taught us to believe in ourselves, to believe in him and each other. From him we have not only acquired expertise but discipline. From him we have learned morals and values.

...Though this is not Europe, we are still filled with dreams and challenges. We are not world class players. We are not North American class players. We are not Canadian class players. Not yet....

...Since, without Zoran my life would not be as it is, I am very grateful to him, and in return for what he has given me, I want to give him this gift of an article. I feel proud to know such a fine person, and to have him as my coach and friend."

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