Table tennis is no joke

He also says so Wikipedia: Table tennis is one of the most popular sports in the world, yet we find it hard to take it seriously. Maybe because it’s a discipline we’ve all had to deal with, good or bad, and so it’s easy to feel strong, up to the task. When instead the table tennis players true, the professionals, are all-round athletes: strong, resistant, mentally ready for real wars of attrition. And then technical sensitivity, coordination and reflexes cannot be missing.

In short, play really table tennis is no joke. And the fact that Italy is struggling to produce great talent is a clear sign in this sense. Yet something is changing: thirty years after Massimiliano Mondello, the most successful Italian player of all time, there is a 19-year-old who in July won the prestigious bronze medal in the Junior singles at the European Youth Championships in Belgrade. We are talking about Andrea Pupo, from Liguria and destined to rewrite the history of this discipline in our country. His latest engagement was WTT Feeder Panagyurishte in Bulgaria, but he also found time to speak at Eleven of table tennis, a sport more practiced than seen, popular and at the same time elitist, at first sight trivial and disarmingly simple, yet feasible only by players with great physical and psychological skills. Just like him.

Ⓤ: As obvious as it may be, the first is a necessary question. How did you get into this at table tennis?

Thanks to my family. My father, despite not having achieved great results in his career, first directed my brother (Enrico, ed) and then me too towards this magnificent sport. Among other things Enrico was, even if for a short time, one of the best 50 table tennis players on the national territory. Let’s say that table tennis is inextricably in our family’s DNA.

Ⓤ: When did you realize you could turn your passion into a profession?

Sportingly speaking, I grew up in the gym. I have always been followed, with particular attention and meticulousness, by my coaches, who have been aware of my potential since my inception. After having obtained some good results at a national and European level, I understood that I could transform what for a long time, trivially, I considered a simple passion into a job. A passion like any other. Obviously it wasn’t like that.

Ⓤ: How do you go from being the best boy/girl in an oratory or on a beach, designated places for mass ping-pong, to becoming a full-fledged professional?

I think it depends a lot on the environment you grow up in. Personally, I’ve always had the good fortune to deal with boys and girls who played at a very high level, so the transition to professionalism took place in a progressive and natural way, at the end of a rather constant and essentially painless process.

Ⓤ: Can you tell us about the daily life of a professional table tennis player?

I currently live in Milan and train with ten other guys in a top-level center here in Lombardy. The first session of the day is usually at 9/9.30 and we go on at least until 12.00. The second training is generally organized from 16.00 to 18.30. Clearly, two or three times a week, we have extra physical preparation sessions: these are moments that should not be underestimated. On the other hand, over the years ours has become a much more physical sport than in the past: without good form, it is hard to get good results.

Ⓤ: Can you think of commonplaces to debunk about discipline? Many, at least in Italy, talk about table tennis without really knowing it.

The importance of mental stability is underestimated. You may be physically explosive, but without a high head balance you’re nowhere. It’s not easy to handle a month of high-level matches and you have to add travel, injuries, problems of various kinds that make everything more difficult to manage.

Ⓤ: What are the most frequent injuries?

Usually in the shoulder and back. But not only. However, a few days ago, for example, I had a thigh problem in Bulgaria. Most likely it is an injury related to the short stop following the end of the season. A necessary break to regain energy after a particularly intense year.

Ⓤ: At what stage is the Italian table tennis movement?

It’s a growing movement. I would underline not only my third place at the European Junior Championships, but also the extraordinary goal achieved by Giorgia Piccolin, who finished in the top eight at the European Championships. With the results, the visibility of our reality also automatically increases. Of course, we are nowhere near comparable to the Asian movement: China is still unquestionably the nation to beat, despite some pleasant surprises. A European nation like Sweden, for example, continuously manages to have its say at an international level.

Ⓤ: Why, in your opinion, is table tennis still considered a simple “beach sport” in Italy?

I think it is simply due to a lack of knowledge of our movement. Anyone who identifies it like this doesn’t actually know what it is, has no idea what the authentic charm of table tennis is, in its concrete beauty and effort. Just follow our training to understand the real level of Italian professionals.

Ⓤ: Is there a sportsman, not necessarily a table tennis player, who has inspired you over the years?

I don’t know, maybe Matteo Berrettini. I follow tennis and in recent years it has experienced exponential growth in terms of results obtained. I particularly appreciate his professionalism off the pitch. It’s really one of a kind of him.

This is how Andrea Puppo plays

Ⓤ: How, in your opinion, can table tennis be made more popular in the media?

Hard question. In Italy I think it’s a problem that really starts from the upper floors. The most important tournaments are not broadcast, except on YouTube. I think it is really crucial to try to promote the movement with some television coverage, perhaps even with some live broadcasts. Sky, for example, recently bought the rights to broadcast Premier Padel (the new world padel circuit), with excellent results in terms of audience. I wonder why the same can’t be done for table tennis too.

Ⓤ: What advice would you give to those approaching this discipline?

It’s a tough sport. When you start playing, this awareness is often missing, which is the key to achieving certain results. At certain levels you can win, but also lose, against anyone.

Ⓤ: What can you tell us about your third place at the European Junior Championships in Belgrade?

An incredible and unforgettable emotion. Do I have to be totally honest? It was certainly not an unexpected result, as I was the number six seed in the tournament and was hoping, understandably, for a top three finish. The special thing was the way this third place arrived: in the round of 16 I beat my opponent Hugo Deschamps in a comeback; in the quarterfinals, I overcame Andrei Teodor Istrate, number four in Europe, 4-2. There was a unique and exciting atmosphere: many Italians following me, unforgettable.

Ⓤ: A small paradox: you occupy the 6th place in the Italian ranking, despite having reached the semifinals of the last Italian championships, but you are the third Italian in the international ranking. How come?

The Italian ranking is a bit “distorted” by the fact that many kids play abroad. I made the semifinal this year and the final last year in the Italian championships; therefore, I think I deserve something more than sixth place. In any case, I will try to pay more attention to the international ranking…

Ⓤ: Olympics: utopia or achievable dream?

The Olympics are a lifelong dream. I will do everything to achieve them in 2024 and 2028.

Ⓤ: Ambitions for the near future?

Being on a permanent basis with the absolute national team, therefore participating continuously in the European and World Cups, and arriving among the top hundred players in the world.

Table tennis is no joke