He had brought so many opponents to this point. The world number sixth Hugo Calderano. Jakub Dyjas from Poland, 2016 European Championship semi-finalist. German national players Dang Qiu and Ricardo Walther. Filip Zeljko has already forced them all into a fifth set, but he still lost to all of them. But Zeljko, the eternal substitute for the table tennis first division club TSV Bad Königshofen, is no longer the same as it was back then. Actually, he is no longer a substitute. On Sunday he showed his best table tennis in the fifth set. Against Emmanuel Lebesson from TTC Neu-Ulm. The European champion from 2016, a 32-year-old veteran. At 8: 2 he pulled away, his opponent seemed at a loss. The fans sang his name to the tune of “We will rock you”.
In the end his club lost the Bavarian derby anyway, wafer-thin, 2: 3 in the final doubles; “Actually a draw”, Neu-Ulm’s club boss and investor Florian Ebner is said to have judged in the hall. For Neu-Ulm it was a confirmation that the club already had a more than competitive squad in its second TTBL year. Nonetheless, Zeljkos 11:13, 4:11, 11: 8, 11: 8, 11: 6 success against Lebesson for the 2-0 lead for Bad Königshofen was probably the most remarkable chapter of the evening.
Filip Zeljko is playing for Lower Franconia in the fifth year. His turbulent career seemed to be over, it’s easy to forget that the Croatian is still only 23. He had been kicked out of the national squad years ago, had worked a little as a model and kept himself fit for the occasional temporary assignment in the TTBL. At that time he already had extraordinarily dangerous serves and a tough forehand, which in combination was often enough to dup established professionals for one or two sentences – but almost never to win a match. When team manager Andreas Albert was faced with the decision a year and a half ago to continue employing Zeljko or the Hungarian Bence Majoros, everything spoke for Majoros, the younger, more successful one. Only one advisor urgently recommended to Albert at the time that he should rely on Zeljko, who had the greater potential and would certainly be able to help him better as soon as he would only put sport back at the center of his life – and that was Zeljko himself At that time Albert trusted the Croatian who doubted the club, which is why victories like the one against Lebesson are particularly close to him.
Actually, all eyes should have been on Abdel-Kader Salifou that evening. The 30-year-old Frenchman had a somewhat mixed first TTBL season in Neu-Ulm, after which his contract was not extended. When the Japanese Mizuki Oikawa in Bad Königshofen surprisingly asked to terminate his contract, the decision was made there to sign Salifou. An emotional player who might experience a boost in a family club and in front of a frenetic audience. But Salifou is lagging behind after surviving Covid 19 disease. He had no chance against his former teammate Tiago Apolonia on Sunday, the guests made it 1: 2 with 8:11, 6:11, 5:11. “He was often late,” said Albert. Salifou is still waiting for his first win of the season.
What the squad of the TTC Neu-Ulm has to offer is clear. Lebesson was the individual, the Portuguese Apolonia team European champion, and Vladimir Sidorenko, 18, one of the greatest European talents. In Bad Königshofen, Bastian Steger, 39, is in first place the greatest constant. The club has to bet that Salifou, Kilian Ort or Zeljko will surpass themselves behind them. Kilian Ort has already succeeded in two of his three previous singles, he has a real run. His short-term failure due to a foot injury was bitter for the hosts.
Steger, the four-time team European champion, showed Sidorenko in three straight sets limits on Sunday, but then lost to 2-2 against Lebesson, because he did not succeed in attacking his backhand. Not quite as good as Zeljko before, who has now won his second individual after the start against Fulda, certainly the best he has ever shown in this league. Albert noted that he had improved his footwork, the serves had become even more variable and his self-confidence had grown. Zeljko stands close to the table, cannot be pushed back, not even by Lebesson’s dreaded forehand topspins, which he usually answered with short, fast movements as counter spins. Often he even risked that from unfavorable positions with his weaker backhand. That is also a difference from before.
“I train a lot,” explains Zeljko, “I try to give my opponent little time, make fewer mistakes than before, and no longer give easy points.” Neu-Ulm’s team manager Nadine Berti was also amazed: “I’ve never seen him so strong.” Lebesson confirmed to her how hard it was. In doubles with Salifou, Zeljko took on the leading role to lead the 2-0 set, before Apolonia on the other hand pulled the teenager Sidorenko so far that the guests turned this match to 9:11, 10:12, 11: 7, 12: 10, 12:10.
It’s a shame that it wasn’t enough for the overall victory, regretted Zeljko. It was “a game of goose bumps”, Albert thought. The 120 admitted spectators would have sounded like 500. And they sang Zeljko’s name.