(As told to Tim Persinko)

I was 10 when I started to play table tennis.

One and a half years later, I was junior champion in Tajikistan.

I would spend every day in the table tennis club, five or six hours a day.  I was really lucky with the coach.  He was good with the psychology of kids on the street.  For example, when I first went to the club, I had socks that were two different colors, one was red, and one was black.  Even the sneakers that I had, one size was 37, and one was 35.  My coach, he saw that I really wanted to play very badly, so to stimulate me, he would give me things like a new T-shirt, new track suit, new sneakers.

Using the Belt

Right away he asked me what is going on, because when I came to the club, I had tattoos.  Actually, I was living in not too good a neighborhood.  We had a lot of bandits and things like this, fighting from street to street.  In our neighborhood you always had to fight.  You would go like wolves with 10 or 15 kids to fight with the other street kids.   We didn’t have guns, but if you want to be cool in the streets you had the belt, if you wanted to fight, you take it off and use it.

I am the youngest of four children.  My father left.  In the Soviet Union, we don’t have any government support, not like in the United States.  We didn’t have any welfare.  So my mother was struggling so bad when my father left.  She was a really patient lady, she was fanatic about us kids.  But when my father left, she had a bad depression.  Actually, she had a horrible life.

My brothers were 15 when they started to work hard; two brothers driving big trucks, one brother fixing cars.  I played table tennis full time and got a salary because I was No. 1 in the Tajik Republic.  When I won the Junior Championship of the Soviet Union, I got an even bigger salary.  I made more money than a doctor.  I was making enough money to support my family.

When I was a boy I was a small business man.  With table tennis I was traveling everywhere, all across Russia and into Europe.  I would buy and sell stuff always, it was fun for me.  I would sell rackets, most of course jeans and sneakers.  In the Soviet Union you can’t easily buy nice sneakers, nice jeans, nice track suits, so that is what I would sell.  Some guys asked me about a factory, it was actually illegal, they made fake jeans like Wranglers, like Levis, like Lee, if you can remember them.

My biggest expense was my family.  I was married when I was very young, when I was 21, so pretty much, I spent the money on my family.

Tough Decision

I was with the team that won the Junior Championship of the Soviet Union in 1982, and of course when all of the Soviet Union played in 1989 I got number 22.  For me this was really good, for Tajikistan, I was the only one that ever got that high.  We were the smallest state in the Union.

In 1993, Tajikistan started to have a civil war.  The Russian Army left and there was no control anymore, no KGB, no police, so there was fighting to get the power in the Republic.  Ajerbaijan was in civil war.  Moldova was in civil war.  So many states were in civil war because the Soviet Union system was broken up.

1992 was the last time that I played table tennis there.  I went to Germany and I got third in the men’s singles and second in the doubles.  I got a contract in Germany to play in a league, it was really big, huge money but unfortunately I couldn’t got there because I had a big huge family, and we wanted to be together.  So we made the decision to go the United States instead of Germany.

My wife and my kids, one daughter was 6-years-old and the other was just born, we moved to my wife’s sister’s house, in Canarsie.  We stayed at their house for two months.  We really appreciated them because we didn’t have anyone here.

Difficult Adjustment

Imagine if you lived somewhere where you have an apartment, a job, you got all established and then you come to a different country, a different system, completely different everything.  For the first six months you are in a depression.  Because you don’t know what’s going on.  Especially me, I was a special, independent guy.  I knew how to make money, I knew I could pay my bills.  I was stable, normal.  Then you go to another country and you only have $300.

The first job I had was very primitive.  My job was to stand in the street, someone would come by and say, “Hey, let’s go.”  And I would do demolition, destroy a house, and then load the truck.

My English was very bad.  That’s why when I took the taxi test I didn’t pass the first two times, it took me three times to get the license for the yellow cab.  I was never quiet when I was driving the yellow cab though, I was always talking this that and the other.  Step by step I was learning, you know, street language.

I was driving the cab for ten years straight.  For six years, I did not play table tennis.

Fat City

Honestly, I was getting fat.  I would drive all the time, six days a week, year round.  The schedule for driving yellow cabs was really difficult.  Four o’clock in the morning you have to wake up, then from five o’clock in the morning until 5 p.m. you got to drive.  It is already 6 p.m. when you come home, you just eat a little bit, you take a shower, and then after two hours you go to sleep because the next day you have to wake up at 4 a.m. again.

These Russian guys would run these tournaments in Brighton Beach.  When I started to play again in 1998, I would usually win these tournaments.  That’s how I met my general sponsor, Dr. Patin, who helped me then and he helps me now.  He started to sponsor me to travel, to play in tournaments, he even paid to send me to Las Vegas.  And I started to coach him in table tennis once, twice a week, so he was very happy.  He said for him table tennis is good because he sweats, he changes two or three shirts, he is actually fanatical about table tennis.

Many times we would go the Chinese pingpong club, in Flushing, and Dr. Patin would always say that I have to open up a club of my own.  So he brought me here, to Midwood, because his friend owns this building.

I open this table tennis club on May 3, 2003.  For two years, I struggled.  I had no salary, it was then that I got divorced from my wife.  But you got to do what you got to do.  I was driving the yellow cab for 10 years, I got my investment, and I made my decision.  Table tennis, that’s me, that’s my life.

In Tajikistan, my traveling used to be every week, every month.  I never stayed home.  Now that I am with my club, I don’t travel so much.  I found out that if you are not working in the club seven days a week, you can not pay your bills.  There are 4,000 square feet, if you want to pay the overhead, you must work.

Loyal Customers

Now, we got guys driving 70 miles, 100 miles, to play here.  We run nine tournaments a month.  If you are not running the sanctioned tournaments, your club is not that important in the United States.

I don’t worry about my club now, honestly.  I am sure that I have lot of loyal students.  I cannot say that 100 percent of the people are happy in my club.  Maybe 90 percent are happy.  I am okay with that.  The people that play, they know that if they are coming, I make them run back and forth at the table.  They will be sweating and changing their T-shirt two or three times.

It’s the most gorgeous kind of sport.