The Ping-Pong Prodigy
OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — Three times a week, Michael Landers takes the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station. He rides the subway downtown for two stops, then walks two blocks to SPiN New York, at 23rd Street and Park Avenue South, where for three hours he practices table tennis in his quest to become the best player in the United States. On the train home, he does his math homework.
At 15, Landers is the youngest player to win the men’s national singles championship. He overcame a three-games-to-one deficit in the best-of-seven final on Dec. 19 in Las Vegas, where controversy almost derailed his bid. Six of the eight quarterfinalists defaulted after protesting what they considered to be insufficient prize money. Landers was ushered straight to the final, where he defeated his higher-rated opponent, 26-year-old Samson Dubina.
The title is expected to boost Landers’s national ranking into the top 25. On a broader level, he is hoping it will enhance the sport’s popularity in the United States. He is drafting letters to athletic apparel companies like Adidas to get involved with table tennis.
“As opposed to a 30-year-old guy, I’m so young that people might actually listen to me if I write in about Ping Pong,” Landers said.
He is a sleek 5 feet 8 inches, generating power on his punishing forehand from strong legs and hips. He bears a faint resemblance to the actor Michael Cera, likes music — he plays the bassoon, loves his new keyboard and, according to his older sister, Sara, “has perfect pitch, the little monkey” — and enjoys sports and hanging out with friends.
Most of those friends are fellow table tennis players, but Landers stands out. Hardly anyone else employs a coach to work exclusively on fitness.
For the last 14 months, Goran Milanovic, a former discus thrower from Serbia, has pushed Landers in grueling 90-minute workouts two or three times every week. Medicine balls are staples, as are plyometric exercises, running drills and weight training, and the location varies from session to session — a nearby gymnasium, the Landers’s backyard and on a recent afternoon, their basement. There, Milanovic bounced six-sided balls that Landers had to touch while backpedaling.
“I train the athlete first, then the table tennis player,” said Milanovic, who works mostly with top junior tennis players and Olympic hopefuls in track and field. “Michael was my first table tennis player. He was my challenge.”
Milanovic works in tandem with Ernesto Ebuen, a top-10 player in the United States and a member of the Philippine national team who is in charge of Landers’s skills and mental game.
Landers said meeting Ebuen, 29, was “the greatest thing I ever did,” and he is less a coach than a big brother and a baby sitter. When Landers wants to deconstruct an opponent’s style, he consults Ebuen. But he has been known to call Ebuen at 2 a.m. to ask what color shirt he needs to wear for a tournament.
“If he doesn’t do good in school, his mom calls me so I can remind him about his priorities,” Ebuen said. “I’m always there. I’m like his better half.”
On days he trains at SPiN with Ebuen, Landers is permitted to leave the Wheatley School, where he is a sophomore, at 1 p.m. His mother, Joan Landers, drives him to the train station in Mineola. His guidance counselor rearranged his class schedule so physical education would be in the last period, and Landers is excused from that because of his intensive training, which can exceed 30 hours a week.
“I got an A in gym with, like, 27 absences,” Landers said. “That must be a record or something.”
Proof of Landers’s early aptitude can be found in a photograph, taken when he was 2, of him holding a paddle and standing on a couch to reach the table. Tennis, baseball and soccer competed for his time, and table tennis might have remained a hobby had he not broken his left arm while playing hide-and-seek when he was 9.
Days away from attending a summer sports camp, Landers had barely climbed into a garbage can with wheels before it toppled over. He needed surgery after sustaining three fractures, including two near a growth plate. His left arm is a mite shorter than his right.
“You try to find something to do for an energetic kid with a cast on his arm,” his father, Stanley Landers, said. “We found it.”
They found a table tennis club in Flushing, Queens, where Landers started taking lessons from Hui Yuan Liu, a national coach. Liu shortened Landers’s looping tennislike strokes, and within four months, Landers was playing in tournaments. Within a year, he had finished first in under-12 doubles and second in singles at the 2005 Junior Olympics. One by one, Landers dropped other sports to focus on his new passion.
“I didn’t know how serious I wanted to be about it,” he said. “I just kept playing and loved it. I guess when you love something, you just keep doing it because you enjoy it so much.”
So much that Stanley Landers said he had discovered his son watching videos of championship matches on his computer late into the night. Studying, Michael Landers called it.
A two-disc set featuring the Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner, who has been called the Mozart of table tennis, is on his desk. Other greats are immortalized on posters adorning a basement wall, painted a soothing shade of light blue.
“The color’s a little misleading,” Sara Landers said. “It gets pretty intense in here.”
As she spoke, Ebuen was filling a silver bowl with about 150 orange balls to fire at Landers from across the table. The drill is designed to improve reaction time and muscle memory. Within two minutes, the bowl was empty, the balls scattered along the floor.
Ebuen said Landers’s next objective was to place high at a tournament in February in El Salvador so he could qualify for the Summer Youth Olympic Games next August in Singapore.
“What I like about Michael is that he’s very humble as a player, very modest, not like other players who say that they’re stars,” Doru Gheorghe, the high-performance director for USA Table Tennis and the coach of the women’s national team, said in a telephone interview. “He’s become a high-level junior player, and he could be a very good asset for our national team in the future.”
As long as he continues to improve, Landers is considered a solid candidate to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London, the summer before he would enroll in college. Princeton, which has a strong table tennis team, is an early favorite.
“I’m still 15,” Landers said. “Let me pass 10th grade first.”