Monday, February 19, 2018
Sports

JUDAH and 'JENNIFER'

In July, as a polite 26-year-old Chinese-born New Yorker named Wu Yue put together a string of table tennis victories at the Pan American Games in Toronto, the cheers from a bearded man wearing a trucker hat were impossible to ignore.

Between matches, he offered Wu advice: Stay calm. She did, and she won the tournament, making her the only U.S. table tennis player so far to qualify for the women's team representing the United States at this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Fans of stand-up comedy, or the sitcom 30 Rock, would probably recognize the excited fan as Judah Friedlander, the comedian and actor. He is a table tennis fanatic, and has been taking lessons with Wu since she moved to New York eight years ago, from Beijing.

It is an unlikely relationship between a free-associating, scruffy entertainer and a lithe, reserved, disciplined athlete, and the instruction has flowed both ways.

The comedian, who is 46, has lent the Olympic hopeful a hand with language as well as cultural and career issues, helping her study for her naturalization exam (she gained her U.S. citizenship a year ago) and offering ideas for fundraising and setting up an Instagram account to help promote her career.

Friedlander attends Wu's matches when his schedule permits, and he hopes to travel to Rio this summer to watch her.

Their weekly lessons take place at Spin table tennis club on East 23rd Street in Manhattan. Friedlander showed up on a recent weekday and traded his usual series of fist bumps with patrons and staffers as he made his way to their regular table.

"How's it going, girl?" he asked as he plopped himself down on the floor next to Wu.

The two could hardly look more different. Wu, who is also known by her American name, Jennifer, is soft-spoken and neat. She was wearing smart, sponsored athletic gear, and a delicate jadeite necklace.

Friedlander, as unkempt as Frank Rossitano, the schlumpy TV writer he played on 30 Rock, wore a T-shirt that looked as if it had been stored in his gym bag. He changed from his work boots to his table tennis sneakers. He was affable and constantly conversing with anyone who happened by, from the club owners and star players to the workers sweeping up stray balls.

The two began their one-hour lesson, as usual, with a few minutes of long warm-up rallies, first to the forehand, then to the backhand.

Wu and Friedlander are both fixtures at the club. It has a downtown, loungey feel and attracts celebrities, "but none of them put in the time like Judah does," said Jonathan Bricklin, a Spin co-founder.

"They're a fabulously unlikely odd couple," he said, watching teacher and student practice. "I'm waiting for her to start helping him with his jokes."

Wu grew up in Beijing and came to New York in 2008 at age 17, with the dream of becoming naturalized and earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Making China's team was a tougher prospect, given the many good players vying for spots on a squad that has dominated the sport since it was added to the Olympics in 1988.

She began teaching right away, at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club on West 100th Street in Manhattan, where Friedlander was one of her first students. Friedlander began playing in earnest 10 years ago and now plays in amateur tournaments. He takes the game very seriously.

When he approached Wu about lessons, she recalled, "He didn't look like an athlete, but then when I saw him play, it was different."

Indeed, he may appear to be a couch potato, but Friedlander is anything but lazy. He's out every night keeping his stand-up skills sharp. He'll perform as many as five sets in an evening, honing his material and trying out new bits.

He takes his paddles on the road and seeks out clubs. In New York, he plays not only at Spin but outdoors, with the regulars who gather at the concrete tables in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.

"It's a mental break from the annoyingness of show business," he said, adding that the fast-twitch muscle reactions crucial for table tennis can help on the stand-up stage. "You have to be thinking so fast," he explained, "and Ping-Pong is a game where you have to think so fast."

At Spin, Wu worked from a large basket of balls, feeding Friedlander shots as he worked on his return. Then it was time to practice his serve, working on sidespin, backspin and topspin and learning the correct moment for each.

Then came more intense rallying that resembled a match. Far from step-by-step instruction, Wu's tips were sporadic and brief. His racket was too low. His forehand was too late. His backhand was too early.

"It's only a split second, but that can make the difference between it landing on the table or hitting the net," said Friedlander.

In addition to teaching at Spin on weekdays, Wu trains at the New York Indoor Sports Club in Queens, and in the basement of the Tenafly, N.J., home of her coach, Santos Shih.

Wu said she first came to New York from China with two teammates to play tournaments, began coaching students and lived in a basement apartment near the Wang Chen club. She now lives mostly in an apartment in Fort Lee, N.J.

Friedlander calls her a "pretty awesome American story," which included a struggle to pass her naturalization exam to gain citizenship. After his lessons, Friedlander helped her understand things, like what a state governor is, and the proper order of the colors of the flag.

Initially, she recited them as "blue, white and red," he recalled.

"I'm like, 'That's correct, but never say it that way,' " he recalled. "I'm like, 'For whatever reason, in this country, you've got to say red, white and blue, even though that's technically correct.' "

Wu has called Friedlander from China to help her with paperwork, and when she had technical questions, Friedlander called Olympic officials seeking answers. He also gave her advice about online fundraising.

He has also offered his own form of coaching. At the Pan Am games in July, Wu played before a packed arena, and seemed to be unusually nervous, he recalled.

"One thing I do know about is performing under pressure," Friedlander said. So he told Wu how he stays calm onstage.

"You've got to not care, and you've just got to do it," he said. "I told her, 'Just play, don't worry about winning. If you're thinking about winning and the pressure, then you're not in the moment. You're not in the zone. You're not in the flow.' "

In this way Friedlander has played something of a sports psychologist's role, according to Sean O'Neill, the director of communications for USA Table Tennis, the sport's U.S. governing body.

He also called the comedian an excellent player with a keen understanding of the game, who has been Wu's "No. 1 supporter."

"The support he's given her has definitely allowed her to play more within herself and at ease," O'Neill said. "He has just given her great encouragement and helped promote her."

At a recent lesson, Wu bounced lightly on her toes, trading strokes with Friedlander, who was a bit winded. He planted himself a distance from the table, to better field her faster shots. At times, they whizzed by him in a linear blur, but occasionally he would hit his own dazzling winner.

"Yes!" he cried, after one such shot. "Unreturnable. That's what I'm talking about."

Friedlander's occasional eruptions barely seem to affect Wu's deadpan expression. Her demeanor is a foil to Friedlander's constant chatter.

"My personality is nothing like his," she said. "Maybe it's because in table tennis, you can't show your opponent anything."

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