Class of ’02 | As soon as the No. 6 train hisses to a stop at 23rd Street and Park Avenue South, a group of Manhattan commuters step onto the subway platform and walk over to a large window. When they peer through it, a look of bewilderment spreads across their faces. On the other side of the window, adjacent to the subway platform, is a trendy Ping-Pong club called SPiN New York, an underground haven for a tight-knit but mostly incognito community of table-tennis fanatics.
“It’s the most unique Ping-Pong club probably in the world,” says Matt Simon C’02 as he settles into a cushy leather chair, the sound of bouncing balls, sneaker squeaks, and music reverberating around him. “It’s like the dream basement of any 15-year-old kid. There’s no other place like it to play.”
A few minutes earlier, Simon wrapped up a grueling one-and-a-half-hour training session at one of SPiN’s 17 Ping-Pong courts with his coach, Paul David, a Guyanese national team player. One table over from them was Ernesto Ebuen, a six-time Philippine champion. Not far away, one of the best table-tennis players from Poland was enjoying a game with an equally skilled sparring partner.
Simon can hold his own with all of these guys. A former Junior Olympian, he ranks among the top five percent of the 7,500 active tournament players in the United States. He achieves that by training as many as five days a week, despite maintaining a career at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he’s an assistant professor of medicine and an assistant professor of public health. Trained in infectious diseases, he recently collaborated with the New York City Department of Health on the city’s response to a meningitis outbreak.
“He jokes that he’s a doctor just to support his Ping-Pong career,” says his sister, Rebecca Simon C’05, a talented table-tennis player in her own day. “He’s playing all the time. Whenever he’s not working it seems like he’s playing.”
In late July, all of the time spent on the court paid off as he accomplished what he calls “the highlight of my athletic career.” After traveling to Israel for the Macabbiah Games, a prestigious international event open to Jewish athletes, Simon returned with a bronze medal after Team USA edged Great Britain in a dramatic final match.
“We were totally elated,” Simon says. “We came out and jumped on the court. It was so satisfying to walk away with a medal. Internationally, the US is not a table-tennis powerhouse, so it was a good showing for the US.”
You wouldn’t be able to tell that the United States isn’t known for the sport if you walked into SPiN on Friday nights, when many of the best players in the region descend on the chic Ping-Pong club to compete in a tournament called “The Dirty Dozen.” There are bleachers for fans to sit, waitresses to serve beer, a deejay to create a party vibe, and a video board with photos of the competitors. (Matt is swinging a paddle and wearing a doctor’s coat and scrubs in his photo.) Even celebrities like Judah Friedlander—the 30 Rock actor, Ping-Pong advocate, and self-declared “World Champion”—and actress Susan Sarandon (a co-owner of SPiN) are regulars at these tournaments.
“I think the sport has such a wide appeal,” Simon says. “And SPiN has been amazing in exposing people to what competitive table tennis is.”
Playing Ping-Pong wasn’t nearly as hip when Simon was growing up in upstate New York. After getting a table as a Chanukah gift shortly before his bar mitzvah, Simon and his sister joined a club that was pretty much the opposite of SPiN. But he still managed to develop his skills inside the dusty, dark ballroom at the Polish American Citizens Club while playing against “a weird hodgepodge of people” that included a corrections officer named Harry. Soon enough, his father was taking the family to tournaments and to overnight table-tennis camps, where Matt quickly gained a reputation as a rising star.
“I wasn’t like a prodigy by any means,” Simon says. “I just thought it was a fun hobby and I became really motivated. The sport has some addicting quality about it.”
By the time he got to high school, Simon was a nationally ranked junior player and, according to his sister, “a little bit of a legend.” Simon counters that “Ping-Pong does not go very far in high-school popularity contests”—and he still has the old clipping from his high-school newspaper headlined, “Matt Simon Is ‘The Lone Ping-Pong Player.’” To this day, Simon still gets curious looks when he tells people about his Ping-Pong addiction. Most people, after all, consider it a fun game you play in your own basement, not something you do competitively (unless, of course, you live in China, the table-tennis powerhouse of the world).
“That never failed to get a reaction from people,” says Matt Pincus W’02, one of Simon’s best friends from Penn. “It was kind of a cross between surprise and bewilderment. People were like, ‘Oh, really? That’s kind of interesting. But also kind of weird.’”
Still, from taking on all challengers in the basement of Hill House as a freshman to helping Penn’s club team begin playing a more structured schedule against other schools, Simon continued his Ping-Pong prowess throughout college. And even though he took a seven-year hiatus during and after medical school, he jumped back into the fray when he read about SPiN opening four years ago.
Now, in addition to playing in those “Dirty Dozen” tournaments and competing internationally at the Maccabiah Games, he’s also become a vociferous defender of the sport’s virtues. Last August he wrote an article on the website The Daily Beast, where he “set the record straight” that Ping-Pong, far from being a “wimpy parlor game,” is a supremely athletic endeavor as well as a thrilling spectator sport. He recently wrote a paper for an urban-health class on the physical-activity benefits that the American Youth Table Tennis Organization provides children.
“It’s an awesome workout,” he says. “People don’t realize it, but your legs have to be like springs.”
Watching Simon play, you quickly realize how much goes into the fast-paced world of competitive table tennis. He goes into a deep crouch before returning shots, shuffles his feet as he moves from one side of the table to the other, and puts a wide array of ridiculous spins on his serves. (Your Gazette correspondent, whom Simon called “a solid recreational player,” could barely make contact with most of them.) And on top of the physical rigors, his mind is always moving.
“There’s a lot of strategy,” Simon says. “It’s a little bit like playing chess at 70, 80 miles per hour. You’re trying to figure out the opponent’s weaknesses and set up your strengths but the ball is moving so quickly.”
Perhaps his favorite part of table tennis is that anyone can play. At SPiN, some of the world’s best players are firing ferocious serves just a few feet away from children taking lessons and first-timers struggling to get the ball over the net. And each person derives different values from the sport. In Simon’s case, playing Ping-Pong not only refreshes him but also helps him relate to patients when he is at the hospital—“asking about people’s hobbies and seeing what makes them tick.” And even if he eventually stops competing in tournaments, he has no plans to put down the paddle.
“One of the great things is you can play your whole life,” Simon says. “People in their 60s and 70s are playing.
“I’ll probably keep playing until I can’t stand up anymore,” he adds, right before standing up and heading back to another table.
—Dave Zeitlin C’03