Table Tennis: Tiro aiming to turn the tables

Despite having no coach and no practice facilities, 13-year-old Michael Chan is set for the big stage
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The Independent Online
What's in a letter? When it's the seventh one in the alphabet, quite a lot as far as Michael Chan is concerned. The American tennis player who almost shares his name officially earned pounds 1.35m last year. Gee! But for Michael II, who lives with his family in a suburban Surrey semi rather than in a luxurious Nevada pad, money is a little more problematic.

True, he is only 13. True, he has chosen to make his mark in table tennis, where a five-figure sum is probably something from maths homework. But he is No 2 for his age group, 12th in the Under-17 rankings and rising fast. He has a determination that would set a wall shivering, with the European Championships and the Olympics steps on his way rather than stars in his sky.

Yet at this week's World Championships in Manchester, Michael is the only British player without a coach - unless you count his dad, a good club player but one whom Michael can beat at will. Family holidays are at Butlins rather than the Bahamas. And his essential expenditure on bat rubbers (about pounds 700 a year and rising) is a matter for serious saving rather than small change.

Michael accepts that his appearance in the World Championships will be brief. He is the youngest male player, and in today's mixed doubles opening round, playing with Katy Parker - herself the youngest female player at 12 - the form book says the pair will make a swift exit. Nor does he expect to make headlines when the world ranking tournament starts on Saturday.

"You have to be realistic and know your limits. If I win one game, that would be good, but you have to deal with defeat as well as victory."

This is Michael himself, 13 going on 23, talking. He is perfectly capable of handling tough questions from the press (well, me anyway) without prompting from hovering parents. Child he may be, but he displays more maturity, fewer platitudes and greater awareness than a whole Wimbledon of tennis stars.

His father, Guy, an engineer, is no Svengali. He is proud but slightly bemused by his confident son's burgeoning talent. There is no hidden spin- doctor feeding Michael with the 10 magic mottos of motivation. But just listen to this lad.

"Because I have seen the top Europeans play, I want to be that way and get to their standard. When I was No 1 in the Under-12s, I got bored and went through a bad patch where I was losing to people who were not very good. I almost got to the point of giving it up. I couldn't handle the pressure and I was having lots of rows with my dad.

"Then something hit me. Now I have learnt to deal with the pressure by growing up. If you feel fear at playing someone below you, you will lose. You can't complain a lot, otherwise you become fragile. Footballers should not complain so much. You must be strong."

Focused? This kid has a better view of life than the astronomers who discovered the third tail of Hale-Bopp. But he is not a precocious brat. He is just a young man who knows where he is going and how to get there.

Michael's rise through the ranks has been spectacular. He didn't pick up a table tennis bat until he was nine. Until then he preferred judo, and was No 1 in the country for his age group. But one day he had a crack at the sport that so interested his sister, Diane, a former England international, and his father. Michael liked it so much that he dropped judo.

"I had a natural talent," he says without a trace of modesty. We were, after all, talking fact here, not theory. "I knew what shots to play and what it was about. I started playing with my dad, but it took about three years before I could beat him."

A year after he started, he played in an Under-12 tournament and reached the quarter-finals. He went on to win a national Under-14 tournament aged 11, and the national ESTTA Under-14 final. Earlier this year, he was fifth in the World Schools' Championships, playing those up to four years older. Over the past couple of years, he has travelled to Luxembourg, Portugal, Belgium, Sweden and France.

However, his parents have insisted that any table tennis success should not come at the expense of schoolwork. So far this hasn't been a problem, although between now and the end of this term, he will have 23 days off school. "He separates the two very well, although it means a lot of extra work," his father says. "He knows what he wants and knows what is right." Michael adds: "I could see table tennis becoming a career for me, but I also want to make sure that I get qualifications that will enable me to go to university."

His success is remarkable considering that he has no table at home, and that his father is still his coach. "We have one overall English coach who lives in Yorkshire, and the squad gets him once a month," Michael says. "In France, there are 100 international coaches. I think if I had a top coach, I would be better than I am now. Everybody else in the squad has their own coach, but it costs about pounds 70 a week."

His father says: "He needs a special coach now. I've done my best, but I think he needs someone else now if he is to continue progressing."

Michael is far from bitter about his lack of facilities and serious coaching. "I don't get enough practice, but my parents have made big sacrifices for me. If I do really well at the game, the first thing I would do is buy them a new car." This would replace the Vauxhall outside their Addlestone home (a G registration, by coincidence).