13 Sep 2019

Presently listed at no.546 on the world rankings, a second round exit at the recently concluded ITTF Pan American Championships was no mean effort by Zhang Kai of the United States; five days later in exactly the same venue, the Polideportivo SND Arena, the 22 year gave the performance of his life.

In the opening round of the men’s singles event at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Paraguay Open on Thursday 12th September, he caused an absolute sensation; he beat Japan’s Koki Niwa, the top seed (11-4, 11-8, 11-6, 10-12, 2-11, 11-8).

by Ian Marshall, Editor

It was the performance his life against the player who excelled earlier this year in April at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, reaching the quarter-final round.

An astounding success and one made possible by a stroke of good fortune; in the group stage of proceedings Zhang Kai finished in second position in his group, he was beaten by Argentina’s ever faithful Gaston Alto (8-11, 11-8, 11-9, 9-11, 11-3). Runners up spot meant a place in the preliminary round; just as against Gaston Alto it was defeat, he lost to Puerto Rico’s Daniel Gonzalez (11-13, 5-11, 11-7, 11-9, 6-11, 11-8, 11-8).

Two chances to qualify gone; there was just one glimmer of hope, there was one more place remaining in the main draw. One “Lucky Loser” was drawn at random from the five players who had experienced defeat in the preliminary round; that name was Zhang Kai.

Exceeds all previous results

The achievement far exceeds the past results of the young man who showed undoubted promise as a junior but has never really fulfilled the potential displayed. On the ITTF World Junior Circuit in Indore, India in 2017, he reached the semi-final stage of the junior boys’ singles event; later at the United States Open in both 2016 and 2018 he advanced to the same round in the under 21 men’s singles event.

However, he was not included in the United States team at the recent Lima 2019 Pan American Games. Meanwhile, earlier this year on his three appearances at ITTF Challenge Series tournaments, competing in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia, he did not advance beyond the group stage. The only major success of note is that four days ago he had won the mixed doubles title at the Pan American Championships in harness with Lily Zhang.

Alas for Gaston Alto and Daniel Gonzalez, the players against whom Zhang Kai had lost in the initial qualification stage, it was an opening round defeat. Gaston Alto was beaten by Ecuador’s Alberto Miño, the no.12 seed (6-11, 3-11, 11-8, 13-11, 11-9, 10-12, 11-4), Daniel Gonzalez suffered at the hands of Austria’s Robert Gardos, the no.3 seed (15-17, 11-9, 11-5, 11-7, 11-7).

Creates own niche

Such is sport and such is life for Zhang Kai; he creates his own niche in the record books; at the 2011 ITTF World Tour Swedish Open, Frenchman Quentin Robinot gained a “Lucky Loser” entry to the main draw. He seized the opportunity, he beat China’s Ma Lin, at the time the reigning Olympic Champion; Ma Lin was the no.3 seed.

Now Zhang Kai goes one step higher, since the inaugural tournament on the ITTF World Tour, the 1996 English Open, when the “Lucky Loser” concept was first introduced or at an ensuing ITTF Challenge Series event, he becomes the first “Lucky Loser” to beat the top seed in the opening round; something to tell his grandchildren.

Conversely for Koki Niwa he becomes the first top seed to lose in the opening round to a “Lucky Loser”, something not to tell his grandchildren!

Challenge Series 2019 Paraguay Open Paraguay Open

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Day 3 - 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Paraguay Open