by Kabir Nagpal
Lining up alongside Zhang Kai and Feng Yijun, Jha secured a last eight spot for his country after a thriller match against Sweden where they came back from being 0-1 down overall to win the match 3-2. Shortly after, Lily Zhang, Amy Wang and Wu Yue also secured safe passage onto the knock-out stages by defeating Team Austria 3-1. After the heroics of Zhang at the Uncle Pop 2019 Women’s World Cup a fortnight ago, these latest performances mean that United States of America really is making everyone turn their heads west.
‘Jha’ man for the job
The German based Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist has certainly made good on his promise to push the profile of the United States in table tennis this year. After giving the legendary Ma Long plenty to think about at the Liebherr World Championships in Budapest, his display in Tokyo is one that was long predicted.
Having competed in six World Championships already, 19-year-old Kanak Jha had plenty of experience to call upon when his side were in danger of an early elimination in Japan. He was also in the limelight last year when at the 2018 ITTF World Team Cup in London, Jha beat Wong Chun Ting in the contest against Hong Kong China – raising eyebrows across the table tennis spectrum.
To look back at when Kanak Jha started playing, one of his coaches, former world champion Li Zhen Shi, taught him the high serve: where he would throw the ball high up in the air and use the pace to generate serve speed – something which his coach said became one of Jha’s lethal weapons.
These were the weapons on show when the events at the Team World Cup unfolded. Anton Källberg and Elias Ranefur started by inflicting defeat on Zhang Kai and Feng Yijun (12-10, 11-5, 11-5) – asserting a measure of control over the tie.
Then came the Jha-performance. The United States spun things around as Jha beat Swedish fan-favorite Kristian Karlsson in a brilliant four-game match-up (11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 11-7) – something which first turned the tide west. Before long, Jha’s teammate Zhang picked up the memo and followed his compatriot’s example to beat Elias Ranefur (11-6, 11-5, 8-11, 11-9).
“Before my singles match against Elias Ranefur, my teammate – Kanak Jha advised me on how to play against him and I am happy things worked out the way it went. Even when we lost the doubles match, the win by Kanak Jha really motivated us to go to the table and finish well. I am so happy that we will be playing in the next round of the World Cup” Zhang Kai
Finally, as Sweden had hit back with a win in the fourth match-up, it all came down to a decider. Jha and Källberg were then involved in a pendulum-thriller of a match, where neither athlete wanted to let up – giving the fans an absolute feast of table tennis bliss.
But it was the day of the American – as Jha used his off-beat pace on the table to make things difficult for Källberg, which led to a deserved 3-2 win (11-8, 8-11, 11-9, 11-13, 11-7) and second position in Group D, meaning a spot in the knock-out stages for his country for the first time.
Good times ahead for USA?
Over the last month, the United States athletes have been hugely on the radar of the table tennis fraternity with the showings of Lily Zhang and Wu Yue at the Women’s World Cup changing the way the country is approached in the sport. After winning the Pan American Championships, Zhang completely ravaged the predictions of the Women’s World Cup by beating Miu Hirano in an all-time classic, meaning her latest world ranking went through the roof – a 15 rank jump to no.33.
It was only one step short of a podium place but Lily Zhang left Chengdu knowing that she was the first player ever from the United States to reach the semi-final stage of a Women’s World Cup tournament and the first ever born outside Asia or Europe to achieve the feat. Couple this with her side’s current showing at the Team World Cup – where they have just made the quarter-finals themselves – it stands to reason the good times for the United States are just beginning.
For the world no.26 Kanak Jha, who just so happens to be the youngest athlete – and the first born in the 21st century – to represent the United States at the Olympics and the ITTF World Cup, the best of times clearly lie where his dedication and vigor take him.
“I cannot tell you how I feel with this big win over Sweden. This has again shown that United States is now on the world map of table tennis. We just have to believe in ourselves and I must also commend my teammates for their efforts. This is an awesome feeling for me making it to the quarterfinal of the World Cup” Kanak Jha
It is important to remember just a month ago, United States of America successfully ensured their qualification for the two team events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games when they won both men’s and women’s titles at the 2019 ITTF North American Olympic Qualification. Again, Lily Zhang and Kanak Jha were at the forefronts of this success.
Finishing at the top of the tree in Rockford, the United States have now claimed their ticket to compete in the men and women’s team event at the 2020 Olympic Games and will also be awarded two positions in the men and women’s singles line-up in the Japanese capital.
This batch of American youngsters is creating history at a moment of enormous significance for USA table tennis: in 2021 the World Championships Finals will be staged in Houston, Texas, for what will be the greatest and most innovative event the sport has ever known.
What does destiny hold for Kanak, Lily and co? Stick around to ITTF to find out!