17 Jan 2020

After a sensational few years which have seen Kanak Jha become the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for the Olympic Games, one wonders what's next for this teenage table tennis prodigy?

Soon entering his 20's in the 2020's, Kanak Jha is a name table tennis fans across North America know very well. In fact, after the events of 2019, it would be less than prudent to say the rest of the world isn't already familiar with it too.

by Kabir Nagpal

Similar to many other players it has not been an easy ride for the young man.

A strong build-up

He emerged successful at the 2017 ITTF World Junior Circuit Finals in Luxembourg, won the boys’ singles title at the ITTF Pan American Junior Championships for the third consecutive year and proved himself a step ahead of the field.

After celebrating his 18th birthday in a year where he took a major step forward to become established in the senior ranks, he was tested to the limit whenever he competed with seasoned players of pedigree. Undoubtedly success at junior level was very welcome but it also had a grounding effect on the American.

On several occasions over the years, Jha has shown a consistency in skill as well as a display of mental strength. Whether it was against Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju to secure the bronze medal at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games or at the 2018 Team World Cup in London when he beat Wong Chun Ting – these results marked his coming of age.

The progress of Kanak Jha has been monitored by Massimo Costantini, the ITTF High Performance Elite Coach, who some years ago spent time in the United States.

“He has a good fighting spirit. Sometimes at that age, they get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match. You need a strong mental balance, and he has that.” Massimo Costantini

Moving towards the glory years?

Under some pressure after being termed “prodigy” due to his performances, 2019 was supposed to be a year where Kanak Jha stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park. For the German based Youth Olympic Games bronze medallist, making good on such a promise to push the profile of the United States in table tennis was a task he took very seriously.

Starting the year by giving the legendary Ma Long plenty to think about at the Liebherr 2019 World Championships in Budapest, his displays across the season only improved. Lining up next to Zhang Kai and Feng Yijun, Jha led the United States at the ZEN-NOH 2019 ITTF Team World Cup where the world was ready to see him for his real talented self.

Having competed in six World Championships already, Jha had plenty of experience to call upon when his team were in danger of an early elimination in Japan. Down by a game, Jha stepped up first to beat Swedish fan favourite Kristian Karlsson in a brilliant four game contest (11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 11-7).

The feeling of victory for Kanak Jha! (Photo by: Rémy Gros)

 

Eventually, it all came down to a decider where Jha was again the hero, then involved in a pendulum-thriller of a match against Anton Källberg (11-8, 8-11, 11-9, 11-13, 11-7). Giving the fans an absolute feast of table tennis bliss, Jha used his changes of pace to secure a deserved team 3-2 win.

Now after success at the 2019 ITTF North American Olympic Qualification tournament in Rockford, Jha is creating history at a moment of enormous significance for United States table tennis.

Named at no.275 on the men’s world rankings when the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was staged, now in January 2020 at no.27; the progress has brought him the steel and experience which will be critical for him to push on into a year meant for bigger things. Despite his young age, Jha has always been straightforward about his targets and is not afraid to work towards becoming better.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel, he displayed his grounded-nature and ability to look ahead with humility in mind. If this is any evidence, 2020 and the decade beyond are sure to prove the best for United States table tennis, with Jha leading the line.

“When I went to Rio, I was a lot less experienced and I just went in there to enjoy myself and not worry too much about results. I hope by Tokyo 2020, I’ll be a different player and we’ll go there hopefully with a different mindset.” Kanak Jha

Well well well, Kanak – look how that turned out!

In Depth Kanak Jha