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Table tennis prodigy determined to live up to favourite tag

2018-01-12 14:00:11

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Table tennis star Kanak Jha will enter the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) as one of the favourites to win the men’s singles gold. Despite his extraordinary talent and remarkable achievements to date, it is not a position the 17-year- old is used to.

“Playing these types of high-pressure matches really gives you a lot of confidence, to know what you are capable of doing, that you can play at a certain level,” the young man said. “Going into the YOG, it gives me a lot of confidence. Hopefully I can do well.”

Less than two years ago, Jha became the youngest competitor to represent the USA at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the first USA athlete born in the 2000s to qualify for an Olympic Games and the youngest male table tennis player ever to take up a spot at the Olympic Games. Having routinely smashed expectations, from the moment he won three junior categories and reached the men’s semi-finals in the 2013 USA National Championships aged 13, Jha has flourished at tournaments he is not even meant to be at.

It all changed in December 2017, however, when the Californian went to the North American YOG qualifier. It featured eight USA and eight Canadian players, all in a battle for one spot in the Buenos Aires 2018 draw. All eyes turned to Jha, the reigning back-to-back USA national champion.

“It was a different kind of pressure than before. For sure, I had a lot more expectations going in, I wanted to win,” he said, before betraying the kind of attitude that may well see him go a long way in the sport. “But it also gave me confidence to know I was one of the favourites to win the qualification (place). That helped.”

And so it was proved: Jha marched through the tournament, winning the final 4-0.


“Playing these types of high-pressure matches really gives you a lot of confidence, to know what you are capable of doing, that you can play at a certain level,” the young man said. “Going into the YOG, it gives me a lot of confidence. Hopefully I can do well.”

Currently ranked world U18 number 11, Jha has already shown his mettle under extreme pressure. At the North American regional Olympic qualifier in 2016, the then-16-year-old went into the semi-final against Canada’s Pierre-Luc Theriault knowing that a win would guarantee the USA a spot in the men’s team competition in Rio de Janeiro and victory would give him a chance to seal a singles spot. All looked lost when, bowed by the incessant pressure of the prize on offer, Jha lost the first five points of the deciding game.

“I was a little nervous, thinking too much about the result,” the teenager admitted. “Then at 0-5 we switched sides, I started taking a bit of time between the points and I started focusing on each point, one after the other, not thinking about the score. And I got into the zone and somehow came back and won.”

He went on to win the final for good measure.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games were, understandably, a blur of excitement and astonishment. Life in the Olympic Village, from selfies with Michael Phelps to eating alongside NBA stars, washed over the youngster. His focus is already on the next opportunity.


“Rio was nice but hopefully in Tokyo (2020 Olympic Games) I can do a little bit better,” said the competitor who lost in the first preliminary round in 2016. “Going to Rio I was a bit excited and surprised by everything, all the new stuff. It was a good experience, good preparation for next time.”

Like many, Jha has had to make considerable sacrifices to get to his rarefied position. At the top of that list was moving away from home – California is noted for a lot of things but table tennis is not one of them.

“I knew from going there (Europe and Asia) for competitions or training camps that if I wanted to really go for table tennis I might have to live there,” Jha said. Stints in Sweden and Germany have already improved his game immeasurably and forced him to grow up fast.

This year, the regular on table tennis’ main world tour will factor in plenty of junior tournaments, to “get some good wins” and “get that feeling” before the “main focus”, the 2018 YOG.

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