The ITTF Men’s World Cup isn’t usually a place for 14-year-olds.
In fact, no 14-year-old had competed in the prestigious table tennis event until Kanak Jha of San Francisco did so at this year’s event, which was held last month in Dusseldorf, Germany.
“It was a really good experience of the world cup,” said Jha, whose pre-tournament training in Europe was interspersed with homework and other school assignments between practices. “I didn’t have any expectations of doing anything. It was more of a fun tournament. I met some high-level, world-class players.”
Jha faced two opponents in the group stage of the world cup, which took place Oct. 24-26. He took the first game of his 4-1 loss against Chen Chien-an of Taiwan. He fell 4-0 to Adrian Crisan of Romania, but kept each game close early on.
Jha, the 2014 North American Cup champion, said the experience proved that he needs to work more on his service points and serve returns. U.S. national team coach Stefan Feth said Jha has “fast feet, great touch, early anticipation and judgment for the ball,” but what Jha needs now to take that next step among his elite peers is to gain more major match experience to help improve his fundamentals.
“Usually it is impossible for such a young player to compete in this tournament since their bodies are not fully developed yet to compete well against adult men,” Feth said.
Feth acknowledged the competition gap between North American table tennis athletes compared to Asia and Europe. But Jha’s development, Feth said, is on track to place him among the athletes that come from countries that have longer traditions in the sport.
|Kanak Jha has hopes of competing on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team in Tokyo and, potentially, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.|
While Jha believes becoming a member of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team is a realistic goal, Feth believes the young athlete has what it takes to potentially fight for a spot on the 2016 roster.
“For the long run, it shouldn’t just be a goal to simply participate in the Olympics,” Feth said. “Kanak has the potential to compete with the best in the world in the future if the right decisions and paths are made in this journey ahead.”
Jha began playing table tennis when he was a young child, picking the sport up from his parents and sister. Growing tired of watching them, he wanted to play. By the time he was 11, Jha realized he could be pretty good, having already won the U.S. Open 9-and-under championship and the U.S. Nationals Boys 10-and-under title in 2009. In 2012, he was named a member to the U.S. Cadet Boys Team, and later earned a spot on the 2014 U.S. World Team.
In various areas in the United States, table tennis is growing rapidly. San Francisco is one of those cities. Jha’s story of being a 14-year-old going toe-to-toe with some of the world’s most established players is something he hopes garners more interest in the sport.
“Right now, in the U.S., overall there are lot of juniors and cadets,” Jha said. “It’s really helped with the popularity of the sport. There are a lot of small clubs and media talking about table tennis now.”
Said Feth: “What an honor to represent USA and North America at only 14 years old. It is also very helpful for us to see what is expected from him on the highest level in the future and, at the same time, give us perspective on how he can compete with them already.”
Although new to the senior level this year, Jha has already had the opportunity to travel to a lot of international locations. He spent time in both Sweden and Germany in preparation for the world cup. Following the world cup, Jha traveled to Bridgetown, Barbados, to participate in the 2014 ITTF World Cadet Challenge. Jha, the No. 4 seed, reached the quarterfinals before falling to Korea’s Hwang Minha in seven games.
After a three-week period abroad, Jha returned to his San Francisco home on Nov. 2. As a 14-year-old table tennis star, he already has nearly a lifetime of tales to share as a world competitor.
“When you travel you get a lot of new experiences,” Jha said. “You get a lot of memories. Most of these are now my greatest memories, I have a lot of great stories.”