Kanak Jha had all eyes on him as he competed in the North American Youth Olympic Games Qualification. Expectations were high for the 17 year old Rio Olympian as he joined a field of 16 competitors, 8 boys from the United States and 8 from Canada. The contingent of players fought it out for a single opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires next year for the once in a lifetime Youth Olympic Games event.
Jha is the youngest ever male table tennis Olympian and has drawn support from the far reaches of the globe, including best wishes from the official Olympic Channel on Facebook and Twitter as he endeavored to take on today's big challenge.
His achievement began much like his campaign for the 2017 US National Men's Singles Championships, which he won without losing a single game back in July. He swept through Tianming Xie and Luc Siccard in his first two rounds both in 4 straight games.
Much like the Girl's Singles (read more here), 6 American players would advance into the quarterfinals. Along with Luc Siccard it was Canada's Jeremy Hazin who went through, although he struggled out of the starting blocks with a 4-2 win over Edward Ly. Michael Tran, Nikhil Kumar and Jack Wang would all move into the top 8 with 4-0 wins while their US teammates Nicholas Tio and Victor Liu won their matches in 5, Tio taking down Canada's Alexander Bu and Liu accounting for Canadian Cadet National Champion Terence Yeung.
Hazin of Canada would show why he is Canadian National Men's Champion and Canada Cup champ, he survived a close encounter, and one of the highlights of the tournament, against USA's Jack Wang, the match would feature many great rallies and power plays from both players with Hazin closing out 4-2 after having trailed 2-1.
Nikhil Kumar took a decisive 4-2 win over Nicholas Tio, playing well to shut down the aggressive forehand game of Tio and excelling tactically in the match. Victor Liu overcame Michael Tran from 2-1 down to advance to the semifinals.
While Jeremy Hazin was quick to end Victor Liu's tournament run with a dominant 4-0 win in his semifinal to keep Canadian hopes alive, Kanak Jha would meet his steepest hurdle yet, one which may have proved crucial to his successful end result.
Earlier in the year he had defeated Nikhil Kumar in a one sided 4-0 win at the US Nationals Men's Singles Final here in Las Vegas. This match would prove to be more than a challenge. Jha would easily control the first game to win 11-4, but his game was too passive and his consistent returns provided too much opportunity for Kumar to gain the upper hand. The 14 year old member of this year's USA team for the World Table Tennis Championships would power into the match and move to an impressive 3-1 lead. Members of the spectators looked nervous as they wondered what was going on. Months of training in Germany after having been so dominant at the US Nationals and Kanak Jha was looking to be in a very difficult position in the match. Were Jha's Youth Olympic goals over?
Experience and a change in tactics created just the surge of confidence Kanak Jha needed to get the fire burning again. Composed as ever but with more positive body language and applying more pressure into each stroke, he stole time away from Kumar and put himself on the front foot in rallies. Jha sought to initiate the attack and the results began to become clearer and clearer. Jha stormed back into the match and held his own against the extreme pressure. He would extend the match to the full 7 games, ending with an 11-4 win in the deciding game as he completed his comeback and held on to the opportunity before him. A very well played match to begin by Nikhil Kumar, though Kanak Jha showed that no matter the situation he is ready to fight back - as he has done in many pressure situations before.
The result setup a final showdown between USA and Canada with the two reigning national champions of each country going head to head. The semifinal heartstopper moments proved to give Kanak Jha exactly what he needed. He wasted no time in powering into the match, the similar left handed style and slightly softer backhand side of Hazin almost a mirror of Nikhil Kumar. Jha charged straight out of the blocks and sprinted for the finish and showed no signs of looking back. Jeremy Hazin had played some brilliant table tennis across the day but Kanak Jha had his number.
It would be the 2016 Rio Olympian Kanak Jha who would truly dominate the final match, finding his A game and bringing it home. His 4-0 victory in decisive fashion (7, 3, 6, 2) would be one of the highlights of the day indeed. A delighted Stefan Feth waited on the bench to congratulate young Jha, along with USATT High Performance Director Joerg Bitzigeio and parents Arun and Karuna. A great finish to the day and a perfect build up also to the 2017 US Open which begins tomorrow.
You can find all information, results and stream links with on demand video from all matches here: