Comeback King Kai Zhang Takes Premier College Crown

By Matt Hetherington | April 23, 2018, 4:10 a.m. (ET)

The Men's Singles event at the 2018 iSET College National Championships in Round Rock, Texas, was an event we had all been waiting for with a stacked list of seeded players. It was really a case where if any of the higher seeded players had a good day they could potentially make a big impact in the draw.

The first seeded player to fall was two-time US Olympian Timothy Wang for Pillar College who was overcome in straight games by Jason Plog. Mississippi's Xiang He failed to show and gave an opportunity to Michael Wang of Northeastern to advance.

Top seed Kaden Xu was dominant in his 3-0 win over Tong Zhang of Mississippi College, winning 11-3, 11-1, 11-0 in the match. His run would come to an end in the quarterfinal at the hands of defending champion Jishan Liang – the 7th seed. Liang had surpassed Adar Alguetti in his round of 16 match in 4 games.

UC Davis' and 2015 US National Champs finalist Kunal Chodri produced a well fought upset over last year's finalist Bruno Ventura Dos Anjos. Chodri trailed 2-0 before picking himself up and pushing through to win the next 3 games. In his quarterfinal he upset Yoshitomi of Mississippi College in straight games.

Yijun Feng, who had possibly been the star player of the tournament, led an unbelievable comeback to fight his way back from 10-5 and 2-1 down against Lindenwood's Massao Kohatsu. Feng clutched out the match in the 5th to advance to the semifinal.

He wasn't the only player pulling off epic comebacks, in the adjacent quarterfinal on table 1 it was Kai Zhang who blasted back out of nowhere to recover from a 2-0 deficit against Wang Jinxin. In the tense moments of the 5th it was the Binghamton player, Zhang, who firmly gripped the last 2 points, pulling off the upset over the 2nd seeded Wang.

The semifinals were set, Kunal Chodri came up against Jishan Liang, while Yijun Feng would take on Kai Zhang.

While Chodri played some amazing points and put the pressure on Liang on a number of occasions, it was the defending champion who took out the vital points. There were some very close situations, particularly in games 5 and 6, but the forehand power of Liang proved decisive as he opened up space and blasted through the UC Davis player.

In the second semifinal it was an east coast showdown with NYU's Feng taking on Binghamton's Zhang. Feng was very much a player in form, undefeated in the team event, runner-up in the men's doubles and already having played some brilliant matches in the singles. His powerful two winged penhold attacking style proved effective as he launched out to a 3-1 lead. The opportunity to advance to the final was almost upon Feng, but another comeback was beginning to brew for Kai Zhang.

As if reborn a new player at the flip of a switch, Kai Zhang came surging back. Chances for Feng presented themselves in the 6th game, but Zhang fought it out and emerged victorious, 16-14. In the end some moments of fatigue showed for Feng and his consistency began to diminish. Kai Zhang jumped on the chance and shut the door on the match and bolted through to the final.

The final was an outstanding match between two players very familiar with each other. The two had clashed on 16 occasions in USATT events, Kai held the advantage in the head to head with 12 wins to Jishan's 4.

A power struggle ensued, an almighty tug of war as the two unleashed a barrage of table tennis artillery upon each other. Kai Zhang was explosive as he went on the attack, but great shot selection from Jishan Liang and his world-beating forehand attack gave him a 2-0 lead.

Of course we knew not to discount Kai Zhang, and like in the previous two rounds, a paradigm shift occurred. Kai Zhang rapidly gained a foothold in the match, both players throwing everything at each other.

Third ball attacks were common, Zhang hitting some mindblowing backhand winners against the long push of Liang. The Binghampton player strung together impressive flurries of wildly powerful strokes at high speed.

Kai Zhang looked dangerous as he mounted his campaign to victory. A 2-0 lead for Liang quickly turned around and Zhang burst into the driver seat.

Without looking back, Kai Zhang continued to play with ferocity. There were winners flying left and right and some fantastic counterloop rallies as the players ventured back from the table. Kai Zhang had momentum on his side and looked almost unassailable as he hit powerful shot after powerful shot.

Finally he punched his way to success, completing his final comeback to win 4 games in a row and become the first player to claim an NCTTA National title from Binghamton. Congratulations Kai!

Full results can be found at the NCTTA Champs Page.