Jha's Gold Highlights Successful Pan Am Campaign for TTTeam USA

By Matt Hetherington | Nov. 26, 2018, 11:06 a.m. (ET)

Five medals was the end tally for TTTeamUSA in Chile at the 2018 Pan American Table Tennis Championships. It all began with a thrilling team campaign which saw the Men's team overturn the top seeds in the group stages and push their way into the final, before Brazil took revenge on that group stage loss to leave USA with silver. In the women's an intense and close encounter in the team final also saw them walk away with a silver medal against the same nation.

A positive start and with two medals in hand already, the individual events began. The great hopes in the Women's Singles event pushed their way through to the quarterfinal, Olympians Lily Zhang and Wu Yue. Angela Guan lost out with a tough earlier draw to Canada's Zhang Mo, currently ranked top 25 in the world. Wang Xinyue's campaign ended against Brazil's Bruna Takahashi. 

As medal opportunities approached the two US players encountered challenging opposition, with Lily Zhang losing out 4-0 to the eventual champion Adriana Diaz from Puerto Rico, and Wu Yue giving it everything against Brazil's Gui Lin, but falling short with a 4-2 defeat.

The two combined together looking for redemption, they reached the women's doubles final and took a silver medal in the event, Canada's Zhang Mo and Alicia Cote took the gold, 3-1.

Wu Yue also paired with Kanak Jha to reach the mixed doubles final. Puerto Rico took the honors in the final, with Brian Afanador and Adriana Diaz swiping up the gold medal in four games. 

With four silver medals in hand, only Kanak Jha was left standing - Victor Liu, Nick Tio and Nikhil Kumar having all advanced but lost out in the early rounds. A bye in the first round, Kanak settled quickly to claim a win over Itaio Ibanez in four straight games in the round of 32. He was met with a walkover over Canada's Eugene Wang in the round of 16 before advancing to the quarterfinal to face Brian Afanador. 

The two players had gone head to head earlier this year at the World Table Tennis Championship, with Kanak Jha sealing a 3-1 win to send USA to victory. On this occasion Jha was the victor in the first three games, the margins were close. In the fourth Afanador rallied himself and scraped a game in deuce, winning 12-10, with some exceptional play. Jha only grew more focused and knuckled down to seal the win. In the 5th game he was a class act. 11-2 the scoreline and a ticket through to the semifinal.

The semifinal was an absolute thriller. Brazil's Thiago Monteiro was the opponent, a player who has been around 100 in the world for many, many years. It was Monteiro who struck first, a deuce game and the pressure on, the Brazilian put himself on the board. 

Jha pushed his agenda and played more assertively, looking for more forehand opportunities going into the second game, the balance of control shifted to the American, though Monteiro's short and snappy topspin strokes still posed a threat. Jha lifted himself to win three games in a row, he led 3-1. 

Monteiro saw a result beginning to fade and put everything on the line, his attacking game grew more intense as he poured on the pressure. The match expanded to the 7th game. Jha steadied down and honed in on his opportunities. He extended a large lead and set up numerous match points, the options for Monteiro were running out. Converting without hesitation, Jha won the 7th 11-6 and moved on to the final. 

In the final he launched a 4-1 win against Argentina's Horacio Cifuentes. The first two games both went to deuce in nervous moments, but Jha held on tight. In the fourth game he found his footing and gained a substantial lead. Locking in an 11-4 result, he held a 3-0 lead in the final. Cifuentes snapped back to win the fourth, but Jha already had the high ground. Determined to capitalize on his first three games, Jha landed game 5 and with it the gold medal. 

"I'm very happy and a little surprised to have won the tournament. I didn't have too many thoughts or expectations going into the tournament, I just tried to take it match by match and not put too much pressure on the result" - Kanak after his gold medal win.

Now Kanak, along with his teammates, travel from Chile to Australia where they will compete in the World Junior Championships. 

USATT High Performance Director Joerg Bitzigeio was pleased with the overall team performance:

"Overall the group, meaning both teams, presented themselves really well and united here, which is one of our goals as we try to create and achieve something bigger in the future. Five medals in adults at a continental level is impressive and no doubt, especially the gold of Kanak and the silver from the men's team are even shining a little brighter. But we should not forget to also honor the result of the women with silver in three events, just because the expectations may be slightly higher - as their level and ranking compared to the world class as a team is higher overall.

Our current program with our new TTTeamUSA and the change of attitudes are still in the early stages, so we should not start immediately expecting too much or start to dream, even though it has been incredibly good for months.

We like to take it as it is and successes will help us on the long journey, but more important is that we work hard and develop continuously. Being good on our continent is nice, but doesn't mean anything on world level as the Pan Am area is not Asia or Europe. We need and hopefully will be exceptionally good one day!"