Jha Reflects on Lifetime Achievement of Youth Olympic Bronze

By Matt Hetherington | Oct. 16, 2018, 7:52 p.m. (ET)

The 2018 Youth Olympic Games draw to a close for US athletes Kanak Jha and Amy Wang. Both players have cherished this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in this unique event, both having done their country proud and having recorded the best US result ever.

The two finished in the last 16 of the mixed international team event, losing 2-1 to Azerbaijan, while Amy Wang competed with excellence to reach the quarterfinal in the women's singles, beating a handful of incredibly tough opponents, the likes of South Korea, Serbia and Singapore. 

Kanak Jha was the man to leap on opportunity, entering the contest as the 4th seeded player in the Men's Singles event. The draw was stacked with incredibly tough opponents, the likes of Japanese wonderkid Tomokazu Harimoto, China's Wang Chuqin, European Youth Champion Ioannis Sgouroupolos, Swedish Star Truls Moregardh, Romania's upcoming talent Cristian Pletea and of course Chinese Taipei's Lin Yun-Ju. There were plenty of other big names in the mix too, not only on the Men's side, but also the Women's. 

"I hadn't played a tournament for a very long time before this, I think the last one was the Pan American Junior Champs, so I was feeling a little unsure of my form and if I was mentally ready to play such an important tournament. I definitely wasn't one of the favorites going in, so I knew I would have to play my absolute best game to have a chance to get far, which also caused little pressure for me," reflects Jha upon his thoughts before the big event. 

"Of course knowing that you can only play this tournament once in your life makes me value how important the tournament is and it did change my mindset a lot compared to how it normally is. Feeling not only more pressure, but also more motivation. I think I am lucky to have played important matches before so I had more experience of how to deal with the added nerves. In particular I think Rio Olympics in 2016 helped a lot with this tournament. I already knew what to expect in terms of playing in a big atmosphere, staying in the athlete village etc. So I was not surprised or distracted by the other stuff that comes with playing in Olympics such as media and other factors like when I was in Rio."

The three-time back-to-back US National Champion took to the group stages and instantly landed a win, with a 4-0 result over Poland's Maciej Kolodziejczyk. He continued to defeat Nicolas Burgos of Chile, 4-2 and finally Jann Nayre of the Philippines, 4-0. Along with Amy Wang (who won 2 of her matches and lost the third 4-3), he advanced into the last 16 players in the event. The campaign for both players was off to a good start, but Jha had his reservations. 

"I was actually feeling a little worried after the group stage. I didn't feel so good in the matches and just didn't have a flow or rhythm. I was very fortunate I think to have a good draw in the main draw, and I think I started to get more and more comfortable and more relaxed after each match. By the last day I was feeling very ready mentally and physically."

The young American battled onwards, sweeping aside Brazil's Guilherme Teodoro, 4-1, and then by the same margin defeating Singapore's Yew En Koen Pang. 

The two solid results saw him move past the round of 16 and quarterfinals and find himself in the semifinals. Kanak Jha was among the top 4. Three of those players would take home prestigious medals from the event. His opposition in the semifinal would be China's Wang Chuqin. On the other half, Harimoto faced Chinese Taipei's Lin Yun-Ju. Jha was in good company.

"Even though I was in the semifinals, the other three were the top 3 players in the tournament, so I didn't feel like I was very close still to making a medal. I wasn't thinking about my chance or results, I just wanted to play my best game. I knew that there was a good chance that even if I did manage to play my best, it wouldn't mean I would win, so that helped me relax a bit and focus on my own performance instead of the results," says Jha on his feelings going into the final 4.

Alas the top two medals would evade Jha as he was toppled by Wang Chuqin, one of China's young prodigies. Wang would go on to defeat Harimoto for the gold. This left Kanak Jha to contest for the bronze medal with Lin Yun-Ju. 

Lin has peaked already at 36th in the world for Men's ranking, having defeated such opponents as Tiago Apolonia and Andrej Gacina, as well as having beaten Jha at last year's World Junior Championships in a close match. The final clash began, win or lose, this would be Jha's last Men's Singles match at the Youth Olympic Games ever, it was all on the line.

"I started off very poorly in the match, especially mentally. I was overthinking and he took the first set very easily and had an early lead in the second. I think I did well not to panic or worry that the match was potentially slipping away, and luckily I managed to steal the second game - which was vital. 

Winning the second games really gave me confidence and I knew I was in the match. I started to feel more comfortable in the match."

As the match drew on a window of opportunity began to form as supporters from home looked on, crossing their fingers for the young US player to bring it home. 

"At 3-1 I started to think that I could win this, I was very good with changing the variations and placement of serve and receive in the match. But I started to get too excited about winning and he came back and took the set to make it 3-2. I started to make many unforced errors and bad judgement. 

In the sixth game I was still rattled mentally from losing the fifth after having a lead and I lost the set quite badly," Jha recalls. 

The two players had forced a 3-3 tie in the best of 7 clash. The match was rapidly developing as the most heated and entertaining match of the table tennis event at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. Every point would be absolutely crucial moving forward and could spell the difference between a medal or 4th place. 

"After losing the sixth set, I just told myself that now - whether I win or lose - I have to give it my all. I didn't want to have any regrets after the match or to feel like I could have done more to win. I was completely in the zone the last set and just shut out any thoughts of winning or losing. My focus was solely upon the next point," Kanak says of the 7th and deciding game. 

11-9 in the 7th game would be the final result, with Jha victorious. He let his racket drop and sprinted for the bench, where his career coach Stefan Feth awaited him. A long embrace as the pressure melted away and the realization at the scale of the achievement set in. 

"I just remember being very happy," Kanak comments about his reaction after the final point. 

"Stefan has coached me since the beginning of my career, so I think it's really fitting that he was there with me at that moment. We have a close relationship and I feel most comfortable when he's coaching me during matches because he knows my game and my thought process. He really helps me during matches, not only with advice and tactics, but with the mental aspects of my game too."

"I think we managed to find good tactics during all the matches I played with video analysis on the opponents and figuring out how I could use my strengths against them."

No doubt it has been a continuing successful coach-student relationship between Feth and Jha and we applaud both player and coach on a very successful Youth Olympic Games campaign. 

Indeed, as the young player takes a moment to celebrate, it must be highlighted the incredible support of his family and coach which he has had over the years and the bold nature to make the sacrifices it has taken to keep achieving the amazing feats which he has. 

Kanak joins an exclusive club, along with Lily Zhang as a Youth Olympic Games bronze medalist, the first male table tennis player from the USA to win an Olympic medal in the sport. Congratulations Kanak, and of course also to Amy Wang, who represented the US with pride and performed exceptionally to reach the last 8 in the women's singles event!