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US Men's Team Leap on Golden Opportunity to Finish Pan Ams on High

By Matt Hetherington | Aug. 11, 2019, 2:01 a.m. (ET)

20 years after the last occasion in 1999, the US Men's Table Tennis team have upset the odds by winning the 2019 Pan American Games.  In fact, two decades ago on that last occasion, none of the current team members had even been born yet!

The draw was a tough one, with a field full of potentially difficult teams. The US started off strong with wins over Ecuador and Puerto Rico in the groups. 4 years ago the team had lost to Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals, it seemed an early sign that change was in motion. 

Coming into the quarterfinal stage the team led a convincing win over the Dominican Republic, but it was their semifinal effort which really turned heads. 

The USA overcame Brazil, a nation which has won more Pan Games Men's team golds than any other country. The result opened up a golden opportunity, in the literal sense, for USA to face Argentina in the final.

The final began, and the first match had great implications for the USA. Not only were the duo of Nick Tio and Nikhil Kumar able to reverse the result from their quarterfinal loss in the Men's Doubles, they were also able to end their doubles run in the team event undefeated. 

The 3-1 win over Cifuentes and Alto showing that the team had done their research and bought a fresh plan to the table, along with their best form to capture this result and give the USA a crucial 1-0 start in the final - it would prove to be a vital point.

Kanak Jha, only just out of the junior age category at the end of last year, came up against a vastly experienced and older opponent in Pablo Tabachnik. The Argentinian veteran is a 3-time Olympian  and also a 3-time silver medalist in the Pan American Games team event. All his experience could not match the fine-tuned skill of Jha who was able to win in straight games. 

USA were up 2-0 in the tie, but the road ahead still presented challenges. 

Nikhil Kumar found himself fighting to stay in the match as he took on Horacio Cifuentes. The Argentinian currently ranks in the world top 100 and has been ranked as high as 75 earlier this year. He had l9st to Kumar 3-0 in last year's Pan American Championships, and was able to reverse the result to keep Argentina alive in the match. 

Tabachnik was back in the spotlight in the fourth match, with Nick Tio taking the table for his first singles match of the team competition. Tabachnik showed his experience in the match, with difficult service deviations and a good handle on his heavy spin opening loop. 

The left hander gave Tio a lot of trouble and was able to lock down the stronger parts of his game. While Tio battled hard to take the second game, there was great difficulty for him in handling the varying spin and depth of Tabachnik, giving the elder opponent a distinct advantage. 

The Argentine, who had defeated Andy Pereira already in the tournament, added Tio to the list and drew up the score in the final to 2-2. 

The pressure fell back to Kanak Jha, a young man who has delivered on so many occasions. He would face a rematch against Gaston Alto, the player he had eliminated in the singles quarterfinal.

Jha was leaving nothing to chance, his pinpoint accuracy and consistent game were a formidable mountain for Alto to climb. Alto made some powerful attacking strokes, but Jha was reliable on the backhand side, and quick to counter early on the forehand. 

Combining tight serve and receive with some excellent elbow and body shots, Jha asserted his position. It was down to him to close the door on the Agentinian side, and he wasted no time in doing so. 

It was a triumphant moment for the US Men's Team, who had worked together unbelievably well to pass the final hurdle. 

From the unbeaten team doubles combination of Tio and Kumar, who had scored vital opening points for the USA against all opponents, to the exceptional Nikhil Kumar, leading phenomenal upsets over Alberto Mino, Brian Afanador and Gustavo Tsuboi, and finally the ever-reliable and steady Kanak Jha - battling against 2 championship points to save the USA from the jaws of defeat against Brazil, and bringing the result home for the US against Argentina in the final.

A well-deserved gold for our determined young men, all under the guidance of Coach Stefan Feth on the bench. 

Congratulations to the US Men's Team, the Women on their bronze and to coaches Stefan Feth and Joerg Bitzigeio - along with Team Leader Ross Brown. A fantastic team effort by all.