As the dust began to settle at the conclusion of the 2019 Seamaster US Open Table Tennis Championships, one happy champion could look back on a long and challenging road to gold. As a 9-year old, USA's Lily Zhang had played in her first US Open Championships, could she ever have dreamed back then that one day she would win the prestigious international event?
On the back of 4 Pan Am Champs medals, a historic 4th place at the Women's World Cup, a first-ever ITTF Star Award for the Breakthrough Star, and now US Open Champion in Fort Worth, Texas.
What we saw from Lily on the center courts as she battled her way ever-closer to that sweet victory was a masterclass of table tennis and the complete evolution of her game into something awe-inspiring.
As she calculated her way through points, overcoming strong opponents on her way, with her match against Aige He in the semifinal proving to be an absolute crowd-pleaser, Zhang's game was immaculate.
The final with Mayuka Taira was the final hurdle to jump for Zhang. She was a returning, finalist, having lost to USA's Liu Juan last year to take silver. This year Taira had triumphed over Liu in the semifinal and was looking to go all the way.
The stage was set, a packed crowed around a glimmering golden STAG showcourt table, closed in barriers of the event's all-important sponsors - Seamaster, STAG, Butterfly, Paddle Palace/Nittaku and Fashion River.
Zhang's focus was unwavering as she got to work, a supportive audience cheering her on as she pushed through the first game, showing no fear or hesitation. Taira was on the back foot as Zhang used her razor-sharp precision to outplay her opponent.
Taira quickly adjusted her game plan, she began to utilize some deadly hook serves, on occasion catching Zhang out with a devastating long, fast, heavy backspin hook serve. Zhang had little time to react, and even with wrist acceleration the ball could only find the bottom of the net.
Crucial points came and Taira ripped across the ball on the serve receive, creating deceivingly heavy topspin serve returns inside-out.
A quartet of points from two strong serves and two creative and risky receives put Taira on track, and she took game one.
Zhang knew she couldn't afford to lose any more leads, and created a one-sided affair in the second, she was aggressive, looking for a weakness in the middle of the table, before swinging the ball wide to the backhand. It was an effective tactic which had served her well this tournament. Any balls coming back were quickly connected wide to the forehand. Zhang was on fire. 11-3 in the second game and Zhang leveled.
The third was really the make or break moment as both players fought to attain the lead.
Taira got off to a super start and held 9-5 lead in the game. Mixing strong serve and receives with snappy backhands and the occasional forehand step-around.
This time it would be Zhang to win a cluster of points in a row. She came back strong and trailed by one at 9-8.
Taira pulled out the heavy backspin hook and stopped Zhang in her tracks. Taira held 2 game points.
In the nerve-wracking scenes that followed, Zhang perfectly balanced tactful play and assertiveness. She was able to win four in a row to win 12-10.
From there the American's momentum grew and the pressure on Mayuka Taira mounted.
The crowd grew even greater in enthusiasm, and Lily Zhang took control of the table. She took the lead and never lost it from there.
Taira worked hard to try and combat the onslaught of attacking shots, but ultimately Zhang was the overpowering player.
She swept game 4 and took a commanding lead in game 5, finding herself at match point. With 5 of them in hand, she only needed the first.
Zhang looked overwhelmed as she bowed her head down with a smile.
"After so many years of coming to the US Open and trying over and over, I'm so over the moon to finally have won the title," said Zhang after the match.
"I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has been supporting me over these years."
An exceptional result, Lily Zhang, the first US-born athlete to win the US Open in 47 years.
A big thanks from us all to the following:
- Seamaster, title sponsor
- STAG, table sponsor
- Nittaku/Paddle Palace, ball sponsor
- Butterfly, official apparel sponsor
-Trioflor/Fashion River, flooring sponsor
We would also like to thank all of the fantastic volunteers from the Texas area, Ragle.Inc, Texas Wesleyan University and the Dallas Fort Worth and Austin Texas Table Tennis Clubs.