Kai Zhang put it all on the line in last night's men's singles quarterfinal, and he was rewarded with a place in the semifinals.
Zhang has been one of the most active elite players in the USA since arriving here many years ago with the dream of competing at the Olympic Games for the USA. Zhang, under the guidance and mentorship of Will Shortz, has been able to successfully navigate his way through high school and then continue through to college. The 22 year old recently became a US citizen and with eligibility for the Olympics in hand, his dreams can now potentially become a reality.
He has won more Westchester Table Tennis titles than any other player in the USA, and is considered one of the strongest competitors on the east coast and in the country.
Kai blasted onto the US Nationals Livestream and Center Court in style yesterday, leading a fairly one sided 4-0 win over the US team's Victor Liu.
"Everything worked really well against Victor and I felt very comfortable that match. I felt good after the match and I actually expected to play better in the next round against Zhou Xin," states Kai.
The former National Collegiate champion recently returned from China, where he competed in Chengdu in a team tournament representing USA called the One Belt, One Road Team Tournament. The US players, including Zhang, stayed for 20 days after for a training camp which included Poland and the Sichuan and Jiangxi province teams.
The match had Zhang looking in form as he showed his technical advantage and exceptional power and acceleration. He was making a convincing case to push deeper into the draw.
The quarterfinal proved to be one of the matches that spectators live to see. Zhou Xin was the opposition, another debutant in the Men's Singles event here at the 2019 US National Table Tennis Championships, and also a former National Team player in China.
While Zhou had just managed to slip past Michael Tran in his previous round, he instantly settled against the more typical Chinese playing style of Kai Zhang. Zhou looked on track to make his debut a successful one, his strokes were effortless and Zhang was the player having to work harder.
While Zhou was steady and calculated, Zhang was forcing the offensive and trying to keep the points short and sweet. The unforced errors crept in.
"I couldn't receive his service very effectively and felt uncomfortable with the timing when we got into rallies on the backhand side. He hits the balls very soft but consistent on the table and I made too many mistakes because I wanted to finish the points too quickly," Kai recalls as he evaluates the previous evening's match.
Zhou Xin was the real dark horse in the competition, a player who many were anticipating meeting a semifinal matchup with top seed Kanak Jha. He was manoeuvring himself into that likelihood and found himself leading 3-1 in the best of 7 match and with 2 match points at 10-8.
This is where the character of Kai Zhang was realized.
Facing the high probability of elimination he laid everything on the line.
His strokes loosened up and hit their mark. He saved the match points and reduced the margin to 3-2 and kept the match alive. Something began to change in Zhou Xin as the pressure mounted. Kai Zhang was gaining momentum - rapidly.
By the end of the match, Kai was in the driver's seat. A magical moment as he turned around the match and won in the 7th and deciding game.
"After I was losing 10-8 and 3-1 I relaxed and changed my service game. In the end my strategy worked well," says Kai, "I'm happy with the result and I will try my best against Kanak tonight. He is getting better and better in Germany - I can't say I have a really good strategy, but I will try and find some solutions in the match."
It certainly won't be an easy task, the 19 year old star, Jha, holds 3 consecutive National titles - a fourth here in Vegas would create a new record in the men's game. The task will be upon Kai Zhang to try and upset that rhythm. Best of luck.