Kumar Returns to the Big Stage at the 2019 US Nationals

By Matt Hetherington | July 05, 2019, 11:46 a.m. (ET)

Two years ago at this very event, a much younger and smaller Nikhil Kumar faced a daunting task in an intimidating environment. Beneath the bright lights with shadow cast over his audience, Nikhil Kumar, not even yet a permanent fixture of the US National Men's Team, took on defending national men's singles champion Kanak Jha at the Silverton Hotel and Casino. On that occasion Jha proved himself too strong, winning 4-0.

With a strong draw, 14 of the top 16 seeds over 2500, it would be a tough task to reach that landmark again. Kumar, a much more developed player at 16 years of age than 14 on his debut, had to face many tough matches on his way to repeating his finals berth.

With players like Zhou Xin, Zhang Kai, Liang Jishan and Liu Dan in the draw for the first time the attention slipped away from Kumar and other US team members. 

While onlookers watched to see how the newly minted US citizens would perform, Nikhil Kumar was making moves in the draw behind the scenes. 

He reached his first major hurdle in the quarterfinal stage against Yijun Feng, 2016 US Olympian. The caliber of the event showed when the previous 2 years' men's singles finalists came clashing together in the last 8. 

Kumar was on top of his game and Feng wasn't the sharp challenger who had, in 2018, pushed Kanak Jha to 6 games in the championship final. It would be Kumar to prevail with ease in 4 straight games. 

The next major challenge brought out the best in Kumar's game. The men's singles semifinal against Liang Jishan. A contest of left handed players. A power hitter against one of tact.

The variance and range of strokes from Kumar showed how far he has come in the last 2 years. The player that represented the USA in division 2 of the World Team Championships, not losing a match in the third position until the team's last match and loss to the Netherlands. 

The weaponry of Liang was nullified as Kumar combined strategic placements, depth changes and deviation on the ball. The style of the young player under the watchful eye of coach Tao Wenzhang on the bench, is unlike any other player in the competition.

Liang's powerful forehand was scarce, a good sign for Kumar. He was off to a strong start. 

With a 3-0 lead in hand the options were running out for Liang Jishan, one of the leading active tournament players on the east coast for many years. He held 4 game points to keep his chances alive, but Kumar was unrelenting. He had a game plan and never wavered.

Saving all 4 game points it looked like he could clean out the match in straight games, but Liang captured one more game point and didn't blink to lose the opportunity. It was now 3-1.

It would take some heart stopping pressure moments and 6 match points in the 5th game for Nikhil Kumar to bring the match home. 

Now he waits as the finals session beckons. Unlike last time he will be under the familiar lights of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and with the experience of having been in the final once before. Now armed with many new skills and experiences, what can he bring back to the final table?

Be sure to follow the action LIVE across the final day of the 2019 US National Table Tennis Championships here:
2019 US Nationals Livestream