Lily Zhang at this year's World Table Tennis Championships - Image courtesy of Sylvia Gräfe
Lily Zhang was the USA's star performer at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Slovenia Open in Ocotec. What most didn't know was that behind the scenes she was fighting a fever and headaches. That makes her results even more so impressive.
Starting out in the round of 64, where she was seeded due to world ranking, Zhang took on Chinese Taipei's Huang Yu-Chiao. After the match balanced at 1-1, Zhang took off and didn't turn back - although the 5th game was an epic 18-16 clutch victory for the US star. A 4-1 win and into the round of 32.
In similar fashion it was Zhang who came out on top in the next match against world number 270 Mercedes Nagyvaradi from Hungary. Success here set her up for a round of 16 showdown with the top seed and reigning Pan American Cup champion Adriana Diaz.
Diaz currently ranked 31 in the world, and the number 1 seed for the women's singles in Slovenia, but Zhang had a point to prove. Having gone full time pro at the start of this year, Lily Zhang has gone from strength to strength and, even with a fever of 102, she took to the table to rise to the challenge.
Zhang held the table well in the match and set the pace, with Diaz often half a step back and steadier in her comfort zone. Speed was the biggest factor as Zhang took game one and the early lead. Zhang worked hard to capitalize and made use of her great backhand coverage and placement, adding pressure on Diaz at every step. Diaz began to settle in as she fought back into the second game, picking up the pace and looking more steady in the rallies and with her openings.
Game 2 went to deuce and the two fought back and forth. Zhang not backing down in the face of game points as she closed the end 16-14 with some exceptional wide placements and early timing on her forehand.
Puerto Rico's star sports girl new it was now or never to mount a comeback and started strong in game 3, pressing the offensive, she took an 8-2 lead in the game, but Zhang came back to 8-7.
With the pressure mounting Diaz was back from the table again and lost the next 2 points. Zhang had an opportunity, but Diaz got back on the front foot in a decisive effort to get her name on the board.
The match would go to the 6th game, and as Zhang led 3-2, she trailed in the game. With a 7-5 lead in hand, Adriana Diaz had a strong case to push into the 7th game - something that Zhang clearly wasn't in favor of. Swiping the next 5 points in a row, Zhang took the high ground, now she only needed to seal the match. It would be a fair challenge.
Diaz landed the next 3 points to force deuce and it was up to Lily Zhang to secure a 2 point margin. She grasped it 13-11 and took the win 4-2.
With a worsening condition, Lily Zhang pressed on into the quarterfinal, still determined to put on the best display she could given the scenario.
She made a more than impressive showing against European Champs silver medalist Margaryta Pesotska from Ukraine, currently ranked 48 in the world.
The match started out steady with longer rallies and a more moderate pace, Zhang moving the ball around a lot and steadily finding openings in the consistent countering of Pesotska. Pesotska took game one, but Zhang leveled and then took a 2-1 lead. She was mixing the rallies very well, with steady pace and accurate placement thrown aside at any moment and replaced with blistering attacking strokes.
Zhang was certainly playing the role of the aggressor but Ukraine's Pesotska remained stable as every, playing with great safety and leaving Zhang to take the riskier shots to win points.
The match drew up at 2-2, but that's as close as Zhang would get, as Pesotska clenched the 5th set 12-10. There were incredibly small margins in it as she shut USA's Zhang out 4-2, winning the 6th 11-9.
Congratulations Lily on your fine performance and on overcoming the challenge of sickness to do your absolute best. A quarterfinal finish at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Slovenia Open, well done!