Zhang Topples Former Champion to Reach World Cup Quarterfinal

By Matt Hetherington | Oct. 19, 2019, 1:37 a.m. (ET)

Lily Zhang has thrown US supporters into a frenzy as she defeated Japan's Miu Hirano in the round of 16 at the 2019 Uncle Pop ITTF Women's World Cup in Chengdu. 

The win, on one of the world's biggest table tennis stages, was reminiscent of Zhang's Youth Olympic Games bronze medal moment, although this win against the 2015 World Cup Champion and current World Number 9 is certainly Zhang's greatest individual win to date.

Zhang had logged an impressive 4-1 win over Pan American Games champion Adriana Diaz in the group stage to advance to the round of 16, and now faced the fourth seed of the tournament.

Hirano, a former Cup champion and winner of the 2017 Asian Cup, has an extensive history as one of Asia's leading players, and in the leadup to the Tokyo 2020 games, this win is a thrilling upset for the current World Number 49, who won her place in the competition by Wild Card.

The match started off with back and forths, but USA's Zhang held a small lead. Rhythm was building for both players and the pressure was on Hirano as she battled to try and retain the lead. Zhang held the table and showed great confidence to close out the first game and take a 1-0 lead in deuce. 

The resilience of Lily Zhang came to play as Hirano raced to an early start in the second, leading 5-0, as Zhang powered back to lead 7-6. Zhang forced the time-out, a positive sign as the American piled on the pressure. 

Opportunity was ever-present and Zhang knew it, her presence over the table was formidable.

The time-out did little to stop the momentum as Zhang raced to a 9-6 lead and moved to close out the game and take a 2-0 lead. 

Hirano knew it was time to step up her game, or face an early exit in the competition, while Zhang managed to stay close behind, it was Hirano who upped the stakes, on more than one occasion sending blistering forehand counters down the line - exceeding 6,000 RPM in spin rotations.

The storm was building as Hirano drew the match even at 2-2. Her focus was reaching a pinnacle as the unforced errors diminished and her execution was on point. 

Zhang again trailed by 2 through the all-important fifth game, but at the end of the game the assertive nature of Hirano asserted itself and she earned herself three game points. 

A third game in a row 11-8 for Hirano an she took over proceedings with a 3-2 lead. 

The momentum seemed to have shifted firmly in favor of Japan's Miu Hirano, but USA's Zhang was far from done.

Hook serves to the middle of the table, short and half-long were proving effective for Zhang, who brought herself back into the lead in the sixth. The confidence booster was about to rear its head as Zhang ended up back from the table, sending the ball sailing high before ripping an incredible backhand counterloop from far back, stepping around to end the point and impose herself back upon the match.

Zhang raced to an 8-2 lead as she eyeballed a seventh game showdown with the former champ.

The focus of middle service placement and assertive play to the wings was proving to be effective for Zhang, as she headed back to Jeffrey Zheng on the bench for some final advice as she returned to take on the challenge of a seventh game with Miu Hirano.

Zhang was in the zone, she flew to a 5-1 lead, nerves were high, not only for US fans, but Japanese fans around the world. Hirano sent a 72 kph forehand screaming across the table to support her cause and in the blink of an eye it was 5-4. Timeout for USA.

Zhang didn't falter on her mission as she pressed onward, with victory potentially on the horizon. She held a 3 point lead as the end of the game loomed, continuing to compound her efforts. 

Thousands of revolutions per minute were in play, as Lily Zhang served and stepped over the table to pound an unbelievable winner crosscourt. 

At match point it was time for a deep breath, and a dozen blistering high paced shots ensued. 

As Hirano's ball sailed long, Zhang twisted away from the table with a fist in the air. The individual win of her career, success for 23 year old Lily Zhang!

"I'm kind of at a loss for words right now," said Zhang in her post-match interview. The American reflected on her goal to play without expectation and how that had helped remove the pressure. 

An exceptional win for Lily Zhang, who moves on to take on Austria's Sofia Polcanova in the quarterfinal.