Zhang Kai Makes History in Paraguay over Koki Niwa

By Matt Hetherington | Sept. 14, 2019, 2:42 p.m. (ET)

US fans watched in awe earlier this week as Kai Zhang did the improbable. After competing for the US in his first major event, the Pan Am Championships, Zhang stayed on to compete at the Paraguay Open.

His performance at the Pan Am Championships hadn't been as satisfying as he had hoped, losing out in the round of 16 in the seventh game to Mexico's Marcos Madrid after having held a 3-1 and 10-8 lead. 

The challenges didn't get any easier as he came through the Paraguay Open group stages in second position.  Again Zhang had held a favorable position, leading 8-4 with the game tied 1-1, but unable to convert. He lost out 3-2 to Gaston Alto, the same player who had defeated teammate Kanak Jha just days beforehand.

The second place in the group still allowed him to advance into the preliminary rounds. There he held a 2-0 and 7-4 lead over Puerto Rico's Daniel Gonzalez. Despite being up 3-2 in the match, the Puerto Rican rallied himself to best his US opponent and the tournament hung by a thread for Kai Zhang. 

There was only one hope left for him. One spot would be awarded to a 'lucky loser', drawn from five players who lost in the preliminary stages. 

As luck should have it, Kai Zhang would be that player. He would face top seed Koki Niwa of Japan, currently ranked number 11 in the world.

After days of tough defeats, Zhang came into the match with a fresh mentality and was committed to make the most of the opportunity given to him. 

Out the gates fast, Zhang was on the front foot against the left handed Niwa. The Japanese number 2 struggled to make tight serve receives, and perhaps underestimated the attacking prowess of Kai Zhang. 

The Beijing native who went through his education living in Pleasantville, where he competed at the Westchester Table Tennis Center for many years, landed the first point on the board in the best of 7 showdown.

Into the next two games and the momentum remained for Zhang. He was fearless on attack, and met only passive responses from the often creative and tactful Niwa. 

Before you could blink, Zhang arrived in a unique position. He held a 3-0 lead over the world number 11. 

Niwa stepped up the aggression, but Zhang still held the balance of power, sending winners flying past on many occasions. Niwa was struggling to find answers.

A closely contended 4th game put Niwa on the board and put a roadblock in the plans of Kai Zhang. 

In the 5th, Niwa was seemingly untouchable as he threw down an unassailable lead and won the game 11-2. 

After all of the leads and opportunities that had fallen from his grasp in the past 10 days, could Kai Zhang make the biggest one of all count?

It took the first few points of the sixth game for Zhang to start firing, but once he did you could see the resolve in his body language. His forehand game was devastating. He found himself holding a match point at 10-8.

A blistering forehand counterloop handed him the match point. 

Never before had a lucky loser defeated the top seed of an ITTF World Tour or Challenge Event. It was a historical first, and one claimed alongside a career best win for USA's Kai Zhang. 

"The situation for my mental game was very tough after the matches in the past 10 days. There were many times when I was leading and lost. Today I changed my mentality and focused on fighting for a good performance rather thinking so much about the result, that's the main reason I was able to win today," says Kai Zhang.

"Beating Koki Niwa is definitely the best win of my career so far on the international stage. I will keep going and learn from my mistakes to try and continue getting better results."

Indeed his next target is a dream he has fought for for many years, that will be to represent the USA at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. You can visit his fundraising page here.

Well done on a fantastic result. You can see the match highlights - Koki Niwa vs. Zhang Kai