Lily Zhang and Kanak Jha are Tokyo 2020 bound as they today became the first US Table Tennis players to officially qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games in the Japanese capital. The two qualified as the first players by being the highest World Ranked US players as of the February 2020 ITTF World Ranking Lists.
Kanak was clearly in the lead, at his highest career world rank of 25th, having just last week made the round of 32 in the main draw of the 2020 ITTF Platinum World Tour German Open. Jha has been the only player ranked in the top 100 since he broke it in January of 2018, his closest rivals Nikhil Kumar and Kai Zhang far behind at 178 and 172 respectively.
Jha had a solid year last year, winning silver at the 2019 Pan Am Cup, team gold and singles bronze at the 2019 Pan American Games. He also reached the last 16 of the Men's World Cup, very narrowly missing a place among the top 8.
Last year also broke another record for the young American, becoming the first ever player to win 4 consecutive US National Men's Singles titles.
Jha will be competing in his second Olympic Games, having made his debut in Rio 2016 as the youngest ever male table tennis player to compete in the games, and as the youngest member (the first born in the 2000s) to compete as a member of the US Olympic Team.
For Lily Zhang it will be her third appearance at the Olympic Games, having competed in both London 2012 and Rio 2016. Zhang, after last year, is a 5-time US National Champion, and had an incredible year in 2019.
Zhang won all 4 gold medals on offer at the Pan American Championships, and not long afterwards came 4th at the Women's World Cup, the highest ever US placement at the event. She was awarded ITTF's Breakout Star Award for her efforts in 2019, but winning this spot in Tokyo was quite a task, and not without nervous moments.
The selection came down to the wire as Wu Yue, Zhang's close teammate, was right in the mix. Having led on World Ranking for a long period of time, Wu was the spearhead of international presence for the USA. She held a significant world ranking lead for many months, until Zhang's ultimate decision to move to Germany and go full-time pro. Wu's performances gained her a career high world ranking of 30th this month, falling shy by just two places of Zhang's 28th position and lending Zhang the qualifying spot. USATT commends Wu for her efforts in such a close race for this first qualification position.
"I'm completely over the moon to have made it to Tokyo 2020! It is an absolute dream come true and despite it being my third one in the books, it feels like the most special one yet.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, I decided to take a risk and become a full-time professional in the sport, dedicating 24/7 of my life to training and competing. To know that all the blood, sweat and tears have finally paid off in the end is truly an indescribable feeling.
I'm so honored to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Games and I will do everything in my power to make my country proud." - Lily Zhang after qualifying for Tokyo 2020.
These two players have led the way for their peers over the years, both becoming the first US table tennis players for their respective genders to win Olympic medals, bronze medals, in the Youth Olympic Games. They have displayed leadership and set the bar for their peers, as reflected in the comments of Sean O'Neill, USATT High Performance Director:
"Our National Singles Champions continue to shine internationally, and earning tickets to Tokyo shows their hard work and efforts really have paid off. Lily and Kanak will lead our full teams at the Olympics and we wish them the best of success as they play in the Pan Am Cup this week in Puerto Rico along with teammates Wu Yue and Nikhil Kumar."
While these two fine athletes have cemented their place on the US team for Tokyo, there are still 2 remaining positions on offer, and both will be decided at the end of this month at the US Olympic Trials at Santa Monica College, California. You can enter, or get tickets to watch the February 27 - March 1 event HERE.
USATT CEO Virginia Sung congratulated the athletes on their selection to the team:
"USATT is pleased to announce that Kanak Jha and Lily Zhang have earned spots for Tokyo 2020, based on their ITTF World ranking for the month of February 2020. On the Women's side it was a race to the end with Lily edging out teammate Wu Yue. On the Men's side Kanak was in a class of his own in securing the lead position.
The remaining 4 spots will be determined at the US Olympic Trials at Santa Monica College on February 27th - March 1st."
We again congratulate our first 2 Tokyo Olympians and look forward to seeing who will take the other spots on offer at the end of this month!