Nikhil Kumar and Zhou Xin are Tokyo 2020 Bound! Photos by Bruce Liu.
The three men's Olympic spots are now set. Who are they? Let's find out what happened!
Going into the Sunday, Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar are leading with 4-0 records, followed by Yijun "Tom" Feng at 3-1, with Dan Liu and Nicholas both still in contention at 2-2. They each had three more matches to decide the Olympians. (Kanak Jha already has the first spot due to his world ranking.)
Here are the results! Page down to see complete results.
Zhou Xin (4-0) vs. Nicholas Tio (2-2). This is a must win for Nicholas to stay in possible contention. And he starts off well. Nicholas may have the fastest footwork in the tournament, and uses it to dominate with attacks from both wings, but especially his forehand. Against the almost wall-like consistent Zhou, Nicholas leads 10-7 in the first. And then there's an Olympic-training three points as Zhou deuces it. Nicholas goes up 11-10, a fourth chance, and they have a spectacular counterlooping rally - both are all over the court - but Zhou wins it, 12-all. And from there on, it's all Zhou. In game three, serving at 0-10, Nicholas intentionally serves off in disgust. Match to Zhou, 12,7,0,5. And so Nicholas is out of contention.
Yijun "Tom" Feng (3-1) vs. Jishan Liang (0-4). Tom is still in contention, and this is a must win for him. Someone told me that he'd lost to Jishan the last twelve times in a row - but whatever it is, Jishan has a huge winning record against him, and this is pretty much a "must" win for Tom. If he loses, probably the best he can get is a tie, and with his 0-4 earlier loss to Nikhil Kumar, his prospects aren't good there. It's a battle of two players who can rip winners at will from both wings, with Tom a penholder, Jishan a lefty shakehander.
Though Tom won game two 11-2, he lost the first and third badly, and it looks like he's about to be taken out of contention. But he really goes on the attack, and wins the match, -6,2,-7,9,9,8. And so Zhou continues undefeated, and Tom stays in contention.
Nikhil Kumar (4-0) vs. Kai Zhang (1-3). Nikhil is sailing along, and against Kai, seems to continue this smooth sailing as he wins the first two by a combined score of 22-6. In the third, Kai leads 8-3, but Nikhil goes on a tear, winning five in a row, 8-all. Kai leads 10-9, but against a slightly long serve from Nikhil, he whiffs a loop. (Nikhil has a very nice "hook" serve, which is essentially forehand pendulum serve with the tip up, sort of a mixture of forehand pendulum and "tomahawk" serve.) Nikhil wins the next two points, and is up 3-0, and the match is over - oops, nope, Kai wins the next two, and we have a match, and Nikhil's Olympic dreams are in danger. But in the sixth, it's all Nikhil as he wins the match, 4,2,10,-9,-8,4. And so Nikhil continues undefeated.
Dan Liu (2-2) vs. Sharon Alguetti (0-4). Dan is still in contention, while Sharon is playing spoiler. Sharon goes up 3-1 in games, and is up 10-5 quintuple match point. But he gets Danned as Dan wins five in a row, deuce. Sharon has another match point at 11-10, but can't convert. Then, at 11-all, Dan gets a net dribbler that bounces off the side of the table on Sharon's backhand side. Sharon scoops it up off the floor, and the ball almost rolls on the far side! But Dan quick-chips it off the table, and the rally continues. (I wasn't sure if Dan got the ball in time - the ball almost didn't bounce, was almost rolling - so did it "bounce" a second time before Dan got to it?) They have a nice rally, which Sharon wins, and he wins the next point as well. Match to Sharon, 9,8,7,-7,11. And so Dan drops out of contention.
At this point, there are three contenders, Zhou Xin (5-0), Nikhil Kumar (5-0), and Tom Feng (4-1). Tom has already lost to Nikhil by the unfortunate (for him) score of 0-4.
Zhou Xin (5-0) vs. Yijun "Tom" Feng (4-1). I was told by someone that Zhou thought Tom might be his toughest match. If he was back in the form when he was US Men's Singles Champion in 2015, he'd battle and possibly beat Zhou, a former member of the Chinese National Team Squad. After playing top players for three days, he just might be, despite taking off two years for college and only recently really getting back into serious training. However, the first two games were all Zhou. In the third, Zhou led 10-9, wins 12-10. Another Zhou rout? Tom takes a 5-0 lead in the fourth, and suddenly is back in his 2015 form as he wins games four and five and 5 and 6. He also leads 9-7 in the sixth - but from there on, Zhou is on fire, winning the last four in a row and the match, 6,2,10,-5,-6,9. That ended Tom's chances, as even if Nikhil loses his last two matches, the best Tom can do is tie him at 5-2, but Nikhil beat him head-to-head, and so would get the Olympic spot.
So Congratulations to our Men's Olympians, Kanak Jha, Zhou Xin, and Nikhil Kumar!
Except . . . they still have to finish this round, and Zhou and Nikhil have to play to see who plays Singles (along with Teams, and who only plays Teams.
Nikhil Kumar (5-0) vs. Dan Liu (2-3). Dan's out of contention, and Nikhil was fired up. Match to Nikhil, 6,6,8,5.
The other two, somewhat meaningless matches? Kai Zhang defaulted to Sharon Alguetti, and Jishan Liang defaulted to Nicholas Tio.
There were four matches scheduled, but three were defaults, since the players were no longer in contention. The only match played was the big one between Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar. Both are 6-0. Both are now Olympians, but the winner will play Singles and Teams. The loser only plays Teams. (The Team event includes doubles.)
Zhou Xin (6-0) vs. Nikhil Kumar (6-0). The going odds were somewhat high that Zhou (rated 2730, age 32) would win. Zhou is now 10-0 in matches, and 40-3 in games. Nikhil (2692, age 17) is now 10-0 in matches, and 40-7 in games. But perhaps we should let them play it out.
Nikhil comes out with a very simple tactic that dominates the match. Zhou plays an aggressive, controlling two-winged looping game, and can seemingly smother opponents as they try to find a way to score a point. If you flip his serve, he's standing right here, ready to loop. If you push long, it's even worse. So what's the obvious tactic, one that sounds so simple but is not so easy to execute against Zhou's tricky serves? Zhou mostly served short, and over and over Nikhil would show almost uncanny touch in dropping them short. Over and over Zhou would look uncomfortable as he served and had to step in after these shots - leaving him vulnerable on the next shot. He's far more comfortable when he's a step back. Sometimes Zhou would flip them, sometimes he'd push them (short or long), but Nikhil would then attack, and Zhou just didn't look comfortable.
Mostly on the strength of his short push receive - often stepping over to his forehand side to drop it short with his backhand, and mixing in enough flips so Zhou couldn't anticipate it - and by roughly matching Zhou, spectacular shot for spectacular shot, once they got into a rally - Nikhil wins the first two games at 8 and 9. Often he follows his serve with a huge backhand loop winner, usually to Zhou's wide forehand. Nikhil also was good at taking pace off some of his blocks rather than blocking aggressive to Zhou, who often was waiting for those balls to attack.
But Zhou is not going down easily. He wins the third at 8, often serving longer or with topspin to stop the short push, and absolutely pulverizes everything in winning game five, 11-2. Zhou sometimes looks unbeatable in rallies, whether he's controlling play with well-placed topspins or just ripping winners. (Though the point of the game was an incredible backhand counterloop from way back by Nikhil, which so caught Zhou off guard that it went by him for an ace.)
Up 8-6 in the fifth, Nikhil misses and easy forehand and gasps - you can't give away points like that. The unperturbable Zhou scores three in a row to lead 9-8. Nikhil takes a timeout. Right afterwards, they have the point of the tournament - and incredible display of counterlooping as they absolutely pulverize the ball back and forth, over and over, both forehand backhand - and Nikhil finally wins it, 9-all. Then Nikhil rips a forehand, and Zhou pushes his serve off, and Nikhil wins game six, 11-9.
In game seven, Nikhil takes an insurmountable 5-1 lead - and when I say "insurmountable," I mean Zhou ties it up 5-5, and in fact wins six in a row to lead 7-5.
So, what does Nikhil do when an opponent scores six in a row? He does what any champion would do - he scores six in a row right back! Match to Nikhil, 8,9,-8,-2,9,7. This gives us two teenagers on the Olympic Team as Nikhil (17) joins Kanak Jha (19, turning 20 in June).
Congratulations to the 2020 US Olympic Men's Team of Kanak Jha, Nikhil Kumar, and Zhou Xin!