2018 US Nationals Men’s and Women’s Finals
(by Steve Hopkins)
The 2018 US Nationals has brought 700 players to Las Vegas to compete in almost 100 events. The action began on Monday, July 2 and will conclude on Saturday, July 7. Friday evening featured the Men’s and Women’s Singles Finals.
The Women’s Finals featured Angela Guan (California) against Liu Juan (New York). Earlier in the tournament, the top three seeds all lost. Yue Wu (seed no. 2) lost in the semifinal against Angela Guan (4-2) and Lily Zhang and Crystal Wang (seeds 1 and 3 respectively) both lost to Liu Juan. While the wins by Liu Juan are over higher seeds, the result is not entirely unexpected. Seedings in this tournament are based upon a variety of factors including World Ranking, so while Liu Juan did not have a high seed in the tournament, she is the highest rated player in the event.
In the final, Liu Juan continued her run of dominance. She won the first game 11-6, easily completed the second game 11-3, pulled out a tight 11-9 third game, and then sealed the win with an 11-5 victory in the fourth and final game. Angel Guan played her classic defensive style and created many long points, but ultimately it was Liu Juan who controlled the pace. Liu placed careful topspin balls until she had an advantage and then dominated with precise attacks. Congratulations to 2018 Women’s National Champion, Liu Juan.
The Men’s Finals featured Kanak Jha and Yijun Feng, TeamUSA teammates. Kanak Jha entered the tournament hoping to win his third in a row. Yijun Feng won the title in 2015, and was runner-up in 2016. Kanak Jha was seeded first and he advanced through his half of the draw by overcoming Seth Pech (4-0), Victor Liu (4-1, Nikhil Kumar (4-1) and Sharon Alguetti (4-0). Yijun Feng maneuvered through the other half of the draw by Defeating Kunal Chodri and Yanjun Gao.
Kanak jumped off to a 5-0 lead in the first game of the finals, leaning heavily on his backhand flip. He then maintained the lead throughout, winning 11-6. Kanak again jumped out ahead early winning 4 of the first 5 points. At 9-4 there was an interesting twist as a net ball struck by Kanak landed on the net post and then struck a small camera placed there before landing on the table. It was not immediately clear if the ball would have struck the net post then the table or if it would have bounced away – but the score was awarded to Feng. That “camera point” turned out to be a momentum changer as instead of a 10-4 almost insurmountable lead, the score was 9-5 and Feng used it as a launching point and ran off 6 in a row to win the game. Match tied 1 game all.
The speed of both players picked up in the third game. Clearly, they became more comfortable as misses into the net and touch shots were replaced with more aggressive attacks from both wings. The score remained tight throughout (2-2, then 4-4, then 5-5, then 6-6). Kanak finally gained a 2 point advantage at 8-6 with a great backhand down the line for a winner, followed by an aggressive backhand flip for a winner. Kanak Jha hung on to win the third game 11-7.
The fourth game was like the third with neither player pressing a real advantage. Both exchange more shots to the others backhand, both rely heavily on the short-game, but when a mistake is made the forehand for each is the stronger shot. Feng finally gained a 2-point advantage at 8-6 and then maintained it for a 10-7 advantage. Kanak then won two points in a row to tighten the score, and Feng called time-out up 10-9 with the serve. Feng won 11-9 to even the match at 2 games each.
The momentum changed frequently in the fifth game with Kanak up early (3-1), then Feng won four in a row, then Kanak won four in a row. Ultimately the fifth game went to Kanak Jha (11-9). Game six saw Kanak with an early lead again. Both players reverted to the patter of the early games with short exchanges and careful openings – followed by blistering attacks when mistakes are made. Kanak, up 7-5, executed an aggressive flat hit over the table to extend his lead further. He then pressed the pace two points in a row, but only won one of the points. Feng then won two points in a row to make it close, but fell just short. Kanak Jha over Yijun Feng (6, -9, 7, -9, 9, 8). Kanak Jha wins the event – his third title in as many years.