(By Darryl Tsao)
Sweat slides across my cheeks. It is 10-11 in the last set of the 2019 Nationals finals. The umpire calls time. As I step up to serve, I remember everything that went into this moment. I serve, and the receive drips half long. I put as much spin into the ball to reach the other side, and yet the return clips onto the net, in an unreturnable position. After the game, as I walked down to my seat, with tears in my eyes, I wondered what had gone wrong.
Nationals weren’t new to me. In fact it’s been 5 years since my first nationals. But yet every time, it seems to be a completely new start. Year after year, I would always perform well in these nationals, but one constant remains: I had never won gold in any event at Nationals. This year was also no exception. I received three bronze medals, and one silver–the closest I have been from a gold medal. It almost seems like a curse to never get a gold medal.
Although I didn’t reach my goal of getting gold at Nationals, I did play extremely well during the third day of nationals, which also happens to be the most important day of the tourney for me. The events of the day were the single elimination rounds of U15, U17, U19, and Mens singles. I mostly rolled through my earlier rounds of the events. Soon enough, I was in the eights and quarters in no time. My road to the gold medal was closer than ever before. But it wouldn’t take long before I faced my first struggles of the tournament.
It was the quarter finals of the U19 event, in which I faced off Jayden Zhou, an unfamiliar opponent. The first game was rough. We both missed a ton of shots, due to us being unfamiliar with each other, but luckily I was able to pull myself into the game and snag the first game 11-7. The second game is where I began to pull ahead. Taking advantage of his mistakes and playing to his weaknesses allowed me to take the game 11-5. But as the third game creeped in, tension and nervousness started to build. The match started rough for me, with a powerful counter loop whizzing past me, followed by a deep long serve that barely caught the edge. I retaliated by sending in a long serve of my own and looping and underspin ball right into the body. The game progressed and both of us went back and forth, blow for blow. As we both reached the eight point mark, every point counted. It started with a flick straight down the line, which gave me a 9-8 advantage. Another service receive error allows me to be up 10-8. He met his demise as he served long to the backhand right as I stepped around, allowing me to take the match 3-0. Little did I know, this was just the beginning.
My next match was against Sid Naresh, another player who I have never played before. This is where I would partake in one of the most thrilling matches of my life. It was the U19 semifinals. Despite being unknown to each other, we played as if we were strangely familiar. We predicted each other’s movements and strategies. Both players barely missed a beat. But all of this morale came tumbling down as I entered the last few points of my match. Up 9-6, I looped a ball wide to his forehand and it came back from his finger, and it barely scraped the net as it sank straight down. He would use this momentum to take the game and match 12-10. Although I played a spectacular match, this would become the beginning of the end for my hopes of gold.
As my matches progressed into the night, I realized I was playing exceptionally well. I had beaten Nandan Naresh twice, a player I had never beat consistently until that day. But as it turned out, I would lose both of my most important matches. I first would lose my U15 against Nandan, which was the most important match. If I had won that match, I may have secured my Pan Am cadet team spot. Later, I would lose my U17 finals to his brother Sid, 4-2. These matches would later prove to be the downfall of my nationals gold dreams. I ended the day with two bronze and one silver. The following day, I didn’t play as well as the day before and would later claim my last bronze medal in the 2450 event.
Although I didn’t get gold at the Nationals I learned that earning medals isn’t called success. Previously, I thought medals were indicative of how well or poorly you do at a tournament. But after these nationals, I believe that is not the case. Playing well in a tournament doesn’t always lead to medals. In fact many coaches and players were surprised at how well I played that day, and yet I still didn’t win any events. This shows that despite not medaling gold, my level is progressing at a rapid rate. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a devoted family who put their time and effort in supporting me in my table tennis career. Supporters such as my club Spartans TTC, helped me train effectively, and a sponsor like Bowmar Sports who provided me with the best equipment possible. Thank you to everyone who continues to support me in my table tennis journey.
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