(by Steve Hopkins)
In the Team format used at the Pan Am games, Doubles is the first match played. The two players who make the doubles team are only eligible to play one of the remaining four singles matches, so most teams hold back their strongest singles player so that that player can play twice in the singles phase.
TeamUSA kept Kanak Jha out of the doubles to ensure that he can anchor the team with two singles matches. And while Nicholas Tio and Nikhil Kumar fall well short of Jha in ranking, they proved to be a strong team in doubles. In fact, the win of team Kumar/Tio was instrumental in setting up the US upset wins in both the Semifinals and the Finals. And focusing on the Finals, in particular, Argentina placed their strongest pair in the doubles match (Cifuentes is World No. 91, and Alto is World No. 176) and it made no difference. Kumar/Tio dominated the latter half of the first game to take an 11-8 win, lost a 13-15 marathon in the second, dominated the third game 11-3, and closed out the win with a convincing 11-4 win.
Despite a height difference, the taller Kumar and partner Tio match very well with their quickness and the pace of their attacking styles. And the pairing of right-handed Tio and left-handed Kumar assists their positioning and spacing as well. In the Final, America’s strong doubles team started TeamUSA off on the right foot yet again.
Unfortunately for Argentina, with the gamble of placing their top two players in doubles, they were now at a disadvantage in the singles and would need two upsets out of the four remaining singles matches in order to win. The first of the singles matches pitted Kanak Jha, USA’s top ranked player at World No. 33, against Argentina’s third player, Pablo Tabachnik (World No. 556).
Tabachnik is a left-handed player with a strong attack on his forehand, but a preference for control on his backhand side. He features tricky serves and moves away from the table. Tabchnik won the first three points, with Jha struggling with timing. But as the game progressed, Jha began to accumulate easy points and Tabchnik’s early energy and aggression slowed. Jha tied the game score at 5, and then pulled away to take the first game 11-8. Jha had his timing down early into the second game – jumping out to a 5-1 lead. Jha was beginning to win points with his short game, and had a distinct advantage in longer rallies. Jha won the game 11-7, a large lead that narrowed late. The final game was an 11-5 win where the result was never in question. TeamUSA now in the lead 2-0, with three chances to secure the Pan Am title.
The third match was between Argentina’s Horacio Cifuentes, World No. 91, and Nikhil Kumar, the hero of the Brazil Semifinal after upset wins in both doubles and singles for a part of scoring 2 of the 3 points needed to advance. Kumar pulled ahead early, but the players were tied at 6-6, and Cifuentes pulled away at the end by winning the final five points. Kumar’s extension on both wings is a strength in this match as he seems to keep the direction of the ball hidden until the last moment. But it is Cifuentes’ forehand that is the biggest weapon of the match, with his strong topspin winning many of the long rallies. Cifuentes started the second game just as he ended the first – on fire. He jumped ahead early and stayed ahead, winning 11-3. The third game was more of the same, as Cifuentes closed out the match 11-5.
The fourth match was between the third player on each team. Pablo Tabachnik, who lost to Jha in the first singles match would face Nichola Tio. In this match, it was Tio’s speed on display as he moved quickly to position big forehands and heavy angles. Tabachnik countered with ever-bigger forehand swings trying to overpower the smaller American. Tio had the early lead, but a streak of six points in a row put Tabachnik up 9-5 and he then closed out the first game 11-6. The start of the second game was uncomfortable for both players, with short rallies and errors on both sides. It was Tabachnik who regained his composure first, running off three in a row for a 5-3 lead and causing a Tio time-out. It was Tio who finished strong, however, winning 5 of the final 6 points to take the second game 11-8. The third game did not have the mistakes of the second – it was precise shots from both sides and trading winners. At least 4 of Tabachnik’s first 6 points were blistering forehand winners down the line (from his left hand wide of Tio’s forehand). But Tio countered with great short play and some dominant forehand crosscourt shots of his own. With a one-point advantage for Tabachnik (7-6), he closed out the match with four straight points: he pounded two forehand winners, benefitted from an edge, and then won with a spinny serve. The fourth game was a fast start for Tabachnik who jumped out to a 6-1 lead. Tio never really got going, and the match ended with an 11-6 win.
Tabachnik over Tio was one of the two upsets needed by Argentina, and it set up the final match of the night between Kanak Jha (World No. 33) and Gaston Alto (World No. 176). This match would decide the Gold and Silver medals.
From the start, Jha is the quicker and more decisive player. Alto has a strong forehand but is outmatched with the short game and backhand exchanges. Jha took an early lead in the first game and went on to win 11-5. The second game started just as the first ended – with Jha up early 4-1. The only scoring opportunities by Alto are big forehands with little margin for error – and no easy scores. Jha, on the other hand, is able to move his larger opponent around the court and seemingly wins some easier points. Still, after two strong shots, Alto tied the score at 5. But the streak was for naught as Jha won the next two and jumped ahead again. Alto then scored three of his own, a strong backhand, an aggressive cross court flip, and a long rally forcing a Jha miss. At 8-8, Jha played a careful point with a soft loop down the middle to force an error, won a long forehand exchange, and then closed out the game with an unreturnable reaction block off of a strong Alto attack.
With a 2-0 lead for the favored player, it appeared that many of the fans were leaving the arena. The local time at this point was almost 11p, and at the end of this long day, the result was beginning to seem apparent. Jha won the first four points – playing at what appeared to be ¾ speed but being very careful with placement. Alto responded with a pair of powerful attacks – but after only landing one, the score was 5-1. Jha then played a deep serve and backhand winner to take the 6-1 lead. After two strong Alto points, Jha called timeout with a 6-3 lead. They then traded points but with Jha maintaining his lead. He closed out the match 11-5. TeamUSA are Pan Am Team Champions.