(by Steve Hopkins/Photo by ITTF)
Team USA has completed an upset of the Brazil Team in the Semifinals of the Pan American Games in Lima. The wins went to Tio/Kumar in doubles, Nikhil Kumar, and Kanak Jha.
The Brazilian Team entered as the top seed with good reason. They are anchored by Hugo Calderano, the World’s No 6 player and the top seed in the tournament by far. They also have Gustavo Tsuboi (World No. 32) and Eric Jouti (World No. 64). In contrast, Kanak Jha leads the Americans with a ranking of World No. 33, Nikhil Kumar is World No. 222, and Nicholas Tio is World No. 218.
The opening match was doubles. The Brazilian Team of Jouti/Tsuboi won the first two games and with a match point advantage in the third, it looked like they would cruise. However, the American Team of Nicholas Tio and Nikhil Kumar fought off the match point and secured a Game 3 win 14-12. The next two games were close, but the Americans pulled ahead late in both – winning the final three games for a 3-2 win. Tio/Kumar over Jouti/Tsuboi 3-2 (-8, -9, 12, 9, 8).
The first singles match pitted Hugo Calderano against Kanak Jha. There were some good rallies and close scores, but Calderano started fast and lead throughout. Calderano over Jha 3-0 (7, 4, 8). This left the score 1-1 with three singles matches remaining. Of those three, Brazil would be favored in two (Tsuboi/Kumar and Calderano/Tio) and the USA would be favored in one (Jha/Jouti). TeamUSA needed one more upset win to advance – a puncher’s chance.
Looking at the second singles match by ranking showed a clear advantage for the Brazilians. Tsoboi is the second seed in the tournament and nearly 200 ranking spots higher thank USA’s Nikhil Kumar. Tsuboi dominated the first game from the start and once he built a lead, he held on to it. Brazil took the lead 1-0 in games. The second game was tight throughout with short runs by both players but without a real advantage – Kumar gained a 10-8 advantage only to see the score tied up at 10. But in the end, it was Kumar pulling out the 12-10 win and tying the game score 1-1. Game 3 as Kumar’s throughout – with a lead early and then staying ahead until he logged an 11-8 win. Game 4 was just the opposite – with Tsuboi dominant early and then gaining a 4 or 5 point advantage before winning 11-6. This set up a fifth and deciding game. That final game was all USA – with Kumar gaining a 2 point advantage, then 3, then 4 and eventually logging a dominant 11-6 win. Kumar over Tsuboi 3-2 (-6, 10, 8, -6, 6).
With USA up 2-1, with both wins being upsets – TeamUSA’s Kanak Jha took on Eric Jouti in the only match on the board where the USA is favored. What Jha found was a very motivated Jouti – who jumped out to an early lead with a dominant first game win. Under pressure, Jha came through in the second to even the score (with an 11-5 win of his own). But the third game went all Jouti – up 5 points early before winning 11-5. Jha now has to win the final two games.
Game four saw Jha being aggressive with his forehand. Moving a way from a more passive, counter-attacking style he used early, Jha used his feet to move aggressively to attack with deep loops. Jouti then countered tactics by playing to Jha’s backhand side and mixing in big forehand attacks of his own. With Jha up 4-2, a long backhand rally gave Jha a 3-point advantage. And against at 5-3, a strong attack and some trickiness short gave Jha a 7-3 advantage. Jha pulled further ahead to 8-4 with some heavy angled, and then another tricky fake flip/drop shot gave him a 9-4 advantage. Game to Jha 11-4.
If Jouti wins the fifth game, that would extend the USA/Brazil match and leave the decisive match to Hugo Calderano – who would be heavily favored against USA’s Nicholas Tio. This puts a lot of pressure on both players – Kanak trying to close out the match and put the USA in the Finals, and Jouti trying to hand off the match to the very capable hands of the World’s No. 6 ranked player.
The first three points of the final game all went to Jouti. Two dominant offensive points, and one shot helped with a net put Jha at an early disadvantage. The fourth point was a mix of tricky shots at the net followed by an onslaught of counter-loops and ending with a Jha miss. But with Jouti serving the next two, Jha recovered – winning two long rallies and bringing the score to 4-2. They traded the next two points – one smash to Jha’s middle and the other a great reaction block by Jha for the winner. Jouti then missed a backhand and called time-out (with his 4-0 start now down to a one-point 5-4 lead). Jha played a backhand flip service return down the line to tie the score at 5. A deep Jouti backhand caused Jha to miss into the net, and Jouti then had an all-out forehand winner to go up 7-5. Jha missed an aggressive forehand, but recovered with a blistering backhand exchange (Jouti up 8-6). Jouti landed a big backhand attacking flip to win the next point, and a tricky serve by Kanak brought the score back to 9-7. Jha returned Jouti’s next serve with heavy underspin and caused an error, but a deflection off of the net sent Jha’s backhand would-be winner just long. Service Jha down 8-10. A tricky Jha serve for a winner made it 10-9. And then a series of quick short shots ended with Jouti pulling a forehand attack long to leave the score at deuce. The next point was a forehand exchange with a Jouti ball going long. But Jouti played a similar aggressive shot early in the next point and scored a winner to tie the score again. Jha then played a cross court backhand flip to gain the advantage – and then another Jouti forehand miss gave Team USA the win
TeamUSA will face Argentina in the Final.