(By Xianyao He)
Having been to a few US Nationals in the past, I’m not new to Las Vegas. It was 2019 when I came here the last time. Despite being just two years ago, it seems to be an eternity to me. The world is different with COVID, which affected billions of people. There is no exception that COVID has affected me, my family, my club and my table tennis training. My home club, Spartans Table Tennis Center, had been forced to shut down twice for a total of 6 months since Mar 2020, less than a month after it was opened. These shutdowns seriously interrupted my training.
Even after the club was reopened, the preparation leading up to the Nationals was not as smooth as I had expected. With an increased amount of training and less time to adapt, I got two injuries which forced me to sit out any table tennis activities for 10 days each, one in late April and one in late May. The latter one forced me to default nearly all my matches in the U-15 and U-19 National Team Trials in the ICC. I bounced back a week later in the Spartans Butterfly Tournament, winning the U14 boys event, but only before I got hit by a cold from my younger brother who had a fever. Fortunately he tested negative for COVID, while I was quarantined at home. Cleared of COVID, but still with a heavily congested nose, I boarded the overnight flight to the U13/U17 National Team Trials in the Westchester Table Tennis Club in New York. I did ok there and made the U13 boys national team.
The Nationals is like a reunion party of all table tennis people in the United States. It is special in that I haven’t met many of my friends for nearly two years, and I was glad I could see them again after such a long time.
The only thing that didn’t change for Nationals is the intensity of the competition and my main event, U13 boys, was no exception. After a relatively easy match in the first round, I ran into Ryan Lin of MDTTC in the quarter finals. He came out of the gate aggressively. I was down 0-1 in a flash. I was able to get even by taking advantage of a few of his mistakes in the 2nd set, but again lost the third set 4-11. It was not that I just missed, instead, I was pressured the entire set, mostly due to Ryan’s exceptional rallies and counters. My usually dependable serve and strong forehand loop didn’t seem to work for Ryan anymore. I was pushed to the wall. I could not afford losing another set. It was this moment that I started to realize I needed to change something in my game. Instead of depending so much on my first attack on the forehand, I focused more on getting the ball into rallies with better positioning, and started to put more pressure on the opponent during the rallies. This strategy change worked for me, and I started to pull away in the 4th set and even the score to 2:2. The fifth set became easy with the continuation of this strategy.
My next match was the semi-final in U13 boys, against Stanley Hsu, again from MDTTC. Stanley was the heavy favorite to win the match, not only because he was rated higher than me, but also because my record against him was 0-8 leading up to this match. The most recent one was two weeks ago in the National Team Trials in Westchester. I lost to him 1:3, with the scores of the last two sets being 3-11 and 2-11. Despite the odds not in my favor, I was surprised I was able to draw close to my opponent for the entire match. I won the first set but trailed 7-9 in the second set on my serve. I planned the serves and was able to set up my forehand attacks on both points, and drew the score to 9-9. On the other hand, Stanley uncharastically missed the next two shots on his serves. I was surprisingly leading 2:0 against an opponent that I had never beaten. Since I was winning, I continued the same strategy in the third and fourth set, as I felt it would give me the best chance to win the match. In the third set, he pulled away after a few unforced errors from me to give Stanley the set. On the other hand, I got the first 3 points in the fourth set, and at 5-2 he called a timeout. I maintained the lead until I was up 7-4. After 4 good shots from Stanley, he led 8-7. But I was able to level the score at 9-9. On Stanley’s serve, I tried to set up my forehand attack but Stanley was ready to block my first loop down the line. I missed another forehand loop at 9-10.
These two points were as close as I got to the U13 boys National Champion. The other finalist defaulted in the final to catch his flight. I was disappointed I didn’t win, but at the same time, I was happy that I was able to get much closer to it than before. The training and the analysis after the national team trials in New York started to pay off. It wasn’t enough yet, but it was a good start and motivated me to get better.
In the rating events, I also got a bronze in U-2300. In general I was able to gain some memorable experiences from this particular Nationals. With the closely contested matches, I understand the strength and deficit in my game better, and plan to work on certain areas in the following months. I believe it was an important National in my table tennis journey to get to the next level. I’m incredibly thankful to my parents, the coaches and teammates in Spartans TTC, and Bowmar Sports, who have been supporting me during the crucial times.
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