Quiet but Determined – Zirui Zhao Seeks New Table Tennis Achievements in the US
by Barbara Wei
Moving away from home to start a new life in a different country can be difficult and trying in the best of situations – to take the risk when only 14 years old is incredibly admirable. Although Zirui has already made a name for himself in both regional and national USATT tournaments in the past two years (winning the 2015 USA Open Cadet Singles, and 2016 Cary Cup Finalist), his journey to the US and his experience since arriving are ones that resonate with many who move to the US to seek the American Dream.
In late August, 2014, a 14 year old Zirui Zhao bought a one way plane ticket from his hometown in Shandong, China to New Jersey. His coach in China had recommended him to both compete, practice and train others in the US to gain additional and different exposure than continuing on the one way professional track in China. Having already played semi-professionally for 3-4 years by the time he arrived on US soil, the young Zirui came with the dream of taking table tennis to new levels in America – first by competing in local, regional and national tournaments to raise the level of USA table tennis competition and secondly by acting as friend, practice partner and coach for the up and rising table tennis junior star Jack Wang.
Zirui’s US tournament record is impressive – 2015 US Open Cadet Champion, 2015 US Open U21 Semi-Finalist, 2016 Butterfly Cary Cup Finalist and an uncountable number of local/regional championship titles. The US Open and Butterfly Cary Cup are tournaments with long histories that attract not only the best players in the US but also those from around the world. The 2015 US Open had more than 1,000 entries, the most ever in US history, with many traveling from Europe and Asia to compete, making it the most competitive tournament in the US that year. Ploughing through opponent after opponent is incredibly difficult in such a large competition given the high stakes and pressure all players feel. But Zirui Zhao was able to find his way, losing only 4 matches out of the 24 that he played over the course of the week-long competition. At the 2016 Butterfly Cary Cup, Zirui again showed his mental strength as he took out opponent after opponent, many who had previously trained professionally in China as well, to reach the finals where he fell to Bohan Zhang. In addition to his mental strength, Zirui plays an aggressive and very fast game – often outpacing his opponents by mixing up his short and long serve receives. His training in the US has been focused on improving specific competition strategies – working with and alongside junior star Jack Wang to prepare for tournaments week after week.
Zirui finds the US extremely friendly and enjoys the diversity of US culture – the ease of making good friends and the freedom to play table tennis in your own way. Zirui hopes, as many seeking the American Dream do, of one day representing the US in the Olympics and attending an American university in the future. For now, Zirui’s focus is on continuing to improve the level of US table tennis and grow the sport one tournament and training session at a time.