(by Steve Hopkins)
The US Men’s Team began their match against Sweden with a difficult Doubles Match-up. Nikhil Kumar and Zhou Xin were underdogs in their match against Kristian Karlsson and Anton Kallberg. They fell 3-0. The Karlsson/Kallberg team has played in numerous competitions, and they are also teammates on the top European Team, Borussia Dusseldorf – where they practice regularly together and have competed as a doubles pair.
The second match was USA’s top ranked player, Kanak Jha, against Sweden’s Mattias Falck (who for most of this year has been Europe’s top ranked player and whose tricky arsenal includes pips on his forehand). Jha fought off 3 match points in the first game before falling 11-9 in a close point that included a net by Falck, a great recovery by Jha with a forehand attack, followed up by Falck’s sidespin pips block recovery causing Jha to loop long.
Jha fought back in the second game, dominating early and holding on for the 11-8 win. As Falck held off 3 game points, he seemed to focus on Jha’s backhand – mixing up the spin and speed and causing some issues for Jha. During the break, coach Stefan Feth seemed to focus on backhand strategy. Game 3 began with a blistering exchange of topspin attacks, an exchange that Falck got the best of as he took the first point – and then the second point. Falck missed an aggressive backhand down the line, as Jha scored his first point. An error by Falck helped tie the game at 2. The following rally was another blistering attack by both players – this time with Jha dominating. The next rally followed a similar pattern, with Jha changing the direction of the ball and forcing both forehand and backhand shots, and playing a flatter forehand during the rally. Jha scored 6 points in a row, before his run ended with a net. After Falck put a few good shots together, the score was 6-4. Like the second game, Jha is ahead and holding on. Quick feet, a deliberate spinny opening, and then brilliant angled attacks by Jha to build an 8-4 lead. 8-5, then 8-6, then 9-6, then 10-6. Jha holds on for the 11-9 victory. 2-1 in games – advantage USA.
During the break, Jha and Coach Feth seemed to talk about serves and returns while Kristian Karlsson joined the team coaching conversation of Falck to help with motivation. Falck takes the first two points to start Game 4. Jha fought back with very careful short balls while being mindful to attack anything that carried long. The game is tied at 3, and again at 4. Sweden calls timeout, down 4-5 (and more importantly down 2-1 in the in the best of 5 match). Falck comes out of the break winning 3 of the next 4 points to go up 7-6, but a Jha forehand ties the game at 7. Falck hits a great winner at the end of a 10 shot rally to take an 8-7 lead – but Jha follows up with an all-out forehand to tie the score, and does almost the same thing with a backhand down the middle to take a 9-8 lead. Another attack misses the mark after Jha hits the top of his racket. Falck goes up 10-9 before a Jha backhand ties the score at 10. At 11 all, Jha goes to the long serve again and Falck floats it long. Falck hits a deep ball to Jha’s backhand and this time it is Jha that floats a backhand long. 12-12. Jha is aided by a net on his backhand attack to go up a point and then attacks the next rally for a forehand winner – Jha wins (over World No. 9). TeamUSA ties the match score 1-1.
Next up is Zhou Xin who takes on Anton Kallberg. There are no easy matches, as Kallberg (World No. 50) is paired with Karllson (World No. 26), and Falck (World No. 9). Still, if the scores stay tight, all of the pressure should be on the highly-favored Swedish team. Kallberg jumped out to an early lead, but Zhou reeled him in quickly – tying the score at 3-3. Careful play by Kallberg, unforced errors by Zhou, and a solid series of lobs in one point saw Kallberg go up 7-3, and then 8-4. Kallberg wins the opening game 11-7. Game 2 started sloppier than the first game with both players missing service returns (four misses in the first six points) – but the rallies were strong as their nerves settled with Zhou up 6-4 after two great rallies. Kallberg was great from that point, however – scoring six in a row to go up 10-6, and then winning 11-8. 2-0 Sweden. Kallberg came out aggressive in the third game, playing a forehand winner wide of Zhou’s forehand, and then narrowly missing a forehand to Zhou’s backhand, and then trying a third attack – which Zhou countered. After the flurry of aggressive points (by Kallberg), Zhou was up 4-1. Kallberg then varied the pace of his points, sometimes playing slower and more careful and other times playing very aggressively (usually to Zhou’s backhand). The two again played very even through the first half of the game, tied 5-5 and then 6-6. An off-speed forehand loop down the middle, and an aggressive backhand gave Zhou an 8-6 lead. Kallberg fought back with two strong serves that gave Zhou trouble and solid attacks. 8-8. Kallberg played two forehand winners in consecutive points to take an 10-8 lead, and then finished the match with a deep crosscourt backhand. Sweden goes up 2-1.
Next up is Kanak Jha again – this time facing Kristian Karlsson. Karlsson is a classic European player who is left-handed. He is the No. 2 player (behind Timo Boll) on the Borussia Dusseldorf Team that won the German League and the European Championship this year. Game 1 started fast with long rallies and big swings. 1-1, then 2-2, then 3-3. Jha pulled ahead 5-3 after consecutive winners – one a crosscourt backhand and the other a crosscourt forehand. Karlsson continued to press the pace, attacking whenever he could and a reaction block by his backhand crosscourt tied the score at 6-6. Jha played a slow and careful point next placing the ball in both corners, but a slight tip of the net made his final shot fall just long (7-7). A beautiful forehand open from below the table inside out to the right corner gave Jha the advantage, but an unforced error on a high ball gave it right back (8-8). Karlsson was too aggressive at the end of a long rally and missed a forehand. The next point was the same, with Jha careful and Karlsson missing (10-8). Karlsson went all out for the next forehand attack, and it landed for a winner – and the two exchanged aggressive balls over the table with Jha missing a backhand (10-10). Karlsson again overpowered with his forehand to take an 11-10 lead. And a blistering rally ended with Jha’s backhand falling into the net. Karlsson up 1-0.
Karlsson again starts a game aggressively – missing a backhand down the middle to lose the first point, but then hitting a cross-court forehand to win the next point. Jha missing the next forehand – and then misplays a serve to set up a Karlsson smash. 3-1 Karlsson leads. Karlsson continues to attack – and his shots continue to land as he extends his lead to 5-1, and then 6-2, and then 7-3, and then 9-3. The second game goes to an ever-pressing Karlsson 11-5. Jha came out in the third game trying to match Karlsson’s intensity. Jha seemed to intend to play very carefully but with a two game lead, Karlsson was able to swing freely and he landed a couple great shots. With Karlsson up 4-2, Jha called time-out. After the break, Jha pulled a backhand wide and then Karlsson tried to do too much with a forehand below the table. Karlsson up 6-4, and still swinging away as they trade points with Karlsson dictating the pace. 7-5, then 8-6, then 10-6. Karlsson seals the win for Sweden 11-6.
There are no easy matches in the team event at the Olympics. Sweden was favored in every match, and while disappointing for the team, Kanak’s win over World No. 9 (even coupled with the loss to World No. 26) was a good day. Team USA continues to improve – they can now turn their attention to the World Championships this November in Houston.
The US Women’s Team fell to Chinese Taipei yesterday. Lily Zhang and Liu Juan fell just short in their opening doubles match, losing 3-2 (having been up 2-1 before losing the final two games at 10-12 and 8-11). Huijing Wang then fell 3-0 to Cheng I-Ching (World No. 8) and Juan Liu then fell to Chen Szu Yu 3-1 (the same player who eliminated Lily Zhang in singles. The Americans had their chances, but Taipei is a strong team with deep talent. The result is not unexpected.
Mixed Doubles ended first and the Singles (Men’s and Women’s) titles were awarded a few days ago. So far, the medal count is 2 Gold Medals for China, 1 Gold for Japan, all three Silvers for China, and Bronze Medals for Germany (Men’s Singles), Japan (Women’s Singles), and Taipei (Mixed Doubles). Total Medals: 5 for China, 2 for Japan, 1 for German, and 1 for Taipei.
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