(by Steve Hopkins)
Las Vegas was the host for the 2019 US National Table Tennis Championships, and this year’s event brought a lot of excitement – including an earthquake that shook the building immediately after the Women’s Singles Final. The Las Vegas Convention Center has become the most consistent venue for this event, with its location and size working well for this massive showcase for table tennis in the United States. This year, there were 105 events with a series of rating events, singles and doubles across age and rating levels, classic events in hardbat, para events, and the featured National Championships titles in Men’s and Women’s Singles, as well as Men’s and Women’s and Mixed Doubles.
Unlike many other sports’ national championship events, this table tennis event brings both the best current elite players and many of the best players from past eras. Some of the names over the years have now been repeated so many times that it would be difficult to count the number of age division championship for some of our more seasoned players. Names like Richard Hicks and Bowie Martin Sr. and Dan Seemiller and Patty Martinez Wasserman, and David Sakai and Dell Sweeris and Connie Sweeris and Donna Sakai and Si Wasserman and Yvonne Kronlage are all on the 2019 US Nationals winner’s board again this year. And of particular note: Niraj Oak has added another four titles (40+, 50+, 40+ Men’s Doubles, 50+ Men’s Doubles), and Patty Martinez Wasserman also secured four titles (40+ Women’s Doubles, 50+ Mixed Doubles, 60+ Women’s Doubles, 60+ Mixed Doubles).
In the featured events, it was Kanak Jha and Tom Feng pairing up for the Men’s Doubles title with a straight set win over Nicholas Tio and Nikhil Kumar. Crystal Wang and Amy Wang defeated Jennifer Wu and Lily Zhang 3-1 for an upset win of Women’s Doubles. And Tianming Xie and Tia Hsieh defeated Nikhil Kumar and Amy Wang to take the Mixed Doubles title.
In Men’s Singles, the top four seeds were Kanak Jha, Nicholas Tio, Nikhil Kumar, and Xin Zhou. Each of the top seeds advanced to the Quarterfinals, though two fell in that round. Kai Zhang defeated Xin Zhou and Jishan Liang upset Nicholas Tio. Both were minor upsets by other top players – and each of those runs were short-lived as Jishan fell to Nikhil Kumar in one semifinal and Kai fell to Kanak Jha in the other. This set up a final between US Team members Kumar and Jha – and a replay of the 2017 Final where Jha claimed the title 4-0.
Kanak Jha jumped out to an early lead in the first game of the Final – expanding to a five point lead and then closing the game out 11-3. Nikhil had a better start in the second game, but still found himself down 6-4 and lost momentum with an edge and an error. The two then traded quick points with Jha maintaining his 2 point lead to 9-7 before taking two easy points to close out the game. Jha up 2-0 and rolling.
The third game was tied 6-6 with the result uncertain – but then Jha found a higher gear and closed out yet another game to take a commanding 3-0 lead. The fourth game would also see the players tied near the midpoint (5-5). Nikhil then played a strong forehand to take the lead, whiffed on an aggressive forehand, won on a wide serve, and then the players traded errors until they were tied 9-9. Jha with an unforced backhand error on a high return, but then a backhand winner tied the game at 10-10. Nikhil benefitted from a net to take the lead – and a Jha forehand miss put Kumar on the board (3-1 game score).
In the fifth game, the players were again tied 5-5, but this time it was Jha that jumped ahead. Two great points and a pair of Kumar errors and it was quickly 9-5. Kumar’s serve and then an aggressive forehand brought him back to 9-7. But it was Jha with an ace that put him in position with three match points. A strong over the table backhand sealed the final game giving Jha the 11-7 win. Kanak Jha is National Champion for the fourth time – not just four… four in a row.
In the Women’s event, Jennifer Wu and Lily Zhang were the favorites. Zhang advanced to the Semifinals relatively easily. Wu, on the other hand, fell early. Rachel Yang, with about a 200 point rating advantage, fought back from 1-2 and 2-3 deficits before winning the final two games and eliminating the top seed. Yang then lost in the Semifinal 4-2 to Rachel Sung.
In the other Semifinal, Lily Zhang had her hands full with Amy Wang. Wang lost the first game 20-18, but then won the next three games to take a commanding 3-1 lead. But Lily Zhang outlasted Wang and dominated the final three games 11-3, 11-3, 11-3 to secure the win. In the Final, it was all Lily. Lily Zhang over Rachel Sung 4-1 (8, 7, 10, -9, 6). Lily Zhang is the National Champion for the fifth time.
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