(by Steve Hopkins, photo by ITTF Remy Gros)
There’s an American in the Semifinal of an ITTF major event. Its been a lot of years, since that’s been true. The Uncle Pop 2019 ITTF Women’s World Cup in Chengdu China has progressed to its final day — standing among the remaining final four players is USA’s Lily Zhang.
The top two seeds at the World Cup are Zhu Yuling and Liu Shiwen of China. Kasumi Ishikawa and Miu Hirano of Japan were seeded third and fourth. Other well-known players from Hong Kong, Singapore, Austria, Korea, and Romania rounded out the top 10. USA players Jennifer Wu and Lily Zhang were seeded 17 and 18 in the tournament. Two other players from this hemisphere, Adriana Diaz of Puerto Rico and Mo Zhang of Canada were seeded 14 and 15. The format of the tournament is set up so that the top 8 seeds are automatically in the draw. The other players compete in a Group Phase with the top 8 players emerging to play in the Knock Out rounds.
USA’s Jennifer Wu was the biggest surprise of the Group Phase. She was seeded third in her group, but finished first. In fact, Jennifer didn’t just score two upsets, she dominated both matches including a 4-0 win over Elizabeta Samara and a 4-1 win over Mo Zhang. In the same group, Canada’s Mo Zhang also upset the top seed, so Zhang finished second in her group. In Lily Zhang’s group, she was also seeded third. She opened with a 1-4 loss to Bernadette Szocs, but then recovered with a 4-1 win over Adriana Diaz. Lily Zhang finished second and advanced. The other groups all finished in the same order as seeded, so it was only these three North American players (USA’s Lily Zhang and Jennifer Wu, and Canada’s Mo Zhang) who scored upsets. Of the 8 group players who advanced to challenge the top seeds, only Lily Zhang and Germany’s Petrissa Solja won their matches in the Round of 16.
In the Round of 16, Lily Zhang faced Japan’s Miu Hirano, the tournaments fourth seed. Lily and Miu played nearly even through five games with each game decided by no more than 3 points. Lily won the first two games 12-10 and 11-8. However, it was Miu who had control of the match after winning three games in a row by scores of 11-8. But the sixth game proved to be a turning point. Lily scored the first 4 points, establishing a cushion. She created this lead without finding any particular weakness to exploit – scoring points with a spinny backhand loop deep, a quick forehand reaction block into Miu’s body, a reaching forehand smash attacking a short service return, a change of direction during a backhand rally to land a winner down the line. At 5-2, a net ball by Miu caused Lily to lob, and she retrieved five balls before attacking and winning the rally. From there, the players traded points with Zhang maintaining her lead for the 11-5 win. Miu never recovered. Lily’s energy level exceeded that of her opponent from that point forward, and she jumped out to early leads in both of the remaining games. 11-5 and 11-5 were the scores of the final two games. Lily Zhang over World No. 9 Miu Hirano 4-3.
In the Quarterfinals, the top two seeds dominated their matches with Zhu Yuling winning 4-0 over Petrissa Solja and Liu Shiwen scoring a 4-0 win over Cheng I-Cheng. Singapore’s Feng Tianwei upset Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa 4-3 to advance as well. This accounted for three of the four Semifinalists.
In the remaining Quarterfinal, Lily Zhang faced off against Austria’s Sofia Polcanova. Like the earlier match, Lily jumped out to an early lead – winning the first game. Sofia evened the score with a win in the second game. Lily then took the lead again with another tight win. Sofia then took control of the match – dominating the fourth game with an 11—4 and following that up with an 11-8 win in the fifth game. Despite falling behind, Lily Zhang rallied again – taking the final two games 11-8. This win catapulted her into the Semifinals where she will face China’s Liu Shiwen on Sunday.
A decade ago, the USA’s top two players for the 2008 Olympics, Gao Jun and Wang Chen each had successes at tour events — but as the ITTF pointed out in their coverage of the World Cup, it has been since Leah Neuberger’s Bronze Medal at the 1951 World Championships that an American has made it this far in an event of this magnitude. Zhang and Wu each reaching the Top 16 at the World Cup is a real accomplishment on its own as only China, Japan, and Taipei had two players reach the draw. But it’s the two matches on Saturday by Lily Zhang that have turned heads. What an epic performance by Lily Zhang, and an historic result for Team USA.
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