(by Steve Hopkins)
Thanksgiving Day had hardly started, and Lily Zhang had yet another reason to give thanks – a Mixed Doubles win with partner Lin Gaoyuan that launched the pair into the Round of 16. Zhang and Gaoyuan are one of the two China/USA pairings honoring the 50th Anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy, and despite never having paracticed before, they are rolling. They topped Tiago Aponoia and Jieni Shao in the Round of 64 by a 3-0 score, and today they topped a strong German Team of Dang Qiu and Nina Mittelham 3-1. Next up for Zhang and Gaoyuan is the Russian team of Skachkov and Vorobeva, and a win there will put them into the Quarterfinals.
Zhang’s Singles run has also been impressive. Her opening match was a 4-0 win over Leonie Hartbrich, and in the Round of 64, she defeated Andrea Todorovic 4-2. This evening, Zhang found herself matched up against Doo Hoi Kem of Hong Kong, a player who has beaten Lily each time that they have faced each other (including wins at the Olympics and at a previous World Championships).
Doo is No. 13 in the World, so a win is not unexpected – but unlike some of those previous meetings where the match was more lopsided, Lily Zhang gave Doo a real run today. In fact, in the third game, Lily was up 10-8 and could not close — Doo stormed back and pulled out the win 13-11. The two traded games until the end, with the seventh game neck and neck.
Picking up that final game with the score 5-5: Point to Doo with a high spinning backhand down the line. Next point to Doo with a net that floated long for Zhang. That actually marked the first 2-point lead of the game. Zhang’s next point was an edge, shrinking the lead to one (7-6 Doo). Doo went with a very aggressive backhand topspin cross court to extend the lead to 2. Zhang went with a long serve, and two big forehands to win her first service and shrink the lead again. Doo went back to her backhand down the line to extend the lead again. Zhang landed a crosscourt forehand to win the next point. An 8 shot rally ended with Doo’s forehand going long, and left the game tied at 9-9. Unfortunately for Zhang, the next two points ended with a strong Doo backhand, and then a Zhang miss into the net. That ended the game and the match.
Lily Zhang fell just short – literally one shift of momentum or a couple nets away from topping World No. 13 and advancing to the Final 16. Its always disappointing when an impressive run ends, but this result was a solid showing on one of the biggest World Stages – and the result against this tough opponent was better than any of the previous attempts. Perhaps the best take-away on this Thanksgiving, is that America’s best female player is still improving. We all look forward to seeing what’s next.
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