Kanak Jha is having quite a year. He spent nine months playing professional table tennis in Europe, threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game on his birthday and qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
And get this: He’s only 16.
“I’m happy that I’m the youngest, but I don’t think about it so much,” said Jha, who in April, when he was still 15, became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history. “In the end, it’s just men.”
If he sounds mature for his age, he comes across that way. Jha’s competitive during a match, but easy going away from the table. He recently trained at the Lily Yip Table Tennis Centre in the New York area with his five Olympic teammates and signed autographs for fans.
“He has a good fighting spirit,” said US Olympic coach Massimo Costantini. “Sometimes at that age, they get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match.”
“You need a strong mental balance,” Costantini said. “It’s not just managing success, but failure.”
Yip, who competed for the US in table tennis at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Games, is the US girls national junior team coach. She hosted the current Olympic team, which wrapped up three days of practice with an exhibition and fundraiser at her club in Dunellen, New Jersey.
During the exhibition match, Jha started his serve by holding the ball and paddle a few inches from his nose, then tossing the ball 4 feet into the air before making contact. After the point, he wiped the table with his hand, a common players’ habit before serving.
Although he lost the match to an older and higher-rated Chinese player, Jha drew warm applause from the mostly Asian audience.
Gordon Kaye, CEO of the USA Table Tennis, says it’s rare to find a young player “of his caliber that is so aware and comfortable within his surroundings.”
It’s certainly not your basement ping pong, with quick best-of-7 singles matches played to 11 points. There are different styles — defensive “choppers” or offensive “loopers,” who play a more aggressive game.
The Chinese men and women are the best in the world, winning Olympic gold with regularity. Since the 1988 Olympics, China has won 47 medals, followed by South Korea (18) and Germany (5).
The US has never medaled in the sport, which offers singles and team competition. Gold-medalist Jike Zhang will return to defend his title in Rio, where competition begins August 6.
So why are the Chinese so good, aside from their devotion to the sport and its prominence in the culture?
“They’re very strong, especially in the first three shots of the rally — serve, receive and third-ball attack,” Jha said. “They really dominate the rally.”
Yue “Jennifer” Wu, like Yip, was born in China before becoming an American citizen. She moved from Beijing to New York eight years ago and improved her English by coaching at the club run by Wang Chen, a US Olympian in the 2008 Games.
The 26-year-old gives lessons in New York at Spin, a table tennis club and restaurant co-owned by Susan Sarandon. Wu recently went home to Beijing and Japan to train and played tournaments in Croatia and Slovenia.
“Table tennis in China is like the NBA here, everybody plays,” Wu said. “My mom plays three times a week and people love to watch.”
She ate no meat for a month while in Beijing, saying her concerns about banned steroids given to cattle trump those of the Zika virus in Rio. Wise decision, because drug testers arrived at 6:40am when she returned home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Wu said it was a “big dream” to make the Olympics since she was 8 years old. She was quiet on the bus after qualifying for the Rio Olympics at the Pan Am Games last year because it’s “hard to make Olympics, you work so very hard”.
Jha, who took up the sport at 5 at a recreation centre near San Jose, California, lived in Sweden with his 19-year-old sister Prachi, who played on the national team but didn’t qualify for Rio. He took online courses during his sophomore year in high school.
“There’s a consistent training system,” Constantini said of the European circuit. “A coach, trainer, physiotherapist. It’s something you can’t find in the US.”
Jha’s parents are from India, and he was born in the US. His father Arun came to America to study business and works at Oracle. His mother Karuna worked at Sun Microsystems before starting her own hypnotherapy and reiki business.
“She feels my energy,” Kanak said of the reiki treatments.
Kanak uses positive imagery and self-talk before and during matches.
“It’s kind of a ritual,” he said. “I just keep reviewing strategy and say some motivational things to myself. I talk (silently) to myself a lot. More than other athletes.”
The personal pep talks and affirmations seem to be working. Even so, his mom says she was “so nervous watching” the Olympic qualifying event in April in Markham, Ontario.
Jha says he’s looking forward to the athletes’ village and mingling with players from all over the world.
“It’s a great opportunity at this young age to see how the Olympics works,” Constantini said. “He will be ready by 2020.”