JOOLA’s Lily Zhang on Her 5th US National Title
11 Points Away
“Well, this is it. I’ve let the perfect chance of winning this year’s Nationals slip right through my fingers. I seriously can’t believe how badly I messed up.” These negative thoughts maliciously crept their way through my mind as I slowly walked back to the coach’s post with my head hung down.
Let me paint the whole picture for you. Just a day earlier, the #1 seed and my biggest competitor of the tournament, Wu Yue, had fallen out of the quarterfinals with a close 3-4 loss to Rachel Yang. Practically everyone I bumped into subsequently kept congratulating on my “affirmed championship win,” before I had even played my quarterfinal match. Usually this wouldn’t bother me. After all, I have years of experience – I know when to let the words of others go through one ear and out the other. Yet, I couldn’t help but let my thoughts linger on this significantly increased probability of winning the 2019 U.S. National Championships. What an absolutely golden opportunity to mark my legacy as a newly full-time professional athlete.
I won my Round of 32 and Round of 16 matches quite easily. Furthermore, my Quarterfinal match went smoothly for the most part, with minimal bumps along the way. I faced Crystal Wang, one of the top Junior and Women’s players in the country. We’ve played countless times, and both know one another’s games down to a tee, so despite my higher ranking, I knew anything could happen in this match. I made sure to craft a strategy with my coach, Liang Yonghui, beforehand. Nerves jittery and adrenaline pumping through my veins, but I still felt prepared. All that mattered was how I would execute the plan.
The match started out a bit rocky, with both of us feeling out each other’s style. I was lucky enough to take the first game, gaining confidence and assurance in the strategy. The next two games also went in my favor and soon enough, I was up 3-0. However, the fourth game changed drastically. Crystal began aggressively attacking my serves and gaining automatic winners. She took the game and I had to fight to focus and adjust strategies. In the fifth game, I was able to change up my services a bit to take the game, and consequently, the match 4-1.
I faced Amy Wang in the Semifinals next. Similarly with Crystal, Amy and I have played numerous times before. At only 16 years of age, she is one of the most talented and dangerous players I’ve ever witnessed in this sport. Her strokes appear so effortless and flawless and her backhand is astonishingly fast and powerful. Beating her would be no easy feat. Still, odds were in my favor. I had a 11:0 record in official matches against Amy. Furthermore, when I play competitions, I’m usually pretty shaky in the beginning. It takes me some time to adjust and start playing my own game, but I end up getting better match by match. Theoretically, I should have been more confident and self-reliant in this upcoming match.
So now that you have the setting, let’s go back to the beginning.
“Well, this is it. I’ve let the perfect chance of winning this year’s Nationals slip right through my fingers. I seriously can’t believe how badly I messed up.” Here I was, down 1 game to 3 against Amy. I was one measly game away from being knocked out once and for all from contention for the coveted title. 11 points away. Outwardly, I tried to play it cool, but I was feeling completely confused, disoriented, and flustered inwardly. How did I find myself in this position? More importantly, exactly how do I get myself out of it?
Throughout the first half of the match, it seemed Amy had taken a page out of Crystal’s book. She was aggressively ripping though all my serves. And when I say ripping, I mean ripping. In fact, I was mostly just watching the ball rocket right past me. In table tennis, it’s customary to want the serve because it gives us the advantage to open up first and take control of the rally. Not in this match. The more she attacked, the more nervous I got, the more my hands shook, and the higher my serves popped up for her taking. At one point, I genuinely found myself completely dreading the moments I had the serve.
It seemed like all hope was lost. Luckily, my coach, Liang, had other plans in mind. As I wiped my sweat and drank my water, he told me to just completely forget the previous games. Forget the expectations. Forget the pressure. Forget the results. Just play. No strategy or technical advice, yet those simple, but powerful, words helped me enormously in the games that ensued.
I walked back to the table with a much calmer demeanor and a clearer mind. Judging from the first four games, I knew I had to change something, anything. I opted for serving as wide as I could out to her forehand, so she wasn’t able to always use her backhand to swing the ball past me. With a more settled mindset, I was able to move past the nerves and therefore keep my serve lower to the net. From just these small changes, the momentum of the match changed dramatically. I took the fifth game 11:3 and suddenly, the points kept coming my way. I stuck to the new strategy and mindset for the rest of the match, just trying to breathe deeply and rely on my experience to pull me through.
It worked. Once I had my serve under control, I felt much more comfortable during the rallies. I took the next two games both 11:3 and won the match 4-3. After the match, I breathed one of the biggest sighs of relief I’ve had in the longest time. All the weight, pressure, and burden of the match lifted from my shoulders. Still, it was momentary alleviation, as I knew I had to regroup and play the Women’s Singles Finals in only a few hours against Rachel Sung, another young, talented, and dangerous player.
With the Semifinal match under my belt, I was determined to prepare thoroughly for the next match. Not just physically, but much more so mentally. This time I couldn’t let others’ words affect my perception of how the match would go – rather, I knew I needed to focus on my own plan and what I, myself, am capable of.
Once again, Liang and I designed an initial strategy to face Rachel. I felt much more like my usual self in this match, taking it one point at a time and not getting ahead of myself. Using my strategy and experience, I was able to control the majority of the match, placing balls to where I knew she was uncomfortable with. Soon enough, I was up 3-0. However, she came back in the fourth game with a remarkable adjustment and modification to her own game plan, predicting my shots and countering back with pinpoint accuracy. It was up to me to change my strategy up again and sure enough, I took the next game, the match, and finally, the crown home.
So there you have it. I am unbelievably proud to have won the 2019 U.S. National Championships, making it the 5th National title in my career thus far. I am proud of the hard work, time, and effort I put into training full-time this year. However, it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be here without the people behind the scenes. My new sponsor this year, JOOLA, has generated tremendous opportunities for me to travel and compete overseas, allowing me to gain valuable experience in the process. My home club, ICC Table Tennis Center, has been there for me every step of the way, supporting me through all the ups and downs of the game. They have provided the best coaches, practice partners, and resources throughout all these years. The High Performance Committee of USATT has worked tirelessly to develop the sport in the United States and grant both funding and planning to help us progress to higher lengths internationally. And last, but certainly not least, my family and friends have been incredibly supportive of my dreams, no matter how unconventional or crazy they might seem. These are the people that made this win possible and for that, I am truly grateful.
What a wild rollercoaster of a Nationals it’s been for me. Now that it’s all said and done, I am pleasantly surprised I had pulled through, but it’s these tough moments that really count and make for a learning experience. A scary and daunting experience, but an experience, nonetheless. It’s incredible how there are so many small and details and nuances that might seem small or unimportant on the surface, but can completely make or break the game. At the end of the day, it comes down to nitty gritty of how much you want to succeed and what you’re willing to put in. I suppose that’s one of the reasons that makes this sport so addicting and I hope to continue enjoying for as long as I play the game.