Lily Zhang Kicks Off Professional Table Tennis Career at the Hungarian Open

The Hungarian Open launched as the season opener for the 2019 ITTF World Tour, as well as kicked off the very first competition in my personal professional table tennis career. Professional table tennis: wow, I never thought those three words would come to describe my life. It all still feels very surreal to me – traveling halfway across the world to pursue my dream of making the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and trying to become one of the best in the world in this sport.

Although I had fantastic training in Linz, Austria the week before, the Hungarian Open was far from a walk in the park. With the new ITTF ranking system implemented as well as pre-Olympic season underway, players of the highest caliber from all around the world came to compete. It was intimidating to say the least. I started off in the qualification rounds against Leila Imre, a skilled player from Hungary who was known for her good feeling with the ball. Although I had to shake off some nerves in the beginning, I was able to adjust and convincingly won the match 4:1. It was the next match that proved to be nothing like I had ever experienced before.

I faced off against Ni Xialian from Luxembourg. At 55 years of age, Ni Xialian is a known legend in the table tennis world. She previously won the team and mixed doubles gold medals in the 1983 World Table Tennis Championships for China and has been continuously playing at an extremely high level for Luxembourg since. However, her style is without a doubt a most unique one, playing left-handed pen-hold with long pips on one side and regular rubber on the other. It’s already quite rare to find people using long pips close to the table, but Ni often twiddles her racket to switch sides and uses her lengthy experience and cleverness to obtain success. Interestingly enough, before the match, when I was telling people who I was playing, they often laughed knowingly and commented, “have fun.” At the time, I mostly blew their reactions off, but little did I know how difficult the match would truly be.

The first three games just sort of flew by; without even realizing what hit me, I was suddenly down 0-3. Every ball that came to me from her long pips felt so strange and foreign. To make matters worse, I rushed to finish every point, unsuccessfully. If I wanted to get anywhere, I knew I needed to change drastically. Finally, I began to take my time and slow down the rallies, going against every instinct and my own fast attacking style. While I started to gain some traction and was able to nab the fourth game, it was already too late. The damage had already been done and I succumbed 1-4 to Ni.

It’s never a great feeling to lose, but after going back to the hotel and taking some time to reflect on the match, I realize that I’m actually quite lucky to have played against Ni. Despite the loss, the match served as a fantastic learning experience and and table tennis is really all about experience. After all, I could even take a lesson or two from Ni and her many years of wisdom and experience. In competition, I won’t be able to cherry pick who I want to play. There are players of all different types of styles in this sport and if I truly want to rise to the next level, I’m going to need to be able to be prepared for everything that comes at me.

Perhaps I didn’t get to where I wanted to in this competition, but overall, I’d say that the Hungarian Open was a positive in my growth to becoming a better player. I often state that I’m simply just not good against long pips or more uncommon styles, but I understand that these skills can be developed with effort, determination, and persistence. Moving forward, I want to seek out practice with players of different styles, no matter how uncomfortable I might feel during the actual session.

Tomorrow, I’m heading to Dusseldorf for a training camp with the German National Team and I’m very hopeful that I’ll be able to get the training I need. Till next time!

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