Indian touch to American dream

Indian touch to American dream

Table tennis : Only 16, Kanak Jha is going the extra mile to raise his level ahead of the Olympic Games

Indian touch to American dream

Kanak Jha is not sure when he made the change. He thinks it was maybe when he was 9 or 10. He does not remember the precise moment, but he knows it was significant all the same.

"I think it was sort of all of a sudden," he said recently. "I just started doing it. I said, 'table tennis' instead of 'Ping-Pong.'"

He paused. "I guess because that's what I was playing."
The distinction may seem to be only semantics. But the difference between Ping-Pong (a game largely associated with basements, fraternity houses and rec centers) and table tennis (a sport with more than 200 national associations worldwide) is substantial. If it were not, Jha would not have moved to Halmstad, Sweden, about 5,500 miles from his Northern California home, to train five or six hours a day with some of the best coaches in the world in preparation for the Rio Olympics.

At 16, Jha, of Indian origin, is the first American athlete born in the 2000s to qualify for an Olympics, and his hope -- for now at least -- is that his play will increase the recognition of a sport that to many Americans is best known as a decent diversion on a rainy day at summer camp.

Like most players, Jha is fascinated with spin. Topspin, sidespin, backspin. This is what separates skilled table tennis players from the just-knock-it-back crowd one might encounter at Susan Sarandon's Ping-Pong social club in New York or, perhaps, at recess. Spin is everything in table tennis, whether it is controlling a point with an impossibly whipping serve or looping a return from several feet behind the table. Spin is what Jha began learning shortly after taking up the game when he was 5 (his parents — father Arun and mother Karuna, who both hail from India — often played with his sister), and it is what elevated him in the eighth grade, when he dominated his classmates throughout the Ping-Pong unit of his school's physical education class.

Spin is the reason he is in Sweden.
His trainer, Douglas Jakobsen, is the son of Mikael Andersson, a longtime official in world table tennis who met Jha four years ago at a youth tournament in Austria. Andersson was intrigued by Jha, who had been working with a German coach, Stefan Feth, who also works with the US national team. Andersson developed a relationship with Jha and his family, and was the linchpin in persuading Jha to move to Europe.

Jha began visiting the club several times a year and arrived last fall to live full time, and to play for the club in its various leagues and tournaments. Now, he begins most days with Jakobsen, darting over and around discs and ropes on the floor, and springing to scoop up a small soccer ball that Jakobsen drops at random in front of him.

All of these drills help Jha react faster during matches and, despite his small and spindly physique, give him a more powerful base from which to rise up and into his shots. His core is what allows him to whip his body and spin the ball, rifling forehands that arc so sharply they resemble a diving paper airplane or slicing backhands so deeply they look to have brakes.

"You need to have a lot of explosiveness, to be able to snap the hips," Jha said. "People wouldn't think it, but it's kind of like the start to a 100M dash. You need to be able to fire."

"Kanak is young, but he is very focused," said Mattias Karlsson, a top player for Halmstad. "Sometimes we forget how young he is. He is still learning."

Jha readily acknowledges that he is, in many ways, still a kid. He shares a small apartment in Halmstad with his sister, Prachi, who is also an accomplished player and competed with the Halmstad women's team (she will return to the United States later this year to begin college). The apartment, which is a short walk from the arena, has a tiny kitchen, twin beds, a secondhand couch and a small bathroom with a door handle that is held up with tape. Jha sits on a low stool when he does his online high school work and spends much of his free time watching table tennis on the internet.

He misses his family, he said, but he also knows that training in Sweden is an irreplaceable experience. This season, Jha played matches mostly for Halmstad's second team; next season, he hopes to make more appearances for the first team and continue to develop his international career. On July 8, he defeated his Olympic teammate Yijun Feng to win the men's singles title at the US nationals. In doing so, Jha became the youngest men's national champion since 2009.

Qualifying for the Olympics was a similarly dramatic experience. Playing in Canada, against a Canadian, he rallied from 5-0 down in the final game to win, 11-5, and claim his berth. But Jha has measured expectations for Rio: He is ranked 272nd in the world, and he said he would consider his performance a success if he won three matches in the preliminary rounds to reach the main draw.

Such a result would be an impressive achievement. But for the moment, Jha is most fixated on continuing to improve his game and demonstrate the consistency that the best players produce against him.