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Profile: Dave Stephans


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Ping-Pong? Child Game. Table Tennis? His Ticket to Rio

HALMSTAD, Sweden Kanak Jha is not certain when he made the shift. He thinks it was possibly if he was 9 or 10. He does not recall the exact moment, but he knows it was important the same."I think it was kind of a sudden," he said recently. " I only started doing it. I said, 'table tennis' instead of 'Ping-Pong."'He paused. " I guess since that's exactly what I was playing.

"The distinction may seem to be only semantics. But the gap between Ping-Pong (a game mostly connected with basements, fraternity houses and rec centers) and table tennis (a sport with more than 200 national institutions globally) is large. If it weren't, Jha would not have moved here, about 5,500 miles from his Northern California home, to train five or five hours every day with some of the best coaches in the world in preparation for the ping pong paddles Rio Olympics.At 16, Jha is the first American athlete created at the 2000s to be eligible for an Olympics, along with his hope -- for now at least -- is that his drama will increase the recognition of a game that to many Americans is best called a good diversion on a rainy day in summer camp.



Like most gamers, Jha is interested with spin. Topspin, sidespin, backspin. That is exactly what distinguishes proficient table tennis players from the just-knock-it-back audience one might encounter at Susan Sarandon's Ping-Pong social team at Manhattan or, perhaps, at recess. Twist is everything in table tennis, whether it is controlling a point having an impossibly whipping serve or looping a return from several feet behind the table. Spin is what Jha began learning soon after taking up the match when he was 5 (his parents often played with his sister), and it's exactly what raised him in the eighth grade, when he dominated his classmates during the Ping-Pong unit of his school's physical education course.Spin is why he's here.One recent afternoon, Jha arrived in the Halmstad Arena just after 8:30. Some junior players were practicing at some of the 19 tables in the room (sparring, in the vernacular), but Jha went to the opposite end and also began a series of physical training exercises designed to stretch and strengthen his thighs and boost his agility and responses. For nearly an hour he did not touch his encounter.

His trainer, Douglas Jakobsen, is the son of Mikael Andersson, a longtime official in world table tennis that met Jha four years ago at a youth tournament in Austria. Andersson was fascinated by Jha, who'd been working with a German coach, Stefan Feth, who also works with the American team. Andersson developed a connection with Jha and his family, and was the linchpin in persuading Jha to move to Europe.

To Andersson, Sweden, that has a powerful table tennis history which includes Jan-Ove Waldner -- seen by many as the greatest player in history -- was the only location where Jha could properly accelerate his development."I believed it could help Kanak to maintain a situation like we've got here," Andersson said. " To be able to train and play against top players, international players, daily is something that he couldn't have in America. You will find fantastic coaches there, but there's nothing like being in a bunch. You require competition."Jha first visited Halmstad when he was 13. He recalls being awed by the professionalism of the club, among the most highly regarded in Europe. There was the training, sure, headed by the former world champion Ulf Carlsson, along with the caliber of players was large, too. However, the devotion to covering all facets of the sport was what stood out most. Jha hadn't done much physical instruction away from the desk. At Halmstad, such extra work is seen as critical.

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Jha started visiting the club many times a year and came last autumn to live here full time, and also to play the club in its various championships and tournaments. He begins most days with Jakobsen, darting over and around ropes and discs on the floor, and springing to scoop a little soccer ball which Jakobsen drops at random in front of him.All of these drills assist Jha respond faster through matches and, despite his small and spindly physique, give him a more effective foundation from which to rise up and to his shots. His heart is what enables him to whip his body and twist the ball rifling forehands that arc so sharply they resemble a diving paper airplane or clipping backhands so profoundly they look to have wheels.

"You Want to have a lot of explosiveness, to be able to snap the hips," Jha said. " People would not believe it, but it is sort of like the start to a 100-meter dashboard. You have to be able to fire."If that seems difficult to imagine for a game contested over a face smaller than many dining area tables, one need only watch Jha work. After finishing Jakobsen, he combined the first-team training session, bouncing side to side and forward and back while sparring with another player, then smacking shots, over and above, during a high-intensity session called multiball in which a coach quickly patters balls into a participant from a basket.During breaks, Jha occasionally chatted with different players -- many of whom were considerably older -- but mostly concentrated on his strategy, pantomiming various strokes going to a side table to hit functions.



"Kanak is young, but he is very concentrated," said Mattias Karlsson, a top player for Halmstad. " Sometimes we forget how young he is. He's still learning."Jha easily admits that he is, in many ways, still a child. He shares a small apartment along with his sister, Prachi, who's also an accomplished player and collaborated with the Halmstad women's team (she will go back to the United States later this year to begin college). The apartment, which is a brief walk from the arena, has a tiny kitchen, double beds, a secondhand sofa and a small bathroom with a door handle which is installed with tape. Jha sits on a low stool if he does his online high school work and spends much of his spare time watching table tennis on the internet or browsing Netflix.

He misses his loved ones, he said, but he knows that coaching in Sweden is an irreplaceable experience. This year, Jha played matches largely for Halmstad's second team; next season he expects to create additional appearances for the first team and continue to develop his global career. On July 8, he conquered his Olympic teammate Yijun Feng, 10-12, 6-11, 12-10, 5-11, 14-12, 11-7, 11-9, to win the men's singles title at the United States nationals. In doing so, Jha became the youngest men's national winner because 2009.Qualifying for the Olympics has been a similarly dramatic experience. Playing in Canada, contrary to a Canadian, he rallied from 5-0 down in the last set to win, 11-5, and claim his berth. But Jha has measured expectations for Rio: He's rated 272nd in the Earth, and he stated he would believe his performance a success if he won three games in the preliminary rounds to reach the main draw of the person tournament. (He will even compete with the United States in the group contest)Such a result would be an impressive accomplishment. But for the moment, Jha is most fixated on continuing to improve his match and demonstrate the consistency that the best players -- some of whom are training together with him here -- produce against him. He takes affirmations where he can find them.

How To Choose The Best Ping Pong Table

During a practice game here this spring, Jha was backed up through a stage, chopping a set of smashes out of his opponent. Finally, the competition hit a shorter shot which angled well off the side of the table and Jha deftly stepped, swinging his racket on the backhand and sending an off-balance return loaded with twist the ball bent around the internet -- not it over -- like a crescent until it skimmed off the edge of the table on the opponent's side.Jha threw up his hands in party, proud of his moment of true spinning mastery. His competitor gave a nod of acceptance. Jha looked about, but there was little recognition from anybody else. The coaches lasted prowling. The other players kept pounding their shots, and also the click-clack noise of rallies never stopped.Jha stared for a moment, his torso. He then wiped his forehead, walked up to the table and went back to work.
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