Kanak Jha Discusses Olympic Preparations, New Club, and More

Kanak Jha serves against Liam Pitchford at the 2020 World Cup.

Edges and Nets is honored and excited to present our first exclusive interview with Kanak Jha. Jha is a household name in American table tennis, having won every single men’s singles national championship since 2016 for a record four consecutive titles.

On the international stage, Jha is the first American male in the modern era to break into the world’s table tennis elite. He is ranked in the top 30, and at age 21 is one of the game’s biggest rising stars. Since 2018, notable wins for Jha on the ITTF Pro Tour include (in order of recency) 2020 Japanese National Champion Uda Yukiya, 2021 Chinese Olympic Scrimmage Winner Zhou Qihao, Anton Källberg, Kristian Karlsson, Quadri Aruna, Wong Chun Ting, 2019 World Championship Bronze-Medalist An Jaehyun, and Lin Yun-Ju (whom the Chinese have identified as a top-two threat alongside Harimoto at the Tokyo Olympics).

In this interview, we discuss his new international training center in California, how training in the United States compares to training in Europe, competing with China, the Tokyo Olympics, mentally preparing for big tournaments, getting in competitive matches during the pandemic, and playing against stars he watched growing up.

On His New Club in San Francisco

The 2021 US Olympic Team (from left to right: Zhou Xin, Kanak Jha, Nikhil Kumar) wins first place at 888 Table Tennis Center’s grand opening team tournament. Source: 888tabletennis

This is your final sprint before the Olympics, and you’ve been in the United States for several months now. Where have you been training?

I’ve been in California [where Jha grew up and calls home] for the past three weeks, training at 888 Table Tennis Center. For those who don’t know, it’s a really amazing new center next to San Francisco Airport. It’s a great facility with great coaching staff including my personal coach for the last two years Jörg Bitzigeio, who is running it. It’s a really great international center—well, we hope to be an international center in the future—and I’ve been training with my other Olympic teammates there. So it’s been a really nice period for me, getting to be at home.

Have you primarily been training with Zhou Xin and Nikhil Kumar [the other two members of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics], or are there other people?

Yes, exactly. So primarily with my teammates Zhou Xin and Nikhil. Lily Zhang is also here. And a couple of coaches around the [San Francisco] Bay Area are coming as well. Obviously, Jörg Bitzigeio is running the camp, and so like I said, it’s been a really nice training period and nice camp with my teammates. It’s not so often I’m home. I’m most of the time in Germany, in Europe, so it’s nice to be home, and yeah, it’s a good period.

Can you tell me about how the idea for this club came about, how you got involved, and what your role in the club is right now?

I’m not an expert in the details, but I think the club has been in the making for some time. And I always get updates about how the progress is going, and it’s really exciting now that it’s finished. There are not so many clubs in the US in general and the Bay Area, and this is definitely the largest one [in the Bay Area] and I want to say the largest in the country.

If you’re ever in the San Francisco area and play table tennis, I would definitely recommend for you to check it out. It’s such a great center, and I really think that it has the potential to be an international center, especially where it’s located, near San Francisco Airport. And this weekend we have a tournament here, in which all of my other Olympic teammates and I will be participating in, and it’s kind of like the grand opening of the center. So I’m a representative for this center, and I’m really proud to be a part of 888. And I just really hope it can become an international huge center in the future and have training opportunities for all levels when they come here.

On Training in the United States

Kanak Jha doing a 3-point forehand drill at 888 Table Tennis Center. Source: 888tabletennis

Do you see yourself training full-time in the US in the near future?

Next season I will be in Ochsenhausen, my [German Bundesliga] club from this season. It’s hard to see it [training full-time in the US], just because in Europe and Asia, table tennis is just such a sport that has been there for so long, it’s such a popular sport, and the Europeans and Asians are so strong in table tennis. Right now, to be a professional player, if you really want to reach a world class level, you kind of have to live there if you want to reach the top.

But it’s already great to have a high-level center here, and now definitely when I’m home and coming back time to time, I can train there. I would love in the future if it would be possible to train here full time, and hopefully, hopefully, that will be a possibility in the future.

So you’ve been here for a while, and I wanted to ask you about how it’s different from Europe.

Yeah, it’s a really huge difference to be honest between training in Europe and here in the US, where I’ve been training since I was a kid. [In the US] it’s primarily driven by private lessons if you want to practice table tennis and really want to improve [as a kid].

But it’s a different culture here in the US, because we don’t have full-time professional players. We don’t have so many full time clubs where you have a lot of other players to play with, so it’s mostly just private lessons and paying [a private coach] per hour and trying to improve with coaching. Meanwhile, in Europe, you’re really in a center in a club with many other professional players in a group setting.

So I think it definitely does have disadvantages and advantages. One of the advantages from being in the US is that we have a lot of young kids whose techniques are oftentimes more advanced than in Europe, because we get to train with high-level coaches, so our technical level, our techniques start out at a higher level than Europeans at a young age. But as you get older you definitely need to be playing with other professional players in a group setting. [In a group setting] you can always play matches, you can block for real-life table tennis settings that more closely resemble the match. There’s only so much you can play with a [private] coach.

So I do think you need a bit of both, but I think the biggest difference is there’s a group setting in general when you’re training in Europe, which is very helpful when you’re reaching a higher level. Because there’s really only so much you can train against on one side against a block or just practicing one way [with a coach], versus when you’re playing with someone on the other side of the table who also really wants to improve and also wants to win the point. And that pushes everyone forward together, just being in that atmosphere all the time.

But these days, you are training in a group right?

Yeah.

And is it just the four US men’s team members and Lily?

Yeah, and maybe one or two more. I don’t know if you know like Bob Chen. But yeah, mostly it’s just us.

Ok. Another thing I wanted to ask you about your training is that I think it’s fair to say that you’re the strongest in the group by a pretty undebatable margin.

Uh, you can say that I’m ranked the highest.

And in Germany, there are some players who are higher ranked than you. Do you see any advantages or disadvantages of training like this, where in my opinion, you are pretty obviously ahead of the pack.

It’s always good in some ways to practice with players at a stronger level than you, so you can see what they’re doing better, what makes them such a top player. But at the same time, for me personally, the most important thing in training is you know what you’re working on. If you come to the table with a goal and you know what you need to practice, then in that regard you don’t really need the highest level of sparring partner or someone who’s much better than you if you know what you’re working on and what you’re doing.

So I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s always nice to play with players better than you, and you could say it’s more fun compared to if you play with someone at your own level, but at the same time the most important thing is that when you come to the table, you know what you’re working on, you have a goal of what you’re practicing in, and in that case, training will always be beneficial.

On Competing With China

Leaked (low-resolution) image of the poster of China’s tiers of rivals. This poster is in the training hall of the Chinese National Team leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. Kanak Jha (hilighted in red) is considered third-tier.

So some of the Japanese players, I’m thinking of Mima Ito in particular, they’re kind of famous for not wanting to train with the Chinese, and they want to stay in their own unit. Although she misses the chance to train with them and collaborate with them, I’m guessing her choice not to train with them gives her innovations a stronger competitive advantage. Can you talk more about this trade-off?

I think in general in table tennis, everyone’s goal is to beat the Chinese. I mean for those who themselves are not Chinese, obviously. So you see there are a lot of advantages like in the clubs in Europe, there are a lot of international players from different parts of the world. We can learn from each other and practice with each other, and see what you’ve done successfully, what your knowledge of the game may be more than mine that I can learn from.

I mean at the end of the day, the Chinese really are the best by a lot. Obviously, the Japanese are also very good, but to beat the Chinese is really the ultimate goal. I think the way we can improve, you see that the Chinese, they have these big centers with so many players on their national team for training, and we just don’t have that amount of players or those conditions in Europe or the rest of the world. So it definitely helps when we train together, that we can all improve and hopefully fight against them in the future.

I see. So you know China has that thing where they rank their rivals into tiers, you’re tier three right now.

I saw that. I saw that.

Do you agree with that assessment, and do you have a timeline for when you want to be tier one?

(laughs) Well first I need to say that it’s pretty cool that I’m there in general. I mean, growing up, I would never think that China, anyone on the national team, would know who I am. So just to know I’m there is pretty cool. I haven’t really put much thought into what tier I am. I’m kind of focused on myself and improving. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m on their radar, and I hope in the future to keep improving and maybe challenge them hopefully. And I guess that’s the goal of myself, and of course, many other players.

On the Tokyo Olympics

Kanak Jha sets a record at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the first US Olympian (across all sports) born in the year 2000 or later. Source: Sports Illustrated

Do you have any specific goals for Tokyo in terms of where you finish?

For me personally, I really just want to take it round by round. I mean the Olympics are such a unique event. It’s only the best players in the world coming there, so I know how difficult it will be. I definitely feel like I’ve improved a lot every year actually since Rio, which was my first Olympics, and I was very young, so definitely there are a little more expectations than last time, but I just want to take it round by round. And like I said, it’s such a strong event, so it’s definitely going to be extremely challenging from the beginning.

Do you think you’re going to be more nervous this time compared to 2016 because of the expectations, or do you think maybe it’ll be easier this time mentally since it’s your second time?

It’s hard to say. It’s a little hard to compare, but the pressure will always be there regardless of how many Olympics you play. It’s impossible not to have pressure. The most important thing is how you deal with the pressure.

But really, I try to really not to think about it so much. I’m just more focused on myself and improving every day and getting into top shape. When I’m training well before a competition, like I am now, it helps me to gain confidence to feel good going into the event. So the most important thing for me is just to have a lot of confidence and feel good about myself going into the Games, and then not worry too much about how far I reach.

On His Mental Game

Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019.
Kanak Jha pushes a ball en route to winning his record fourth consecutive national title in 2019. Source: USATT

So when the Chinese talk about their preparation for a big event, it’s always just mental, mental, mental, mental, mental. Do you feel like it’s the same for you, or do you also worry about physical or technical stuff?

So for the Chinese, I think their technical skill is at a higher level than almost everyone else in the world, so they know mentally if they can be focused and just be able to play their normal game, that can already be enough to go far in a tournament.

Yeah, I think mental really is the biggest thing. At the end of the day, everyone can play at a high level, especially at the Olympics. Being in the top 100 versus top 30, the [technical] differences can oftentimes be small, so it’s a lot of mental, how well you can impose your game onto the [opposing] player, how good your tactics are coming into the match, and those things often make the difference between winning and losing when both players are already playing at a high level.

Mentally, do you feel like it’s different playing an international event versus at US Nationals, where you’re a heavy favorite, and I mean you’re basically like China at the US Nationals. Do you feel like preparing for Nationals is just completely mental at that point and is the mental preparation different from an international event?

Yeah, I think the Nationals in the last two or three years I’ve played, I’ve been the favorite. So it’s definitely a different kind of pressure in its way, because you kind of expect yourself to win, but at the same time, you have to realize that being the top seed versus actually winning are two very different things. Everyone is hungry to beat you. You’re the main guy to beat. It’s also easy to relax yourself, saying I’m the top seed, I should already be thinking of the semi-finals, and that’s really the wrong way to go at it.

Regardless of whether it’s a US Nationals or an international event, I always try to come in with the same mindset, which is just to be 100 percent prepared, 100 percent focused from the first round, and that’s how I always want to free myself into a tournament mentally.

To get into a good mental state right before a tournament, is there a certain preparation that you do? Like matches or something?

Yeah, it depends a lot on which tournament also. In general, I just try to make myself in good shape. As the days get closer to the tournament, it’s more like individual, I’d say how I feel, what I would like to do, what I would like to practice and work on.

And yeah, mentally, it’s more of just trying to adjust. If you’re feeling nervous, just try to relax. If you’re feeling too relaxed, then maybe pump yourself up the day before, maybe try to really get yourself motivated to play. You always want to try to find a balance between feeling really confident and positive but at the same time having a little bit of that pressure inside so that you know you’re going to have an edge.

On Getting Competitive Matchplay Leading Up to Tokyo

Kanak Jha's Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik
Kanak Jha’s German Bundesliga team at Ochsenhausen. From left to right: Samuel Kulczycki, Simon Gauzy, Hugo Calderano, Kanak Jha, Maciek Kubik. Source: TTF Ochsenhausen.

I’ve seen chatter that it’s hard to get in competitive matches these days due to COVID. The Europeans have ETTC going on, and the Asians have their own internal things going on. Do you feel like the team tournament this weekend [at 888 Table Tennis Club] is close to that?

Yeah. First, going into Tokyo, it’s a really different feeling compared to a normal event, just because there’s been no real international competition for such a long time. That’s something that’s not really normal in the table tennis scene. You’re used to playing a lot of international events, competing a lot, and now there’s really been no events for such a long period, so it’ll definitely be a little different feeling than a normal preparation.

That’s why I’m also really happy that we’re having an event this weekend where we can compete a bit and play some serious high-level matches and get yourself into the groove and see what is working, what is not working, and mentally try to get yourself into that competitive state and competitive feeling.

Given how few matches there are these days, is there a reason you chose not to play in Qatar [WTT Doha] in March?

During the Qatar Open, I was actually at home in California. It had been a long stretch for me in Germany, about ten or ten-and-a-half months that I hadn’t been able to come home. So my thought process was, at the time there was supposed to be a China Hub after Qatar, and I think there were supposed to be two events there. I think they originally planned four [including Qatar]. There would have been two events in China, and that was my original plan, to focus on the China Hub. They were also a little more important in terms of ranking.

But unfortunately afterwards, that got cancelled due to COVID. So it’s a bit unfortunate. If I knew that ahead of time, I definitely would have competed [in Qatar], but we live in a time of uncertainty, so we have to live with it.

So you really haven’t played competitively since like February then?

Yeah, I want to say my last international tournament was maybe in October, the Men’s World Cup in China.

You had other stuff like the German Cup in early 2021 though, right?

Yeah, then I think I competed competitively last time in like March, maybe. It’s definitely been a while, and the international stage is different from even the [German] league. So it’s still nice to play a tournament now this weekend and compete a bit.

On Some of His Recent Matches Against Top Stars

Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men's World Cup in October 2020
Kanak Jha celebrates a point against Chaung Chih-Yuan at the Men’s World Cup in October 2020. Source: ITTF.

So at the World Cup, you almost beat Chuang Chih-Yuan [Kanak lost deuce in the seventh]. Based on my understanding, he’s been your favorite player for a while now. How was that? Were you starstruck or anything? Did you talk to him about that?

Actually it’s my second time playing him. I also played him in the 2019 Omar Open, and he beat me really convincingly there, so I was kind of disappointed with my performance there. I played quite badly. Maybe I was a little bit excited in 2019 to play him, because I mean I never expected to play him growing up, you know.

But this time, honestly I treated it like a normal match. It’s a World Cup, and once you get on the table, you just want to win. That’s what my mindset was, so I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.

But definitely still, even after playing him, I have even more respect for him, how great he is, how great he still is at his age. He’s definitely a fantastic player, and it’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite player.

So shortly after that, you played the German Cup, where you played Timo Boll and Shang Kun. For those matches, you lost both of those 3-0, but in pretty much every game, you were pretty close until the end. And then they get you with like a serve or something. For you, is that a mental thing, or is that just something that happens when you play stronger players, or is it just a problem reading their serves, or what?

Yeah, in general, top players’ serve and receive game is really important. You not only have to receive the ball, you have to receive it with a lot of quality, so that they don’t attack you aggressively on the next shot.

It’s cool, it was my first time playing Timo. He beat me 3-0. As you said, the sets maybe were a little bit close, but still it was quite convincing. It’s always cool to play against top players, because you can really feel their balls and really see up close what you can really never see on video, what they’re doing so well. So it’s always great to play against them and kind of learn what they’re doing that makes them so special.

I see. And do you feel like they’re playing better at the end of the games compared to the beginning of the games, when you’re able to keep the score tighter?

I think in general for all levels when you’re playing someone at a higher technical level than you, the ending is where you can really feel that the most. Whether it’s just because they’re a little more confident in their abilities or a little more experienced, in decisive moments is what really separates higher-level players from players who are not at their level. And I think that holds for all stages of table tennis.

I guess nobody that you’re training with has serves as good as Timo Boll. How do you practice your serve return under such circumstances?

I train more by myself and not to receive a specific player’s serve, so I’m working on my receive in general and my shots in general. But when you lose to a player where you have a problem, a pretty obvious problem, like you can’t receive or you have problems with their receive, it’s always good to take a look at that and work on that. But most of the time, I’m training just for myself to work on my own shots and that will anyway apply in the match regardless of who I’m playing against.

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