Breaking the Runner-Up Curse

Lily Zhang broke the Runner Up curse by winning WTT Feeder Manchester in 2024!

In the span of a year and a half, I found myself in 4 separate WTT Feeder Singles Finals – Westchester, Fort Lauderdale, Biella, and Corpus Christi, only to let the championship title slip through my fingers at the very end. I’m not exactly complaining. These are still great international results, and it took a lot of effort and solid playing to even get to that point. But with each passing final, my mind wavered with increasing doubt. Could I ever break the so-called “runner-up curse?” Or would I forever be relegated to the sideline of the award ceremony, watching through longing eyes as the winner hoisted the championship trophy?

So, when I found myself in the exact same position, this time at WTT Feeder Manchester, I could feel the uncertainty once again begin creeping steadily in my mind. This was yet another fantastic opportunity to win my first ever World Table Tennis Title. I faced Natalia Bajor of Poland in the finals. It felt reminiscent of my final in Biella, where I had encountered Maria Xiao of Spain. They were both opponents that I had never lost to in the past; both used inverted rubber and possessed an attacking playing style I felt relatively comfortable and confident against. Still, I had lost to Maria in 1-3 in the finals just 2 months prior and now seriously questioned if history would repeat itself and I would end as runner-up once again.

The Finals match started poorly for me. I lost the first game without even fully processing what had happened as I walked back to the coach’s bench. The second game showed a bit more promise, with many more back and forth exchanges and entertaining rallies between us. Yet, I still found myself at an 8:10 disadvantage again, just one point away from trailing 0-2 in games. I remember that it was difficult to focus on the ball, my heart racing a million miles an hour, and my thoughts scrambled into questions of “what-ifs.” What if I lost again? What would people think of me? What if this was my last chance to ever win a title in my table tennis career?

Before the tournament, I had reached out to a previous coach of mine for many years, Massimo Constantini. He had coached me through a crucial time of my table tennis development, and most notably, lifted me through countless mentally tough times. I knew he would understand the current struggles I was going through. I called him and we talked for a while the night before the tournament began. From our conversation, I took away one key theme that would stick in my mind through every single round. “Stay in the present, just take it point by point. Ball by ball.” Though tempting, there was no use in conjuring up a million different scenarios and outcomes in my mind – I couldn’t control those. The only thing I could control was to focus on the very next point and do what I needed to do.

Adding to Massimo’s support, I also had my current coach, Qian Qianli finally traveling with me. Sitting on my side of the coach’s bench, he offered sound strategic advice, and provided strength and motivation with every single passing point.

With both of their words of encouragement echoing in my ears, I knew I just had to go for it and play aggressively, win or lose. So, on her serve at 8:10, when I might’ve normally pushed, I instead stepped in to banana flip both times, changing up the placement and hitting powerful shots down the line to tie it up to 10:10. We went back and forth several times, with her gaining three more game points, but on my first game point at 14:13, I was able to convert and take the game, leveling it to 1-1.

Winning the second game changed the momentum of entire match. I rode the wave to win the third easily, and then in the fourth game, I suddenly found myself on the flip side, leading 10:8 myself. Game and match point. She served, and I stepped in to flip to her backhand. She returned it with high quality, and I missed the next shot, a little too eager to finish the point quickly. 10:9. She changed her serve to a forehand pendulum and I knew I had to continue playing aggressively. I flipped again, but changed the placement up to her middle/forehand. She returned it softly back to my backhand and I played it back to her middle, but this time with a lucky break on the top of the net. She hit long trying to recover, and then that was it. 11:9 for me.

I apologized instinctively, but at that very moment, a tremendous sense of relief washed over my entire body. It felt like I could breathe again. I did it. I had finally broken the curse.

Reflecting on all of it now, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Yes, losing all those finals felt heartbreaking and instigated that sort of insidious doubt to seep in, but I also learned so much from the experience. I’ve reaffirmed and even strengthened my grit, my ability to keep fighting, persisting, clawing, no matter the doubt from myself and others. On top of it all, I learned to continue to reach out for help when I really needed it. Even all this time later, I still really struggle with keeping things to myself and feeling like I need to do it all alone. But for me, this only creates a cycle of isolation that eventually spirals.

Now, I know I can always lean on my people, my community, and trust that they will be there to catch me. Having that support can be the difference between being runner-up and being Champion.

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