Point by Point

“iPhone out of storage” – that was the notification that popped up on my phone as I was in the middle of filming a YouTube video for the millionth time in a futile attempt to talk through my thoughts and feelings on the upcoming Women’s World Cup. It was probably the 7th or 8th day of quarantine (I pretty much lost track of time after the first 3 days) after traveling to China for the highly anticipated #RESTART of international competition. As grateful as I was to compete again, here I was, struggling to find the physical words to express my feelings. It was mostly just a jumbled mix of emotions swirling around in my brain, each fighting and clawing its way up to try to make the final cut. The amount of times I filmed and re-filmed the video is just, well, embarrassing. And in the end, I couldn’t even find the nerve to post it on my channel (maybe I’ll post it eventually if you guys really want to see it).

But finally, after so much anticipation, the day came. My first match of the Women’s World Cup was against Margaryta Pesotska (WR#38) from Ukraine. Not only was it my first match, but we got to play the very first point of all international competition after 8 long months. The actual #RESTART of table tennis! I was awfully nervous that I would directly miss my service or service receive, but the point turned out to be a great rally and quite fitting for the revival of our sport (in my opinion). However, things only seemed to go downhill from there. My nerves got the best of me and I found myself abruptly down 0-3, so far away from where I wanted to be. In the 4th game, I was finally able to let go of all my reservations and told myself to just play freely. It worked. I came back to 2-3, even going as far as to lead 10:8 in the 6th. But unfortunately, I couldn’t close it and lost 4 straight points to lose the game and match. Disheartened, I could only walk back to the practice hall with my head down.

Despite the nagging feeling of doubt creeping its destructive way through my mind, I had to almost immediately begin preparation for my second group match against Adriana Diaz (WR #19) of Puerto Rico. Adriana is an extraordinarily talented player, already making huge strides for her home country of Puerto Rico at such a young age. We also know each other very well, having played the other in virtually every Pan American Championships or Cup. That being said, I knew prior to going in that it was going to be a closely contested match.

However, this match felt like déjà vu to the previous one. Adriana took the first two games with relative ease and it was not looking good for me. At that moment, I knew I had to change something. Anything. I’m still not exactly sure what avalanched the click, but when I walked back to the table after the second game, my mindset shifted from a rushed necessity to win the match to a rather peaceful acceptance of the outcome, win or lose. This change provided me the composure and perseverance to take it one shot at a time, rather than hastily rushing to finish the point. I played with much more patience and soon, I recovered my deficit to 2-2, eventually taking the match 4-2.

With my first win under my belt, I faced Mo Zhang (WR #34) of Canada in my last match of the group. Once again, she was a familiar foe. The match really could have gone either way. And in the end, it truly did come down to the wire. The entire match was a see-saw – although I was constantly leading by one game, she would always fight back to even it up. But in the seventh and very last game, the tables turned in her favor. We were neck and neck until the very last part of the game, where I found myself down 7:10, with three match points to her name. At that sudden death moment, all I could think of was that I had a good run in the tournament.

Then, an unforced error from her brought me one step closer. The next one was a long backhand rally that I stood strong in. Suddenly, the scoreboard evened out as quickly as she had pulled away. As she began to crack under the pressure and started rushing, I told myself to keep breathing deeply and stick to the game plan. Finally, after my 4th saved match point, I took the lead and then eventually the game and match 13:11, 4-3. Even after her backhand sailed long in the last point, I didn’t really know how to react. I was just in utter shock and complete disbelief that I had actually won.

To add further drama to the day, Adriana, Margaryta, and I found ourselves in a nail-biting three-way tie that came down to a few measly points. A few points that felt seemingly inconsequential in each match, but ended up making all the difference. I was extraordinarily lucky, coming out on top of the group, with Adriana trailing closely behind. A more than dramatic first day in the books.

After advancing, I then found myself in a rematch against Feng Tianwei (WR #8) of Singapore in the Round of 16. I had played her in last year’s World Cup for the bronze medal and lost 1-4 there. However, this was her first match of the tournament, whereas I already had three long matches to find my groove. I took an imposing lead, while she was seemed to be still shaking off the pre-tournament rust.

Next thing I knew, I was the one up 3-0 this time, just one game away from defeating a former World Champion. My lead soon rushed out to 5:1, then 7:4. “Holy s***,” I thought. “I’m actually about to win.” But, Feng Tianwei isn’t a former World Champion by mistake. She stayed calm, continuing to play a tactically sound game to my premature excitement. She came back from behind to take the game 11-8, then the next with the same scoreboard, and then commanded a 10:7 lead in the 6th. Another rush of déjà vu swept over the match. I saved one game point. Then another. One more. Finally, on my second match point and with the help of a lucky break on the net, I secured the point and with it, the match.

The Quarterfinal match against Chen Meng (WR #1) of China – well, that one was an absolute learning experience. Despite being able to keep up in the first game, she then rocketed ahead in the next two to take a 3-0 lead. I had another chance in the last game, leveling the score to 9-9, but she quickly picked up the next 2 points, consequently taking the match 4-0. And a absolutely well-deserved win to her – it’s truly incredible how rapidly members of the Chinese National Team are able to adjust and take their game up several notches in such a short amount of time.

To sum it all up, this was truly a memorable tournament that I will never forget. If there’s anything I have learned from this experience, it’s that each seemingly insignificant point matters. Stay in the moment and focus on the present. Take it point by point. Because the more you think about the future or the results, the more easily you will fall victim to the monstrous heads of insecurity and fear of failure. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. I still have a tremendous amount to learn and improve on, but this World Cup has once again provided me with the confidence and motivation that I can compete with some of the best in the world. So, let’s keep moving forward steadily. Here’s to the next tournament, the next match, the next point.

Lily Zhang's Equipment

Blade

JOOLA Nobilis PBO-C

Forehand Rubber

JOOLA Rhyzer Pro 50

Backhand Rubber

JOOLA Rhyzer Pro 50

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