The Challenges and Triumphs of a Month of International Table Tennis Competition in Asia

Lily Zhang poses at the WTT player entrance ahead of a table tennis competition in Thailand

I returned home after almost a month of table tennis competition in Asia under my belt. Another great opportunity to reflect on everything I experienced and learned and to share it with you.


I started out the series of three consecutive events with the WTT Champions in Xinxiang, China. While not quite as high on the competition level as a Smash, the Champions series can be just as tough, if not more. They are the second highest on the scale of WTT table tennis competition. There are only 32 players invited on a world ranking basis, so the first-round matchup is almost guaranteed to be against an experienced world class player. I was quickly proven this point by drawing the chopper, Han Ying (WR #10) from Germany in the very first round.

Given my track record against defensive players of her style, I knew it was going to be a long ways to get the win. Prior to the match, I prepared extensively by watching and analyzing her game, but I realized that I had underestimated the amount of spin she could generate on the ball. The first two games seemed to flash by in a heartbeat. Not only was the amount of spin on the ball so immense, but she was also able to deceptively change the spin at will from no spin to heavy backspin by using the same motion for both. I often wasn’t able to tell apart which was which, which generated self-doubt in my strokes and ability.

Finally, in the third game, I started to adjust to her game little by little, even leveling things up with her at 6-6. I felt like in order to be able to lift her heavy chops, I had to angle my racket so it was almost completely open and greatly exaggerate my movements. It felt so counterintuitive to everything I had learned up until this point. Despite the slight improvements, it wasn’t enough. I bowed out in the last at 7-11.

The match was humbling, to say the least. However, it taught me that no matter how much you study the game just by watching, it’s simply not enough. You need to be able to practice, to really feel out the ball and its many spins and variations. In the women’s game, there are so many different types of styles and equipment. You need the versatility and flexibility to be able to adjust swiftly, before it’s too late.


The next tournament was another WTT Champions series, this time held in Macau, China. Almost the exact same roster from Xinxiang flew to Macau for another bout. This time, I drew Hina Hayata (WR #9) from Japan in the first round.

I had played against her only one time in 2016 at the ITTF Swedish Open and had actually come out of that encounter on top. However, she was a completely different player this time around. I knew that she had improved immeasurably throughout the years, but I had expected to be able to play a close or at least compelling match with her.

It didn’t go at all the way that I wanted. Right off the bat, I was down by 0-7. My head had gone completely empty and at that point, I was hoping to win even one point. Luckily, that wish came true, but it felt like I was running just to catch up.

The key element was serve receive. I wasn’t able to receive her serve well, which put a lot of pressure on me. If I received with poor quality, she could easily finish off the third ball, and if I risked a higher quality shot, my percentage rate of making it on the table plummeted. In return, I couldn’t guarantee the two points with my own serve. This created a constant disadvantage for me throughout the match. I tried to put up a fight as best I could, but I struggled mentally trying to focus and get into the match. The next two games were a blur and I lost 0-3.

I knew it was a long shot to win against a player of that caliber, but that particular match hit me really hard. In fact, the entire year of matches were catching up to me. I hadn’t won a single international match yet. Granted, I had been up against some of the best players in the world, most of them being ranked in the Top 10, but such losses in a row still take a toll on confidence and belief in self. Table tennis competition at the international level is tough like that.

Luckily, I was able to confide in our national team coach, Gao Jun, and talk through many of these feelings. We came to a realization that I was putting far too much pressure on myself. The tempting yearn for “good” results and external validation had begun to creep its way into my mind once again – I wasn’t playing with a healthy motivation to win, but rather with a deep seeded fear of losing.


With these revelations in mind, I flew to my third and last table tennis competition on this long Asia trip. Bangkok, Thailand was the destination, for the WTT Star Contender. I was drawn directly into the main draw and had a bye the first round as well. I faced Jieni Shao (WR #46), from Portugal in the second round and in my first match of the tournament.

Going into the match, I felt I had a much better mindset than the previous ones. I tried to let go of the fear of losing and consciously remind myself to enjoy the game out there. This worked well, as I felt I was able to really play my game and quickly jumped to a 2-0 lead. It was in the third game where I began to lose a little control. I wanted to get to the finish line as fast as possible. This had the opposite effect, as I became frustrated and rushed, and lost the game quickly.

After the timed break between games, I told myself to breathe. This helped me slow down the pace and focus on placement and spin rather than speed. That finally got me to the finish line, winning the match 3-1. My first international win of the year and boy did it feel good!

Next, I was up against Miu Hirano (WR #19) in the Round of 16. I had played her several times in the past, the last time being in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2022. On that occasion I’d lost, but our most notable match was in 2019 at the Women’s World Cup where I had won 4-3. I felt like that was my breakthrough match to really make a name for myself on the international circuit, which provided a lot of confidence and conviction that I could win this time around.  

The first game was crucial. We were neck and neck at the latter half of the game, resulting in a deuce combat. There was some luck on my side, but I still took some serve receive risks and was rewarded the first game. From then on, I felt in control of the match, especially in the rallies. The most important aspect was my mental game. I found myself with large leads in both the second and third game, but she began to make her way back slowly. Luckily the constant reminders to myself to breathe and take it slowly allowed me to hold on and finally take the match 3-0! (Watch the highlights here)

Then, came the quarterfinals. The match-up was against Adriana Diaz (WR#11) of Puerto Rico, who I consider to be one of my closest friends on the tour. We’ve been through countless ups and downs together and are able to really see the other, which is wonderful to have when you’re so far away from home for a long period of time. However, a match is a match and we both fight our hardest on the table.

We typically have close and entertaining matches. This time, she got the better of me, winning 3-1. She has a large arsenal of different serves she can pull out at certain moments, which gave me trouble throughout the match. However, I am still satisfied with the way I adjusted to many, but most of all, proud that I gave it my all out there.

So that’s it. I can’t say that the month away from home was easy, but overall, a rare and rewarding experience, with many moments and learned knowledge to pull from for the future.

Now, I’m currently back in the states preparing for the next table tennis competition – the World Table Tennis Championships held in Durban, South Africa!

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