The USA, for all its brilliance and success in sports, especially in the Olympis, has a combined total of only 10 ranked men and women in table tennis. Out of those 10, seven are women and just three of them are in the top 100 of World Table Tennis (WTT) rankings. But if there is a flag-bearer of the sport there in recent years, it’s their six-time national women’s singles champion, Lily Zhang.
The 27-year-old took the world by storm as a 12-year-old when she became the youngest American to compete at the World Championships. Her upbringing in the sport was unorthodox. She did not join an academy when she was young. Rather, she picked up the sport in a laundry room at a university, while she waited for her clothes to dry.
Her father was a professor at Stanford University in California and the family lived on campus, where there was a TT table in the laundry room. Both her parents hail from China, a country that has dominated the sport for decades. Her mother, who hails from the Xi’an province, played in local tournaments there, but nothing too professional. Her love for the game, though, stayed with her when she moved to the US. In the laundry room she would often play with her husband and one day, when Lily was about seven, she decided to join.
The only problem was Lily just couldn’t win. Her parents refused to go easy on her. But as a youngster, with not a lot to do and the gumption to defeat her parents and get those elusive bragging rights, she practised for hours on end. She would plead with her mother and anyone who would listen, to play with her.
“I always wanted to go do laundry. I was just eight and laundry was something I really looked forward to,” Lily told The Indian Express on the sidelines of the Ultimate Table Tennis that began in Pune on Thursday.
By the age of nine, her parents realised that she had a spark and enrolled her in an academy. It was here that she first began toying with the idea of becoming a professional. She was always amongst the youngest players at any tournament and it was something that didn’t bother her, she says. However, things reached a boiling point when as a 16-year-old, she played at the 2012 London Olympics and lost the opening match, admitting that she “sort of froze up”.
But her career was to turn around. While she says her parents never pressured her into taking up the sport or doing well, she suddenly felt the sport was a burden. In her precarious teenage years, she began to question whether taking up the sport was the right choice.
“I didn’t have time to do normal teenage things like go to concerts or hang out with friends. It became all too much and I decided to take a break and do normal stuff like teenagers do. Like go to university,” she said with a laugh.
Despite her enjoying university life, the pull of the sport was irresistible, almost magnetic. “What I realised is that as a youngster, I started playing professionally with the hope that I could make my parents proud. But during the break, I made up my mind that if I get back to the sport, it will be just for me. Once I decided that, the rigours of training and traveling no longer was a burden but it became something I enjoyed,” she said.
Slow and steady
She managed to return to the sport and scale new heights slowly but steadily. But just as she was reaching peak form, Covid-19 struck, which meant she couldn’t travel for tournaments. Not used to staying at home, she went into depression and says it was only because of her undergrad diploma in psychology that she managed to come out of it.
“The biggest step I made was seeking help. It was through countless therapy sessions and reaching out to people that I managed to get out of it because it can really drag you into a pit,” she said.
Since the lockdown, Lily has managed to really up her performance, reaching a career-best rank of 23 in January. Currently ranked only a few places up at 27, she’s gearing up for the Olympics, which will be her third Games (she played at the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021).
Asked what made her consider coming to play in the UTT, she said the idea of playing in a team is what convinced her. As the captain of UMumba, she says her job of mentoring the younger players and just being with a team is unique for her as the sport in the US doesn’t have a proper structure.
“We never really train as a team. It’s just players who train at their respective academies that come together for events or trials. Speaking to Indian players, I’ve got to know that India has a fabulous structure and it would be great if we have something of that sort back in the US,” she said.
Lily also wants to continue her studies and become a sports psychologist after her retirement from the sport. “Having had the ups and downs in my career, I’m sure I can help out sportspersons going through the same. For now, though, I’m just trying to play my best table tennis,” she says.