Kanak Jha
USA Table Tennis

First U.S. Olympian born in 2000s not thinking about age record

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kanak Jha is having quite a year. He spent nine months playing professional table tennis in Europe, threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game on his birthday and qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

And get this: He’s only 16.

“I’m happy that I’m the youngest, but I don’t think about it so much,” said Jha, who in April, when he was still 15, became the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history. “In the end, it’s just men.”

If he sounds mature for his age, he comes across that way. Jha’s competitive during a match, but easygoing away from the table. He recently trained at the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center in the New York area with his five Olympic teammates and signed autographs for fans.

“He has a good fighting spirit,” said U.S. Olympic coach Massimo Costantini. “Sometimes at that age, they get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match.

“You need a strong mental balance,” Costantini said. “It’s not just managing success, but failure.”

Yip, who competed for the U.S. in table tennis at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Games, is the U.S. girls national junior team coach. She hosted the current Olympic team, which wrapped up three days of practice with an exhibition and fundraiser at her club in Dunellen, New Jersey.

During the exhibition match, Jha started his serve by holding the ball and paddle a few inches from his nose, then tossing the ball 4 feet into the air before making contact. After the point, he wiped the table with his hand, a common players’ habit before serving.

Although he lost the match to an older and higher-rated Chinese player, Jha drew warm applause from the mostly Asian audience.

Gordon Kaye, CEO of the USA Table Tennis, says it’s rare to find a young player “of his caliber that is so aware and comfortable within his surroundings.”

It’s certainly not your basement pingpong, with quick best-of-7 singles matches played to 11 points. There are different styles — defensive “choppers” or offensive “loopers,” who play a more aggressive game.

The Chinese men and women are the best in the world, winning Olympic gold with regularity. Since the 1988 Olympics, China has won 47 medals, followed by South Korea (18) and Germany (5).

The U.S. has never medaled in the sport, which offers singles and team competition. Gold-medalist Jike Zhang will return to defend his title in Rio, where competition begins Aug. 6.

So why are the Chinese so good, aside from their devotion to the sport and its prominence in the culture?

“They’re very strong, especially in the first three shots of the rally — serve, receive and third-ball attack,” Jha said. “They really dominate the rally.”

Yue “Jennifer” Wu, like Yip, was born in China before becoming an American citizen. She moved from Beijing to New York eight years ago and improved her English by coaching at the club run by Wang Chen, a U.S. Olympian in the 2008 Games.

The 26-year-old gives lessons in New York at Spin, a table tennis club and restaurant co-owned by Susan Sarandon. Wu recently went home to Beijing and Japan to train and played tournaments in Croatia and Slovenia.

“Table tennis in China is like the NBA here, everybody plays,” Wu said. “My mom plays three times a week and people love to watch.”

She ate no meat for a month while in Beijing, saying her concerns about banned steroids given to cattle trump those of the Zika virus in Rio. Wise decision, because drug testers arrived at 6:40 a.m. when she returned home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Wu said it was a “big dream” to make the Olympics since she was 8 years old. She was quiet on the bus after qualifying for the Rio Olympics at the Pan Am Games last year because it’s “hard to make Olympics, you work so very hard.”

Jha, who took up the sport at 5 at a recreation center near San Jose, California, lived in Sweden with his 19-year-old sister Prachi, who played on the national team but didn’t qualify for Rio. He took online courses during his sophomore year in high school.

“There’s a consistent training system,” Constantini said of the European circuit. “A coach, trainer, physiotherapist. It’s something you can’t find in the U.S.”

Jha’s parents are from India, and he was born in the U.S. His father Arun came to America to study business and works at Oracle. His mother Karuna worked at Sun Microsystems before starting her own hypnotherapy and reiki business.

“She feels my energy,” Kanak said of the reiki treatments.

Kanak uses positive imagery and self-talk before and during matches.

“It’s kind of a ritual,” he said. “I just keep reviewing strategy and say some motivational things to myself. I talk (silently) to myself a lot. More than other athletes.”

The personal pep talks and affirmations seem to be working. Even so, his mom says she was “so nervous watching” the Olympic qualifying event in April in Markham, Ontario.

Jha says he’s looking forward to the athletes’ village and mingling with players from all over the world.

“It’s a great opportunity at this young age to see how the Olympics works,” Constantini said. “He will be ready by 2020.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

WATCH LIVE: French Open on NBC, streaming

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NBC’s coverage of the French Open begins Sunday at 12 p.m. ET, streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

WATCH LIVE: French Open, Rd. 1 — STREAM LINK

Notables in action on the first day at Roland Garros include Venus Williams, 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko and No. 2 men’s seed Alexander Zverev.

Williams, 37, is the oldest woman in the draw. She reached the fourth round the last two years, her best results in Paris since her last quarterfinal in 2006. The seven-time major champion has reached one French Open final, losing to little sister Serena Williams in 2002.

Ted Robinson handles play-by-play for NBC’s coverage, joined by analysts John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. This is NBC’s 36th straight year broadcasting the French Open.

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FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | ScoresMen’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw (PDF) 

17-year-old runs 3:52 mile at Pre Classic

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Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 17-year-old Norwegian, clocked 3:52.28 at the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday, faster than Alan Webb‘s U.S. high school record set at Pre in 2001.

“My goal was to take Alan Webb’s record,” Ingebrigtsen told media in Eugene, Ore.

It’s the second-fastest mile in history recorded by somebody younger than 18, according to the IAAF. Qatar’s Hamza Driouch ran 3:50.90 in 2012, clocked two months before two years of his results would be annulled by a doping ban.

Webb famously ran 3:53.43 as an 18-year-old at Pre in 2001, which led to him appearing on “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Ingebrigtsen, who ran 3:58 at Pre last year to become the youngest sub-4-minute miler in history, finished fourth in a field of the world’s best middle-distance runners. His two older brothers, Filip and Henrik, are also middle-distance runners (but weren’t in Saturday’s race).

Ingebrigtsen beat Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz (fifth) and Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy (sixth) in the Bowerman Mile. The race’s second-place finisher is 18 years old — Ethiopian Samuel Tefera ran 3:51.26

Webb was at Saturday’s meet, in part to award the 400th man to run a sub-4-minute mile in Pre Classic history.

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VIDEO: Kenyan star nearly falls, comes back to win Pre Classic 800m