Bay Area brother-sister table-tennis prodigies aiming for Olympic spots
Sixteen-year-old Prachi Jha heard nearly 300 spectators cheering for her 13-year-old brother, Kanak, in the men’s semifinal match of the 2013 U.S. Nationals table tennis tournament in Las Vegas. She repeatedly interrupted her warm-up routine in preparation for her women’s singles final to check the scoreboard.
“He inspires me a lot. He’s a fighter,” Prachi said. “He’s one of the most clutch players I ever met.”
But the frail, five-foot-four boy lost the decisive seventh game against Timothy Wang, a 22-year-old U.S. Olympian. Both Prachi (PRA-CHI) and Kanak (KAH-NAHK), who live in Milpitas, hope to earn spots on the U.S. team in the upcoming 2016 Summer Games. On this day, however, Kanak exited the Las Vegas Convention Center doubly disappointed, not only by his defeat, but after hearing the news that Prachi had lost her final, too.
“I always cheer for her when she’s playing,” Kanak said. “I want her to do well because I know she works so hard.”
Both have devoted the past eight years to table tennis. Year-round, the siblings train with two private coaches five to six times each week for about two hours every weekday and seven hours on weekends, at either the Indian Community Center near the family’s home or the TopSpin Club in Santa Clara. Kanak, an eighth grader, is the eighth-best under-15 player in the world and aims to play professionally. Prachi, an eleventh grader at Milpitas High School with straight-As, is a two-time U.S. Women’s National Team member.
“If they keep up their practice and continue to progress, making the Olympics, that should be realistic,” said Stefan Feth, a former German Men’s National Team member who serves as the Jhas’ coach.
Their father, Arun Jha, and mother, Karuna Jain, have similar Olympic hopes for their children. Though neither parent was exceptionally talented in table tennis, they don’t yearn for their children to accomplish what they never did.
“You put in the most effort in practice and training, and you let the chips fall where they might when they are playing,” Arun said. “If they lose, it’s not a big deal for me. I just try to motivate them and support them as much as I can.”
As parents, they had encouraged Prachi to rally with them at the ICC when she was eight years old, and five year-old Kanak watched and copied his big sister. Early on, local coaches believed the sibling tandem could shift from recreational to competitive play after noticing Prachi’s exceptional hand-eye coordination and the quickness that Kanak exhibited on the soccer field.
However, Feth didn’t consider their physical traits as the only signs of potential success.
“The biggest thing about them is that they have a big passion for the sport,” Feth said. “You can rarely stop them from playing. That’s a very good base for a player. It’s something they’ve always had.”
Prachi and Kanak demonstrate their passion for table tennis in different ways.
Before school, Kanak wakes up early to watch Internet streams of professional international table tennis competitions. He knows the dates and locations of upcoming tournaments and memorizes nearly every player’s match record and world ranking. Even when he travels to train or compete, he avoids all distractions.
“He doesn’t care to go sightseeing. He’s not into gadgets,” said his father. “He is solely focused on table tennis.”
Prachi, on the other hand, invites an occasional diversion from her tight schedule. Unlike her brother — whom his parents have occasionally home-schooled to accommodate his table tennis training and tournament schedules in Europe and Asia — Prachi prioritizes academics over a professional table tennis career. Her normal day consists of “school, ping pong, homework, and sleep,” and she said she struggles to make time for her friends.
Her passion for table tennis, however, keeps her motivated.
“I really enjoy table tennis. Even when I lose, I really want to get back and play some more,” Prachi said.
While they have never competed against each other in tournaments, Prachi and Kanak often exchange heated topspin rallies during practice points at the end of their group training sessions. They enjoy playing against each other, smiling and laughing after particularly entertaining points. But when they were younger, the two were much more competitive with each other.
“There was a sibling rivalry in the beginning. One would say, ‘Hey, you’re training three hours. Why do I only get two? Why do you get to train with Stefan, and not me?’” Arun said.
Now, their relationship has matured from being rivals to becoming more respectful.
“I’ve learned a lot from Prachi,” Kanak said. “She always works hard and that really gets me motivated to work hard also. And she always is very focused. She has school and table tennis, and right now it’s hard for her but she’s balancing it well. That’s really amazing.”
Prachi equally lauds her brother. “He’s naturally very athletic. I’m not even close to that,” Prachi said. “He’s amazing.”
As admiring as they are of each other, the siblings refrain from mentioning their own accomplishments. Kanak appeared uncomfortable, even sheepish, when asked to talk about his proudest achievement. The two are naturally humble, and their coaches do what they can to keep it that way.
“We try a day-by-day approach,” said Nan Li, Prachi and Kanak’s former coach, and a former U.S. Women’s National Team member. “We don’t want to pump the kids up so much because from their success there comes a lot of pressure. We try to keep our kids humble because it can end anytime or hopefully it keeps going.”
In some ways, the siblings face different kinds of pressure. The older sister said she hopes to score high on her SATs and maintain a strong grade point average to attend a good college, while playing table tennis at a high level. The younger brother said he wants to steadily improve in order to become a top-100 player in the world.
At the very least, they can be certain that they will have each other’s support along the way.
Editor’s Note: Writer Preston Chin was a member of the 2009 U.S. Junior Boys National Table Tennis team, just like Kanak Jha is now. Chin has not competed against the Jha family but has played practice matches with the Jha siblings.
Video feature produced by Jaye Buchbinder, Thomas Johnson and Preston Chin.