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Ping-Pong?   Child's Game. Table Tennis? His Ticket to Rio

HALMSTAD, Sweden -- Kanak Jha is not certain when he left the change. He believes it was possibly if he was 9 or 10. He doesn't remember the precise second, but he knows it was significant the same.

"I think it was kind of all of a sudden," he explained recently. " I only started doing this. I said, 'table tennis' rather than 'Ping-Pong.

"'He paused. " I guess since that's exactly what I was playing.

"The distinction may appear to be just semantics. However, the difference between Ping-Pong (a game mostly associated with basements, fraternity houses and rec centers) and table tennis (a game with more than 200 national associations globally) is substantial. If it weren't, Jha wouldn't have moved here, about 5,500 miles away from his Northern California home, to train five or six hours a day with a few of the best coaches in the world in preparation for the Rio Olympics.

In 16, Jha is the first American athlete created in the 2000s to be eligible for the Olympics, and his hope -- for now at least -- is that his play ping pong paddles increases the recognition of a sport that to many Americans is best called a good diversion on a rainy day at summer camp.

Like most gamers, Jha is interested with spin. Topspin, sidespin, backspin. That is what separates skilled table tennis players in the just-knock-it-back audience one might experience at Susan Sarandon's Ping-Pong social team at Manhattan or, possibly, at recess. Twist is all in table tennis, whether it is controlling a point having an impossibly whipping function or looping a return from a couple feet behind the table. Spin is exactly what Jha began learning shortly after taking up the match when he was 5 (his parents frequently played together with his sister), and it is exactly what elevated him at the eighth grade, when he dominated his classmates during the Ping-Pong unit of his institution's physical education class.

Spin is why he is here. One recent afternoon, Jha arrived in the Halmstad Arena just after 8:30. Many junior players were practicing at some of the 19 tables in the area (sparring, in the vernacular), however, Jha went to the opposite end and started a series of physical training exercises designed to stretch and strengthen his thighs and then enhance his own agility and reactions. For nearly an hour, he didn't touch his encounter.

His trainer, Douglas Jakobsen, is the son of Mikael Andersson, a longtime official in world table tennis that fulfilled Jha four years ago in a youth championship in Austria. Andersson was intrigued by Jha, who'd been working with a German coach, Stefan Feth, who also works with the American national group. Andersson developed a connection with Jha and his family, and was the linchpin in persuading Jha to move to Europe.

To Andersson, Sweden, that has a powerful table tennis history that includes Jan-Ove Waldner -- seen by many as the greatest player in history was the only location where Jha could properly accelerate his development.

"I believed it might really help Kanak to maintain a situation like we have here," Andersson said. " To be able to train with and play against top players, global players, daily is something that he couldn't have in America. You will find great trainers there, but there's nothing like being in a bunch. You require competition.

"Jha first visited Halmstad when he was 13. He remembers being awed by the professionalism of this club, among the very highly regarded in Europe. There was the training, sure, headed by the former world champion Ulf Carlsson, along with the caliber of players was large, too. But the commitment to covering all facets of the game was what stood out most. Jha had not done much physical instruction from the table. In Halmstad, such extra work is viewed as crucial.

Jha began visiting the club several times a year and came last fall to live here full time, and to play the club in its various leagues and tournaments. Now, he begins most days with Jakobsen, darting over and about ropes and discs on the floor, and springing to scoop up a small soccer ball which Jakobsen drops at random in front of him.

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All these drills help Jha respond faster through games and, despite his small and spindly physique, give him a much more effective foundation from which to grow up and into his shots. His core is the thing that allows him to whip his entire body and twist the ball, rifling forehands that arc so sharply they resemble a diving paper plane or clipping backhands so deeply they look to have brakes.

"You Want to have a lot of explosiveness, to be able to snap the buttocks," Jha said. " People wouldn't think it, but it's sort of like the start to a 100-meter dashboard. You need to be able to fire"If this seems hard to envision for a game contested over a surface smaller than several dining area tables, 1 need only watch Jha work. After completing with Jakobsen, he combined the first-team training session, then bouncing side to side and forward and back while sparring with another participant, then hammering shots, over and above, during a high-intensity session known as multiball by which a trainer quickly patters balls into a participant from a basket.

During fractures, Jha occasionally chatted with different players -- most of whom were much older -- but largely concentrated on his strategy, pantomiming various strokes or moving into a side table to hit serves.

"Kanak is young, but he is very concentrated," said Mattias Karlsson, a leading player for Halmstad. " Sometimes we forget how young he is. He's still learning.

"Jha readily acknowledges that he is, in many ways, still a child. He shares a small apartment along with his sister, Prachi, who is also an accomplished player and competed with all the Halmstad women's team (she will go back to the United States later this year to start college). The apartment, which is a brief walk from the stadium, has a tiny kitchen, double beds, a secondhand sofa and a little bathroom with a door handle which can be held up with tape. Jha sits on a low stool if he can his online high school work and spends a lot of his spare time watching table tennis online or surfing Netflix.

He misses his loved ones, he explained, but he also understands that coaching in Sweden is an irreplaceable experience. This season, Jha played matches largely for Halmstad's second group; next year, he hopes to make more appearances for the first team and continue to develop his global career. On July 8, he conquered his Olympic teammate Yijun Feng, 10-12, 6-11, 12-10, 5-11, 14-12, 11-7, 11-9, to win the men's singles title in the United States nationals. In doing so, Jha became the youngest men's national winner because 2009.

Qualifying for the Olympics has been a similarly striking experience. Playing in Canada, against a Canadian, he rallied from 5-0 down in the last set to win, 11-5, and maintain his berth. However, Jha has measured expectations for Rio: He's rated 272nd in the Earth, and he stated he would consider his performance a victory if he won three matches in the preliminary rounds to make it to the main draw of the individual tournament. (He will even compete with the United States from the group competition.) This type of result could be an impressive accomplishment. However, for the moment, Jha is most fixated on continuing to improve his game and demonstrate the consistency the best players -- some of whom are training together with him -- create against him. He takes affirmations wherever he can locate them.

In a practice match here this spring, Jha was backed up through a stage, chopping back a set of smashes from his opponent. Finally, the opponent hit a shorter shot which angled well off the side of the table and Jha deftly stepped in, swinging his racket on the backhand and sending an off-balance return loaded with twist that the ball flexed around the internet -- not over it -- such as a crescent until it skimmed off the border of the table on the competitor's side.

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Jha threw his hands up in celebration, proud of his moment of authentic spinning mastery. His competitor gave a nod of acceptance. Jha looked about, but there was little recognition from anyone else. The coaches continued prowling. Another players kept thumping their shots, and the click-clack sound of rallies never stopped.

Jha stared for a moment, his torso. Then he wiped his brow, walked up to the table and then went back to work.