- Want a challenge. Not only do tough competitors make you stronger, but if you’re up against an undertrained, lightly regarded opponent, you gain nothing and could lose everything. Xiao, ranked sixth in the United States, started playing at age 6 and spent three of the past four summers in China, training with the best players in the world.
- Seek out the most accomplished teachers. Xiao’s coach, Cheng Yinghua, may be the greatest player never to have won a world championship. He molds Xiao in his own image: flawless backhands, utter calm, similar playing styles. “I’ve learned from him,” says Xiao. “For someone who didn’t receive a lot of education, he is very wise.”
- Use psychology to win, whether impressive silence or in-your-face bluster. Whatever works. While his opponent in a recent match acted in a blustery manner (“How do you like that?”), Xiao ended up demolishing him with quiet competence and good sportsmanship.
- Advance strategically. “Most kids just hit the ball back,” says coach Cheng. “But Han would hit to the player’s backhand, then to player’s forehand—find out what one is weak —then attack.”
- Carry on through successors. Cheng, a former Chinese national player, beat the best players in the world, but he never played in enough major tournaments to win a high ranking. Now Cheng’s reward comes in seeing his students succeed. A victory for them is a victory for him.
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