SEA Games 2017, Aug 19-30: 3 days to go

Table tennis: Hungry Pang on road to be lead guy

Table tennis player Pang Xue Jie, 24, took a break from university to focus on training for the upcoming SEA Games. He will be leading a younger and less experienced team to Kuala Lumpur.
With several veterans stepping down, 24-year-old Pang Xue Jie is eager to seize the opportunity, with his ultimate goal the Olympics.
With several veterans stepping down, 24-year-old Pang Xue Jie is eager to seize the opportunity, with his ultimate goal the Olympics.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Paddler quits studies to play full-time, eager to prove largely local-born team can deliver Pressure comes in all forms for Singapore’s athletes – be it the Games debutant, the defending champion, the young star hoping to seize her chance or the veteran returning from injury. Here are the six who are ready to make their mark. Tomorrow: pole vaulter Rachel Yang

The mission to win the SEA Games table tennis gold, as well as convince selectors that talent made in Singapore is as good as those from powerhouses China, has found a willing and able talent.

Not only has Pang Xue Jie accepted the assignment to strike gold in Kuala Lumpur, but he is also keen to be a leading light for local-born paddlers, weaning the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) off its reliance on foreign-born talent.

Friendly and obliging to a fault, with an ever-ready smile on his face, the 24-year-old was happy to talk about the pressure of defending Singapore's gold medal. After all, this is a job he has been hankering for all these years.

"Yes and no," the southpaw began, when asked if being the best in South-east Asia is stressful.

"There is pressure to deliver what the veterans had delivered before me. But the younger ones are looking up to us. If we could show results, we will be setting a good example for them to follow - to show them that, if they work hard, they can represent Singapore and win medals one day."

At the KL Games, Singapore will be fielding a vastly-changed men's side from the one that dominated the biennial regional meet in 2015, sweeping the team, singles and doubles golds.

Gao Ning, the 34-year-old who will play in his final SEA Games, and Clarence Chew are the only survivors from that team. Pang had missed the 2015 Games owing to national service commitments.

  • TABLE TENNIS

  • GOLD MEDALS AT STAKE: 7

    TEAM SINGAPORE

    Men’s team: Gao Ning, Clarence Chew, Pang Xue Jie, Ethan Poh, Lucas Tan.

    Women’s team: Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu, Lin Ye, Zhou Yihan, Yee Herng Hwee.

    Singapore will be looking to make a clean sweep. At the last SEA Games, they clinched six of seven golds, surprisingly failing to win the women’s singles title as Feng Tianwei and Isabelle Li failed to advance from the group stage.

The other local-born players in this year's squad are 18-year-old rookies Ethan Poh and Lucas Tan.

Crucially, out went three China-born players who had dominated the pecking order: Chen Feng left in February to return to look after his aged parents, Li Hu was axed over disciplinary issues, and former world No. 21 Yang Zi retired in January at the age of 32.

Before he could take centre stage, however, Pang had a difficult decision to make.

In February, just a week into his undergraduate studies in a business management course at the Singapore Management University, he decided to quit school and turn professional.

He explained: "There was an opening as several veterans were stepping down. Here's my chance to be put in a lead role. I had never been given such a task but I felt that this is my time to step up and deliver.

"There will definitely be a bit of pressure but we don't feel the burden as we are a much younger team (compared to the past). We just want to go out there to give our best and win our matches.

"I have learnt how to deal with pressure during competition from the seniors - how to keep calm, play your own game and not be affected by any added pressure."

Pang had demonstrated that he can rub shoulders with the best, having shocked then-world No. 14 Koki Niwa of Japan with a 11-4, 2-11, 11-8, 2-11, 11-8 win in the first singles of Singapore's 1-3 loss to Japan at last year's World Table Tennis Championships.

And having taken a risk by dropping his books in favour of the bat, there is no better motivation for him to succeed as a player.

"I've thought long and hard about it and I have no regrets. As for my studies, I can continue my studies after my playing career," he said.

"These are my prime years as a table tennis player, and I want to give it a shot and see how far I can go."

STTA president Ellen Lee expressed her optimism that Pang, along with his team-mates, will make an impact in KL.

She said: "(The men's team) have made a lot of progress since the rejuvenation. They now know that the spotlight is on them as well.

"That was also the reason why Xue Jie had made the decision to quit his university studies - because he wants to develop himself for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"The SEA Games is good preparation for him. He knows that he needs the lead time, and he and his team-mates will be doing their best."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2017, with the headline 'Hungry Pang on road to be lead guy'. Print Edition | Subscribe