Table tennis: Paddlers aim for medal but hope for a pair

STTA chief Ellen Lee with Olympic players (from left) Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu, Zhou Yihan, Chen Feng and Gao Ning. Women's singles second seed Feng, who has a silver and two bronzes at the Games, is favoured to win a medal.
STTA chief Ellen Lee with Olympic players (from left) Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu, Zhou Yihan, Chen Feng and Gao Ning. Women's singles second seed Feng, who has a silver and two bronzes at the Games, is favoured to win a medal. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

STTA not lowering targets but setting more realistic expectations for relatively new team

The end goal for Singapore's Olympic table tennis players remains the same - to return with silverware. Only this time, the target is a slightly more modest one.

Recognising the fact that the squad will be made up of less experienced players - three of the five paddlers will be making their Olympic debuts - Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) president Ellen Lee has chosen to aim for one medal, while hoping for two.

"The make-up of the teams is different," she said at a media conference yesterday. "So if we can get at least one medal, that would be good. If we can retain the two bronzes (from the London Olympics), that would be very good."

It is a contrast to the London Games in 2012, when former STTA president Lee Bee Wah stuck to her two-medal target set years earlier even though the team then - veterans Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Feng Tianwei - were not in ideal form.

But Lee insisted it is not a step down in terms of expectations, just a true reflection of the vast changes the team has gone through since.

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"If she (Feng Tianwei) can win a medal in the singles, the possibility of winning another in the team event then becomes very big.

CHEN ZHIBIN, women's team head coach, who is happy that the singles events are held before the team competitions.

She said: "The only veterans in our team this time are Tianwei and Gao Ning (men's). To say that they must achieve at least two medals, or step up from the last Games, would be putting undue pressure on them.

"The Olympics in itself is a test of skills, knowledge and it's also an experience. I want them to have the experience of being through the Olympics so they know what's expected of them, and prepare themselves for the next Olympics."

Yu Mengyu and Zhou Yihan have the unenviable task of being part of the team aiming for a third straight Olympic team medal. Chen Feng is competing in the men's singles in his maiden Games.

What the women's paddlers do have going for them in Rio is a favourable seeding. Tireless travel across continents in the last few months has given Feng a late run up the world rankings to No. 4, securing an Olympic No. 2 seeding which will help her avoid an elite Chinese player at least until the semi-finals.

It is for this reason that officials feel there is greater likelihood that Feng can account for that one-medal target.

Said women's team head coach Chen Zhibin: "The draw has yet to be done, but based on Tianwei's form now, it seems we'll have a better chance to win a medal in singles.

"Still, even though her ranking is higher now, there are still other players (outside of China) that she does not favour playing against."

Feng is known to be troubled by left-handers and defensive specialists.

Added Chen: "It depends on the luck of the draw and if we can avoid a few of these players.

"Tianwei is quite strong in adapting and she will have her vast experience backing her."

With the singles taking place before the team events begin, Chen hopes that early success for Feng will lead to more triumph in the team event.

He said: "If she can win a medal in the singles, the possibility of winning another in the team event then becomes very big. Tianwei would be much more relaxed, and it would also ease a lot of pressure from the younger ones."

The paddlers will leave for the United States tomorrow, embarking on a 10-day acclimatisation training camp in New Jersey before making the trip to Rio.

Recalling her maiden Olympics in 2008, Feng said she was so nervous that her hands and feet were trembling as she took to the table.

She said: "It's so different at the Olympics - your desire to win, to come back with a medal, is very different. I believe Mengyu and Yihan will be as nervous as I first was, so I've been sharing my experiences with them so they know better what to expect.

"I want us to compete united as a team. As long as we focus on the process and play with no regrets, I believe the results should not be too bad. I choose to believe in my team-mates and our team."

The male paddlers will be represented by Gao and Chen in the singles, after failing to qualify for the team event.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Paddlers aim for medal but hope for a pair'. Print Edition | Subscribe