SEA Games 2017

SEA Games: Women deliver but men's table tennis team fall to Vietnam

A crestfallen Pang Xue Jie walking away as the Vietnamese men rejoice in their 3-1 upset win over Singapore in the team final.
A crestfallen Pang Xue Jie walking away as the Vietnamese men rejoice in their 3-1 upset win over Singapore in the team final.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Feng & Co coast against Thailand; Gao and less experienced team-mates pay the price

Even before gold-medal point beckoned yesterday, Vietnam's team of paddlers were already on their feet, celebrating each point Nguyen Anh Tu won as he duelled with Pang Xue Jie.

They were inching closer to a rare title at the SEA Games, they knew it, and Tu certainly played like a man bent on making it happen.

Vietnam's 3-1 upset over Singapore yesterday in the men's team final broke the Republic's dominance in the event, ending a streak that began in 2003. The only exception was in 2011, when the team event was not contested.

The women's team, however, ensured the tradition would continue when Feng Tianwei and Co beat Thailand 3-0 to retain gold.

When Gao Ning - the top-ranked South-east Asian at No. 46 - overcame an early hiccup to sweep aside Dinh Quanh Linh (No. 291) in the opener 10-12, 11-0, 11-9, 11-2, it seemed it would be business as usual for Singapore.

But Vietnam recovered strongly from that setback to win comfortably. That the 2015 silver medallists could take gold even without fielding their top paddler - No. 230 Tran Tuan Quynh was absent - was notable.

NO EXCUSES

The atmosphere is different from other tournaments, especially when you're backed up against the wall.

PANG XUE JIE, on the valuable experience garnered from the pressure of the Games.

The surprise, however, was that a side that did not make the podium in the men's doubles managed to beat the champions of that event.

Doan Ba Tuan Anh, who is unranked, partnered Linh in a come-from-behind win to beat Gao and Pang 11-8, 4-11, 12-14, 11-8, 11-9 to put their team ahead.

But the hero of the Vietnamese team was no doubt world No. 427 Tu, who posted two precious points for his side in the singles ties.

He beat Clarence Chew (No. 199) 11-4, 6-11, 11-9, 12-10 in the second tie of the night.

Tu then sealed victory with a convincing 13-11, 11-9, 11-3 whitewash of Pang (No. 275). He did not win a medal in the singles event - nor did any other paddler on the Vietnam team.

Gao, by far the most experienced player on the Singapore side, said their opponents may have smelled blood after seeing the younger and more inexperienced squad that was representing the Republic.

The team are without veterans such as Yang Zi and Rio Olympian Chen Feng, both of whom have retired. Li Hu was sacked for disciplinary reasons.

Said Gao, 34: "It probably gave our opponents the confidence to be more aggressive. The local-born and younger paddlers also lack some experience when the scoreline is very close. It's quite a pity, but we still fought very hard out there."

Pang rued the doubles loss the most, but said this was valuable exposure to learn from. "The atmosphere is different from other tournaments, especially when you're backed up against the wall," said the 24-year-old.

At the end of a SEA Games campaign where she successfully wrested back the singles title, while taking gold in her other two events (doubles, team), world No. 6 Feng can now celebrate her 31st birthday on Thursday in style.

She said: "It's been a long week of tough battles, but we've finally completed our mission today. Everyone - team-mates, coaches, support staff - has worked really hard.

"My younger team-mates have improved a lot. There are many big events coming up next year but we'll meet each challenge with confidence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Women deliver but men fall to Vietnam'. Print Edition | Subscribe