Olympics: Soul-searching underway for Singapore table tennis after Rio losses

Team captain Feng Tianwei netting a forehand during her 9-11, 4-11, 6-11 loss to Japan's 15-year-old Mima Ito during the women's team bronze medal play-off on Tuesday.
Team captain Feng Tianwei netting a forehand during her 9-11, 4-11, 6-11 loss to Japan's 15-year-old Mima Ito during the women's team bronze medal play-off on Tuesday.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

For paddlers and administrators alike, it's time to take stock before Tokyo 2020

Those used to the success of the Singapore women's table tennis team would have found it unthinkable, while knowledgeable supporters would have been hoping against it.

But the fact remains that for the first time in three Olympics, the paddlers are returning without any precious metal, neither clinching a medal in the singles nor the team event, as they had managed with two bronzes four years ago in London.

Away from the public eye, it is a result that left all three players - Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu and Zhou Yihan - in tears. But Singapore Table Tennis Association president Ellen Lee sees it as a chance to take stock.

Rather than call it the end of an era, she views the result - disappointing as it may be - as an opportunity to make another charge at the next Games on fresh footing, this time with less expectation.

Said Lee, who was in Rio to support the paddlers: "This means that we cannot be too presumptuous that we will always win a medal.

"It may be a good thing that we didn't win (a medal) this time, because then we will really have to review (what happened) and look at what we want to do for 2020, and for the sport of table tennis as a whole."

First, the "review".

The women's team have endured a turbulent past year, in which a fallout with former coach Jing Junhong led to a change of coach the paddlers requested only six months before the Olympics.

  • FENG TIANWEI'S JAPANESE COLLAPSE

  • 0 of 10

    Feng Tianwei failed to take a game against:
    • 0-4 to Ai Fukuhara in singles quarter-finals
    • 0-3 to Kasumi Ishikawa in team bronze tie
    • 0-3 to Mima Ito in team bronze tie

    Her take
    The Japanese team studies me in great detail, perhaps even more than the Chinese team. In comparison, we were probably not as ready for them as they were for us.

  • FENG'S FAILURE TO COPE

    Pressure

    Feng says she may have underperformed due to:
    • Desire over technique
    • Failure to cope with expectations
    • Role as leader of a young and inexperienced team

    Her take
    The role that I've had to play in competition, the expectation on me to win, is overwhelming. I should reflect after these Games and see how I can perform even when there is so much pressure on me. But I've given it my all.

While the Republic had previously relied on Feng to carry the team, the two points she dropped against Japan on Tuesday meant the difference between a bronze or nothing at all.

Hours after the result, she told The Straits Times she was still struggling to come to terms with the loss.

She said: "The Japanese team studies me in great detail, perhaps even more than the Chinese team. In comparison, we were probably not as ready for them as they were for us."

She talked about how the deep desire to win a medal at a third straight Games could have come in the way of sound technique, leading to anxiety and mistakes.

She admits the weight of a country's expectations and the responsibility of leading her younger and less experienced team-mates may also finally have affected her.

"The role that I've had to play in competition, the expectation on me to win, is overwhelming," she said.

"I should reflect after these Games and see how I can perform even when there is so much pressure on me. But I've given it my all."

Rio is unlikely to be Feng's curtain call. Even before these Games began, the 29-year-old had made it clear that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics - and another medal then - are well within her sights.

The make-up of the core of the women's team will probably be largely unchanged. There could even be as many as five gunning for the three berths in the team event. All five are originally from China.

Apart from the three who made the trip to Rio, there is Lin Ye, currently ranked No. 62. There is also 20-year-old Zeng Jian, who is in fact the third-highest ranked player (No. 27) representing Singapore on the professional circuit.

The STTA is hoping to apply for Singapore citizenship for her, indicative of the way it is likely to go in the way forward to Tokyo.

Despite STTA president Lee's desire to groom and field local-born players for the big stage, her goal is probably not as realistic as it is noble if the Republic intends to be a serious contender.

Given the need for exposure on the professional circuit, experience and the battle for ranking points, there is likely insufficient time and quality to change tack by 2020.

Said Lee: "We can always hope for that to happen and try to work towards that happening. Hopefully our local-born paddlers can see for themselves the urgency of the task that we face.

"It takes time to groom Singaporeans to be table tennis champions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Soul-searching under way'. Print Edition | Subscribe