Table tennis: End of era for Singapore women paddlers

A shattered Yu Mengyu, who blamed herself for letting the team down, being consoled by an official (above) after her rubber-game loss to North Korea's Kim Song I (below) in the quarter-finals yesterday afternoon.
A shattered Yu Mengyu, who blamed herself for letting the team down, being consoled by an official (above) after her rubber-game loss to North Korea’s Kim Song I in the quarter-finals yesterday afternoon. PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO
A shattered Yu Mengyu, who blamed herself for letting the team down, being consoled by an official (above) after her rubber-game loss to North Korea's Kim Song I (below) in the quarter-finals yesterday afternoon.
A shattered Yu Mengyu, who blamed herself for letting the team down, being consoled by an official after her rubber-game loss to North Korea's Kim Song I (below) in the quarter-finals yesterday afternoon.PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Singapore's streak of world championship women's medals ends after loss to N. Korea

In a way, one could say the writing was on the wall for the Singapore women's team, as their run of a medal at every World Team Table Tennis Championships since 2008 ended yesterday.

The lead-up had been far from ideal, with world No. 8 Feng Tianwei and No. 34 Yu Mengyu slumping to their lowest rankings in years. Then there were coaching disruptions. Jing Junhong was replaced by Liu Jiayi in November. But last month, Liu made way for Chen Zhibin.

So when Singapore, the tournament's fifth seeds and former champions, lost 2-3 to ninth seeds North Korea yesterday in the quarter-finals, the defeat was not greeted with the same shock that the result suggested.

On the back of the minds of many was the inevitable question: Are the glory days of Singapore table tennis, world champions in 2010, Olympic silver medallists in 2008, over?

Yu's tears post-tie - she lost both her matches against North Korea, including the crucial rubber game against Kim Song I - suggest that perhaps the loss was an unexpected one.

ADJUSTMENT ISSUE

I just did not adapt to her late change in strategy. I feel a bit guilty to not win at least one match, especially as Tianwei played through injury.

YU MENGYU, on losing the final tie against North Korea.

After all, the last time the sides met in this tournament in 2012, Singapore ran out 3-1 winners.

Yet, despite Feng's gallant fightback in the first match against Kim - the Asian Cup champion saved six match points to prevail - it just did not happen yesterday.

Yu, who was expected to win at least one match against two lower-ranked opponents, admitted that she had let the team down.

The 26-year-old, who with Feng has been part of every team since 2008, said: "It's not the pressure. I just did not adapt to her late change in strategy. I feel a bit guilty to not win at least one match, especially as Tianwei played through injury."

But while Yu was in tears, Feng's faint smile as she met the press suggests there are reasons to be upbeat ahead of next month's Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament.

Chen certainly feels so. A former world No. 5 player, the coach said: "This experience will make us stronger. Tianwei's fighting spirit in many matches will definitely boost her morale. I only took over last month, the synergy between players and coaches will improve and we will definitely work hard to get good results."

Encouragingly, Feng and Yu played better than their form suggested. Feng was battling a shoulder injury which required icing in between matches, while Yu showed guts - her last match aside - to win two deciding fifth singles.

The Olympic cause will be helped by the presence of world No. 45 Zhou Yihan, 22, and world No. 56 Lin Ye, 20, who sat out this time owing to residency rules.

In Kuala Lumpur, the third singles slot was split between Singapore-born Isabelle Li, 21, Yee Herng Hwee, 18, and Zhang Wanling, 16. Li is unranked as she had been inactive for three months, while Herng Hwee and Wanling are ranked 349th and 539th respectively.

Another cause for optimism: The way Feng and Yu handled the many choppers in this tournament. Both usually find it tough against defensive players, but enjoyed some success in Kuala Lumpur. Feng beat all the choppers she faced, while Yu lost only to Kim when the North Korean switched to an offensive style.

Chen's optimism is shared by rivals. Said Kong Linghui, coach of China's women's side: "Singapore's third singles is weaker, that's why they struggled at the championships. But with Lin and Zhou they'll be much stronger in Rio. Feng Tianwei is still our strongest opponent. Don't forget she beat Liu Shiwen in the Asian Cup final last year."

Feng is choosing to focus on the positives. She said: "I'm quite satisfied, especially since the build-up was not ideal. I learnt a lot from this tournament. It shows we are heading in the right direction and we definitely can still improve."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'END OF ERA FOR PADDLERS'. Print Edition | Subscribe