Teamwork on Liu's radar

Liu Jiayi was praised by his former charges Matthew Syed and Darius Knight for his compassion, social skills and dedication to the job.
Liu Jiayi was praised by his former charges Matthew Syed and Darius Knight for his compassion, social skills and dedication to the job.PHOTO: SINGAPORE TABLE TENNIS ASSOCIATION

New women's table tennis coach admits he feels the pressure but says best way to cope is to work together for a common goal

At first glance, Liu Jiayi's appointment as head coach of the national women's table tennis team by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) might seem like a stop-gap measure. But paddlers mentored by him swear by his knowledge and people skills, which have brought the best out of them.

On Thursday, the Fujian native was thrust into the hot seat less than two weeks after a bust-up between former head coach Jing Junhong and paddler Yu Mengyu.

As he prepares to lead Singapore's most successful Olympic sport into next August's Games in Rio de Janeiro, Liu acknowledged the enormity of his challenge.

He told The Straits Times yesterday: "It is a heavy responsibility to lead the women's team. Nevertheless, it is also an honourable task.

"I definitely feel the pressure but working together for a common goal is the surest way to conquer the challenge."

Yet, amid a time of strained relations and wavering faith in the coaching staff, Liu is tasked with coaxing the best out of a team who are believed to have given feedback to the STTA that they want more tactical advice during matches and video analysis of their opponents.

A GOOD FIT

He is a great coach and a terrific guy. (Has) more knowledge (than) almost anyone else in world table tennis, and powerful social skills, too.''

MATTHEW SYED , Commonwealth champion in 2000, on his former mentor Liu Jiayi. The Briton is now a journalist with British newspaper The Times

Britain's Matthew Syed, whom Liu guided to the singles and doubles titles at the 2000 Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships as coach of the England men's team, hailed his former coach.

In an e-mail interview, Syed, now a journalist with British newspaper The Times, said: "He is a great coach and a terrific guy. (Has) more knowledge (than) almost anyone else in world table tennis, and powerful social skills, too."

That was backed up by another player, Darius Knight, who revealed in a 2008 interview with the Guardian that when he ran into financial difficulties, Liu had given him money.

He also spoke about how he discovered Liu's dedication during his first visit to the coach's home. He said: "I was so shocked, he's got pictures of us there. He wants the best for us. This is not just his job, it's his life. He's got a granddaughter, a wife, but he always puts us first before them."

For Liu, who led the Fujian Sports School men's team to the China National Championships in 1981 and 1983, his latest assignment will be a big test of his coaching credentials.

For a start, he needs to address Singapore's top paddler and Olympic bronze medallist Feng Tianwei's current slide. Ranked fourth in the world in June, she has slipped three places since and suffered early exits at several tournaments.

The 29-year-old was also on the receiving end of an embarrassing group stage loss to Thailand's Suthasini Sawettabut at the SEA Games on home soil.

She was also eliminated in the Women's World Cup round of 16 by by Germany's Petrissa Solja, who was ranked 20 places below Feng at the time of their match.

Also in a rut is team-mate Yu Mengyu. The 26-year-old broke into the world's top 10 last July but is now ranked 24th.

Youngsters Zhou Yihan, 21, and Lin Ye, 19, have also not made significant breakthroughs and are ranked 45th and 54th respectively.

The players have cited problems coping with a different ball, which was introduced in July last year. The ball, larger and made of plastic instead of celluloid, is meant to slow down play and prolong rallies.

Said Lin: "The most important thing to work on ahead of Rio is (coping with) the implementation of the new ball and defensive players."

Asked about his immediate focus, Liu, who is in his mid-60s, said: "My main focus is on raising the level of play, performance and world ranking among our women players. We also need to manage Yu and Feng's injuries."

For now, Liu already has a head start. ST understands the Singapore players see him as a responsible and serious coach, although he had previously been mentoring mostly youth players here.

His first assignment as head coach is next week's Swedish Open. A good showing in Stockholm will justify his reputation as a man who brings the best out of his players with his human touch.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'Teamwork on Liu's radar'. Print Edition | Subscribe