Zhou a bright spot in semis loss

Zhou Yihan acquitted herself well against Olympic singles champion Ding Ning, despite having no prior experience receiving the world No. 2's unorthodox service. The Olympic debutante will be counted on in the Republic's hunt for a medal against Japan
Zhou Yihan acquitted herself well against Olympic singles champion Ding Ning, despite having no prior experience receiving the world No. 2's unorthodox service. The Olympic debutante will be counted on in the Republic's hunt for a medal against Japan today.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Games debutante puts in plucky showing in 3-0 defeat by superior Chinese

The Singapore women's table tennis team may have mustered a Miracle in Moscow six years ago, but a possible repeat of that feat has only been a mirage since.

Their latest Mission Impossible attempt to upstage mighty China in table tennis again proved futile.

Feng Tianwei and Co were routed 3-0 by a team who have been unparalleled at these Games, and will battle Japan for the bronze today. Singapore sensationally defeated China in the 2010 World Team Championships in Moscow to be crowned world champions, but have not succeeded since.

In their loss in Rio, the Singaporeans took just one game off the Chinese in the three matches played.

That solitary bright spark came not from Feng, the three-time Olympic medallist - but from the team's youngest and most inexperienced Zhou Yihan.

Singapore were already one match down when the 22-year-old, surprisingly called on to play the second singles, stepped in. Feng, despite never falling more than three points behind, had already been beaten 3-0 (12-10, 11-8, 11-9) by Li Xiaoxia.

It was Olympic debutante versus two-time Olympian Ding Ning, already a singles champion here in Rio; world No. 32 versus No. 2; David versus Goliath.

But the plucky Zhou was fearless in facing Ding, despite having no prior experience receiving the Chinese player's unorthodox trademark squat-style service. She lost 3-1 (7-11, 11-9, 6-11, 2-11).

By the time Zhou partnered Yu Mengyu in the crucial doubles match in the best-of-five tie, the muted atmosphere at Riocentro Pavilion 3 was telling of the inevitable result. They were beaten by Ding and Liu Shiwen 3-0 (11-4, 11-1, 11-9).

Said Zhou: "This is the first time that I've played Ding Ning and I wanted to do my best to stay in contention and force her to make mistakes. Hopefully I can do better the next time I play her."

Zhou's showing earned praise from team captain Feng.

Said Feng: "This is Yihan's first time on the Olympic stage, and she did well. It'll be a boost of confidence in our bronze medal play-off next."

That next tie will be a dogfight between two sides familiar with each other on the elite level. The Republic had suffered a 3-0 defeat by Japan in the semi-finals of the London Games four years ago to settle for bronze while Japan eventually took silver.

Japan had been expected to make the final, but were upset 3-2 by Germany in a bruising four-hour semi-final on Sunday.

Feng, in particular, will need to recover from the 4-0 thrashing Ai Fukuhara handed her in last week's singles quarter-finals, booting the Singaporean out of the event.

National women's team head coach Chen Zhibin said he picked Zhou for the second singles match in an attempt to surprise China with a player they do not have experience playing against.

He said: "At the end of the day, China is a team that's in a different league. We were decent against them.

"Everyone - whether Japan or Singapore - will be giving their all in the bronze play-off."

The team can count on Zhou for belief. She said: "We have to be united and believe that we can take down Japan. Everyone wants to finish with a medal - why can't it be us?"

BRONZE PLAY-OFF: S'PORE V JAPAN

Mediacorp okto, 10pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Zhou a bright spot in semis loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe