Commonwealth Games: Feng Tianwei eyes redemption for S'pore in table tennis team event

Feng Tianwei is one of 13 nominees for the greatest Commonwealth Games athlete of all time. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

BIRMINGHAM - Feng Tianwei arrives for her fourth Commonwealth Games fully aware how times have changed. She is 35, outside the world's top-10 and for the first time, is part of a Singapore women's team without a gold medal to defend.

The Republic's perfect streak - winning the women's team event in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 - ended four years ago in Australia, a shock 3-1 defeat by India. Feng's opening loss to Manika Batra set the tone for that final on the Gold Coast.

World No. 16 Feng, who has won six gold, three silver and one bronze medals since 2010 and is one of 13 nominees for the greatest Commonwealth Games athlete of all time, said: "Time flies. Not only have the balls and rules changed, I also no longer enjoy the kind of superiority I used to have 10 years ago."

The road to redemption for her and the women's team begins on Friday (July 28) with the preliminary rounds at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre. Singapore are the top seeds and drawn alongside England, Nigeria, St Vincent and the Grenadines in Group 1.

After the draw on Wednesday, team manager Eddy Tay told The Straits Times that while the Republic will be favourites to go through as group winners, they have to be ready for things to get tricky against the hosts.

He said: "England will definitely have strong backing from the home support. They also have Ho Tin-Tin, who has a unique playing style as a penholder with pimpled forehand, so we cannot afford to be complacent."

Preparations were made for this, Tay added. During the squad's July 5-25 training stint in Linz, Austria, they engaged four right-handed shake-hand grip Frenchmen, a left-handed Frenchwoman, and two Japanese women's players who are long-pimple experts as sparring partners.

Previously, they also trained with Canada's Zhang Mo, who plays a similar game to Ho's.

If Singapore progress as expected, tougher opponents await in the form of India, as well as the relatively unknown threat of Australia, who have two new naturalised players in China-born Liu Yangzi and South Korea-born Jee Min-hyung.

World No. 60 Zeng Jian, who is making her Commonwealth Games debut, has had such a hectic two-month preparation since the SEA Games, where she claimed three silvers and a bronze medal, in May that she lost 3kg.

Entered in all four events, the 25-year-old said: "I feel the team event is the one that best showcases our strength as a team.

"In situations where I don't have a clear advantage, anything can happen if I don't do well in any component, be it stress or strategy management. So, I feel the solution is to be better at my game, and the rest will fall in place."

Feng is also looking forward to competing alongside new teammates like Zhou Jingyi, 17, and Wong Xin Ru, 20. She said: "By sharing some of my experiences, I hope our younger players can learn something... Traditionally, we are powerhouses, and as the old generation gradually retires, I hope there will be a new generation who can carry on our dominance."

In the men's team event, Singapore are in Group 3 alongside third seeds India, Barbados and Northern Ireland.

Following the retirement of China-born Gao Ning and Zhan Jian in recent years, Tay acknowledged they face a tough challenge to top the group and avoid other big guns like England and Nigeria in the quarter-finals.

He said: "India are very well-balanced and experienced with senior players like Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Sharath Achanta.

"But Koen (Pang) has beaten Achanta before in 2019, and we have a good doubles pair in Clarence Chew and Ethan Poh. We are the underdogs, but it is not a foregone conclusion."

Chew, raring to go in four events after playing a bit-part role in the 2014 gold-winning team and missing the 2018 edition due to national service, added: "Based on quality and ranking, India, England and Nigeria are ahead of us, hence we are the hunters now and we want to make them feel the pressure."

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