Commonwealth Games: Jemimah Nakawala is 12 and Uganda's top table tennis player

Uganda's Jemimah Nakawala is the youngest player in the field at just 12 years old. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

BIRMINGHAM - As the other players were grunting and celebrating every hard-earned point during the Commonwealth Games table tennis women's team event, Uganda's Jemimah Nakawala cut a more passive figure at the National Exhibition Centre.

Her passive demeanour is not the only reason she stands out, as she is also the youngest player in the field at just 12, which is almost one-third the age of Singapore's 35-year-old Feng Tianwei.

Painfully shy and softspoken when The Straits Times tried to know more about her, Jemimah gave predominantly short answers.

Where does she study? Nakasero Primary School.

What grade? Primary Seven.

Favourite subject? English, and her worst is mathematics.

What country's pin has she collected at these Games? India.

But once the conversation moved to table tennis, Jemimah's face lit up and the words flowed more freely.

"I started playing at the end of 2017. I saw people playing and enjoying table tennis at school, so I asked 'When can I start?' and joined the table tennis team," she said.

"I find playing table tennis very enjoyable and I like to win and get medals."

Those prizes are not in short supply, as Jemimah won the Under-13 and Under-19 categories at this year's Jinja 2022 Table Tennis Championships.

She credited Uganda table tennis trailblazer Mary Musoke, who competed at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics, as someone who "made me love the sport and encouraged me to play and face opponents older than me".

And she also looks up to China's men's world No. 1 Fan Zhendong, whom she likes for his "strong style of play".

While she is Uganda's top-ranked player at world No. 341 and dreams of winning a first Commonwealth Games medal in the sport for her country, it is unlikely to come here in Birmingham even if they did achieve a milestone.

The African nation's 53 medals in 15 editions have predominantly come from athletics and boxing and they have never won a match in the women's team event, a run that ended on Saturday (July 30) with a 3-0 Group 4 win over Vanuatu.

Jemimah first teamed up with 14-year-old Judith Nangonzi to beat Roanna Abel and Tracey Mawa 3-0 (11-7, 11-4, 11-5) before returning to beat Mawa 3-0 (11-2, 11-7, 11-5) with some fluid forehands.

This comes after they were swept 3-0 by Canada and Wales on Friday, and even though Uganda did not qualify for the quarter-finals, Jemimah was beaming and looking forward to the women's doubles event that starts on Aug 4, and said: "I am so happy."

Determined to learn from this experience, she added: "My strength is my forehand but I need to improve more on backhand and hard balls. I will try to be better by training two hours every day."

Jemimah and Judith Nangonzi, 14, lost 3-0 (11-6, 11-6, 11-8) to Canada's Zhang Mo and Katherine Morin before Jemimah was beaten 3-0 (11-4, 11-8, 11-6) by the latter in the singles match.

She and Judith then lost 3-0 (11-5, 11-5, 11-9) to Wales' Lara Whitton and Anna Hursey, who herself was 11 when she made her Games debut at Gold Coast 2018.

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