Commonwealth Games: Leaner and meaner, Zeng primed to battle Feng for gold - and mantle of Singapore No. 1

Feng Tianwei (left) and Zeng Jian will meet in today's singles final. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

BIRMINGHAM - Unlike some of her China-born predecessors, Zeng Jian's table tennis career path in Singapore has been a lot more modest.

Born in Hunan and developed in Beijing, she arrived in Singapore only as a sparring partner in 2014, but did well enough to be recruited under the nation's Foreign Talent Sports Scheme and received citizenship in 2019.

Her love for sport was obvious early on. She started playing table tennis from age six and also indulged in football and basketball. An only child, her parents respected her desire to pursue sport at a professional level, even if it meant her moving to another country.

Last year, she went to the Tokyo Olympics, but as a reserve. Her major Games debut at this year's SEA Games was a baptism of fire as she lost three finals. At each juncture though, she did not throw in the towel, and continued working hard.

The reward for her determination: She has been on fire at the Commonwealth Games, having bagged a women's team gold and is assured of at least a silver in the women's singles. She and Clarence Chew will also play Australia's Nicholas Lum and Jee Min-hyung for the mixed doubles bronze on Sunday while she and Feng Tianwei will meet Wales' Charlotte Carey and Anna Hursey in the women's doubles.

That persistence was on full display on Saturday (Aug 6), when she trailed Australia's Liu Yangzi by two games in their women's singles semi-final before fighting back for a 4-2 (7-11, 9-11, 12-10, 11-4, 11-6, 11-9) win to leave her 72nd-ranked opponent in tears.

"It was too tense and exciting," said the 25-year-old, who admires Chinese two-time Olympic champion Ma Long for his consistently high performance levels and passion for table tennis.

"I didn't have time to think about much other than to take it point by point. I'm surprised I have been playing so well."

The world No. 60 should not have been surprised after putting in the hard yards. National women's coach Jing Junhong shared how Zeng's training load increased by 30 per cent - which translates to extending her daily practice sessions from five to six hours - after the SEA Games disappointment, which led to the player shedding 3kg.

Jing, who was sweating after the intense match which turned after a timeout called when Zeng was 4-3 down in the third game, said: "Being leaner means she is more nimble around the table, and it was also about improving the quality and consistency of her shots. That she was able to handle these demands speaks volumes about her stress management abilities.

"Her opponent today played very well to mask her forehand weaknesses but Zeng Jian did very well with her back against the wall to step up and apply more pressure within the first three strokes."

Zeng will battle Feng for the women's singles gold on Sunday after the world No. 16 also pulled through an epic semi-final against India's 76th-ranked Sreeja Akula on the adjacent Show Court 1 at the National Exhibition Centre.

Feng was up three games to two but found herself 4-1 and 8-7 down in the decider before eking out a 4-3 (11-6, 8-11, 6-11, 11-9, 11-8, 8-11, 12-10) victory to set up an intriguing final with her teammate.

The gold will be decided between two attacking players, who are equally formidable with forehand and backhand and also familiar with each other. In their only previous meeting, Feng won 4-3 at the 2017 China Open.

The final could also mark the passing on of the mantle of Singapore's No. 1 woman player.

The moment is not lost on the 35-year-old Feng, who said: "Zeng Jian is in the prime of her career, and her form here has been great. We will give our all in the final, but I'm very happy to help Singapore secure a 1-2 finish, which to me is mission accomplished."

Assessing her semi-final, she admitted that the match against a player ranked 60 places below her had been "very tough". "My opponent played well and made me commit many unforced errors," she said. "I was frazzled but the key was, I didn't give up. She had the upper hand in a match that went the distance, but I had the experience and determination to overcome the difficult situation."

In the other matches, Izaac Quek lost 4-0 to India's Sharath Kamal Achanta in the men's singles quarter-finals. Ethan Poh and Chew fell 3-1 to England's Paul Drinkhall and Liam Pitchford in the men's doubles and will challenge Australia's Finn Luu and Lum for the bronze on Sunday. Wong Xin Ru and Zhou Jingyi  will meet Australia's Lay Jian Fang and Jee in the women's doubles semi-finals, after they beat India's Reeth Tennison and Akula 3-1.

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