Commonwealth Games: Pressure on young guns to defend Singapore's status as No. 1 ping-pong nation

Singapore's paddlers for the Commonwealth Games are (back row, from left) Koen Pang, Wong Xin Ru, Clarence Chew, Ethan Poh and (front row) Zeng Jian, Izaac Quek and Zhou Jingyi. Not in picture: Feng Tianwei.
World No. 16 Feng Tianwei will return, but half of the eight-member team will be making their debut at the games. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A relatively young and inexperienced team will have their hands full trying to maintain Singapore's position as the Commonwealth Games' top table tennis nation later this month.

World No. 16 Feng Tianwei, who has three Olympic medals and will be the Birmingham Games' highest-ranked woman player, returns to the fold after missing the SEA Games in May.

But the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) also revealed that of its eight representatives, whose average age is under 23, half will be making their debut at the July 28-Aug 8 Games.

At a press conference on Friday (July 1), STTA president Ellen Lee declined to set a medal target but challenged her players to do better than four years ago, when Singapore brought back just three golds, two silvers and a bronze from the Gold Coast. That is half the gold haul they brought back from Glasgow in 2014.

While she acknowledged that table tennis has traditionally done the heavy lifting for Singapore at the Commonwealth Games - the paddlers have won 22 out of the Republic's 37 golds - she said: "We are placing greater emphasis on the development of our youth players to be future-ready.

"We hope that this will also begin the process of change that will eventually see more of our younger generation of players on the world stage."

Lee also sought to alleviate the pressure on her players by saying that other sports were also well-placed to deliver gold medals for Singapore.

She added: "All our players have been trained to give their best - the more challenging it is, the more hard work they put in. And both our coaches are Olympians, who have the experience and knowledge to know how to strengthen them."

The STTA is going through a transition, in which many of its China-born stalwarts have retired, like Gao Ning and Yu Mengyu, or are in the twilight of their careers like 35-year-old Feng.

In recent Games, it has shown it is willing to take a hit in terms of its gold medal tally as it bloods the next generation of players. At the SEA Games, it failed to win the men's and women's singles and team events, but there were bright sparks as Clarence Chew partnered Ethan Poh to win the men's doubles, while Koen Pang and Wong Xin Ru were mixed doubles champions.

The national men's and women's coaches - Gao and Jing Junhong respectively - are aware that the standards of Commonwealth Games rivals has risen since they dominated the scene as players.

India, who matched Singapore's three gold medals in 2018, will be the Republic's main challengers in the women's events this year, but there is a relatively unknown threat in Australia, who have two new naturalised players in China-born Liu Yangzi and South Korea-born Jee Min-hyung.

In the men's events, hosts England, India and Nigeria - who have world No. 11 Quadri Aruna - are the main medal contenders.

As such, the STTA has planned a July 5-25 training stint for their players in Linz, Austria, where they have also hired seven sparring partners. These comprise four right-handed shake-hand grip Frenchmen, a left-handed Frenchwoman, and two Japanese women's players who are long-pimple experts.

Jing said: "While a veteran like Tianwei will definitely help us in terms of experience and leadership, we still have to plan and prepare well.

"The more we know about the opponents, the more targeted we can be in our tactical approach. We also need to strengthen our players mentally so they are ready to take down stronger opponents."

Women's world No. 59 Zeng Jian agreed, and felt that she has grown following her SEA Games debut. In Hanoi, she was thrust into the forefront in the absence of Feng and the injured Lin Ye, and had to settle for silver medals in the women's team, women's doubles and mixed doubles and a women's singles bronze.

The 25-year-old, who is entered for all four events again, said: "I felt the expectation and pressure then, but it was beneficial for me. I understand better what I lack in terms of tactics and physical fitness and have been working hard on my game.

"I hope I can showcase the best version of myself in Birmingham."

Singapore's table tennis players at the 2022 Commonwealth Games:

Women's team:

Feng Tianwei, 35

Zeng Jian, 25

Wong Xin Ru, 21

Zhou Jingyi, 17

Men's team:

Clarence Chew, 26

Ethan Poh, 23

Koen Pang, 20

Izaac Quek, 16

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