SINGAPORE - He had practised gymnastics until the age of 10. But even so, Koen Pang would not have known what a huge leap he would make in table tennis seven years on.
But there he proudly stood, top of the podium at the Subic Bay Exhibition & Convention Center on Tuesday (Dec 10), as Singapore’s first local-born SEA Games men’s singles champion. At 17, he is also the country’s youngest winner in the event.
Stirring comebacks had been the order of the day for the national paddlers as world No. 203 Pang fought from 3-0 down to beat Thailand’s world No. 192 Padasak Tanviriyavechakul 4-3 (7-11, 10-12, 7-11, 11-9, 11-6, 11-3, 11-9) in the semi-final.
He carried that momentum into the all-Singaporean final as he defeated world No. 217 Clarence Chew 4-0 (11-5, 11-7, 11-7, 12-10) for the gold. It was also Pang’s first win against his fellow southpaw this year.
Pang told The Straits Times: “Against a fellow left-hander in the semi-final, my first three ball attacks were not as effective.
“I was too anxious to finish off the points in the first three games, but I was able to adjust and take things slower. Changing tactics, I was more prepared to play rallies and fight for every point.
“For the final, I usually don’t beat Clarence whenever we play, but after the semi-final, I was more ready to play the rallies he usually plays, and I finally managed to beat him.”
While Pang, a former Under-18 world No. 1, is due to enlist in national service next year, he hopes this year of breakthroughs – his junior boys’ doubles bronze at the World Junior Table Tennis Championships with Josh Chua earlier this month was the Republic’s first medal in this competition – will aid his fledgling career.
He added: “This is my first SEA Games, and to win the men’s singles career for my first senior title means a lot to me and gives me more confidence for future competitions.”
His compatriots Feng Tianwei and Lin Ye contested the women’s final which was won by the latter after defending champion Feng, who had won the first game 11-6, retired at the start of the second game due to injury.
World No. 9 Feng had also shown great tenacity and resilience to bounce back from 3-0 down to beat Thailand’s world No. 150 Nanthana Komwong 4-3 (7-11, 3-11, 8-11, 11-3, 11-4, 11-4, 11-4) in her semi-final.
But a familiar ailment ended her hopes of back-to-back golds. She said: “In addition to the recurrence of my wrist injury, I’m also battling fever and flu. But I tried my best... and just could not continue anymore.”
World No. 63 Lin Ye, who was a late replacement for injured team-mate Yu Mengyu, had earned her spot after beating 2015 singles champion and Thai world No. 42 Suthasini Sawettabut 4-2 (11-7, 6-11, 11-8, 2-11, 11-8, 11-5) in the last four.
Lin, 23, said: “I’m very happy with my first singles gold at the SEA Games, even if it was because of Tianwei’s retirement. The semi-final was a tough fight but I pulled through.”
Feng and Yu’s fitness will be of concern to the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), which is bidding to reclaim a women’s team medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics after returning from Rio de Janeiro empty-handed in 2016.
At this SEA Games which had just four events, the Republic’s paddlers bagged two gold, three silver and two bronze medals. It is their lowest return since the 1997 Jakarta Games, when they won just one event.
STTA technical director Loy Soo Han said: “We are happy with Koen and Lin Ye’s breakthrough gold medals, but they are young and still have plenty of room for improvement.
“Hopefully, their achievements will inspire the younger generation of paddlers to work hard and aim high.”