Table tennis: After slaving for sport, Yu Mengyu goes for master’s

Former national table tennis player Yu Mengyu is the first Singapore athlete to receive a full scholarship from the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration. PHOTO: COURTESTY OF YU MENGYU

SINGAPORE – For close to 30 years, Yu Mengyu’s world revolved around table tennis. She coped with changes to its equipment and her body condition and largely acquitted herself well.

But for the next 12 months at least, she is apprehensive yet excited about moving into “a whole new, bigger world” after stepping down as Singapore Table Tennis Association’s junior development squad assistant coach.

Since March 1, the 33-year-old has been pursuing a one-year Master of Public Administration programme at Nanyang Technological University, after becoming the first Singapore athlete to receive a full scholarship from the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration.

With a laugh, she told The Straits Times: “I haven’t been in a physical school setting since my primary school days, so it was such a culture shock on the first day of school. I realised there is so much I didn’t know. When I wanted to open my notebook to take notes, I had already lost track of what the lecturer said.

“It’s a new challenge, but I’m happy because I’m looking forward to learning new things and making new friends.”

That will not be a problem, as the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships winner and Olympics women’s singles semi-finalist has already gladly fielded numerous wefie requests.

“I just hope they will help me in my studies should I need it,” quipped Liaoning-born Yu, who completed an online business management degree course in 2018.

Perhaps she should not worry, as adaptation has always been her strength.

When she was five, her dancing instructor found her uncoordinated and suggested a change in hobby. Yu’s mother, an avid table tennis player herself, then took her to ping pong classes, where she thrived and became a provincial player but did not necessarily enjoy herself.

When a 16-year-old Yu was competing in Beijing, her talent and potential were spotted by Singapore Table Tennis Association coach Chen Yong, who invited her to join the Singapore set-up. While she and her mother were intrigued by the opportunity, the switch almost did not happen as they were unsure if it was a scam.

Yu said: “The coach left me his phone number but there was an extra digit, so my mum instinctively disregarded the last digit and managed to establish that the offer was for real.”

The following year, in 2006, she arrived in Singapore. Three years after receiving her citizenship in 2007, she attained a career-high world No. 9 ranking and was part of the team who stunned China 3-1 to be crowned world champions.

But it was not all smooth sailing as she had spinal and shoulder injuries that left her bedridden for a month in 2014 and, despite surgery to fix a torn labrum in the shoulder in 2016, she still feels pain in her back from time to time.

Despite the suffering and a dip in world rankings to 47th, Yu impressed with her resilience. At the 2021 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said she was the embodiment of the Singapore spirit, after her Tokyo 2020 heroics in which she beat two top-10 opponents. This is why she had no regrets about calling time on her playing career soon after.

It has been 20 months since Yu played her last table tennis match in that Tokyo 2020 bronze-medal play-off loss to Japan’s Mima Ito, and she already does not remember where she has kept her competition bat.

She still loves the sport, but does not miss playing it as the pain was unbearable towards the end. “Now that I have more time, I would like to travel and try skiing,” she added.

Yu is likely to return to coaching after completing her studies. She still follows the sport and was a guest at last week’s Singapore Smash.

She added: “I’m definitely keen to give back to Singapore after this education phase, and I hope to return to the table tennis scene with a broader perspective and wider network.”

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