SINGAPORE - Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) president Ellen Lee knows the clock is ticking if her paddlers have any chance of capturing an Olympic medal at next year's Tokyo Games.
It was therefore vital for the likes of Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu and Lin Ye to return to elite level competition as soon as possible and Lee was pleased that the trio are in Japan to compete in the ongoing T.League.
The professional tournament, which runs until February, features the country's top local players plus those from South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei. Feng represents Osaka-based Nippon Paint Maretz while Yu and Lin play for Nissay Red Elf and Top Otome Pingpongs Nagoya respectively.
They left for Japan in November, the same month the International Table Tennis Federation resumed competitions after suspending events earlier in the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the sidelines of Sunday's (Dec 20) Crocodile Challenge Cup finals at the STTA headquarters in Toa Payoh, Lee told The Straits Times: "The disruption was inevitable. It is a setback for everyone, more so for us because we are a small team and we couldn't bring in foreign sparring partners like we used to.
"But I believe our players have the hunger to do their best and be competitive having been out of action for so long.
"Our national players started training as soon as we were allowed to in June, but in terms of condition, they still have to play catch up because they have been training and playing locally and they need more international competition.
"Playing in Japan will allow them to improve at a faster rate ahead of the Olympics. That said, while we want our players to be involved in more international events, we also have to make sure these destinations are safe for them to go."
Singapore's women's team have clinched three Olympic medals, a team silver at the 2008 Beijing Games and a team bronze and singles bronze (Feng) four years later in London.
They returned empty handed from the Rio 2016 outing.
On the domestic front, Lee was also encouraged by the successful staging of the Crocodile Challenge Cup tournament. Sunday's final was attended by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.
The week-long event for primary school players attracted a record 67 schools and was the first table tennis event held here in the Covid-19 era.
Safe management measures meant that the closed-door event admitted only 50 people - athletes, officials, and crew - on site.
As coaches and parents were not allowed into the hall, the players relied on their mobile phones to receive coaching during breaks of play and umpires wiped down all the equipment after every match.
There were areas of improvement but Lee was confident the association had the building blocks in place to stage more events next year.
She said: "My staff have been put to test about how to organise this tournament safely and with confidence. We had to change the way we do things, but they adapted very well.
"Because of the months of unuse, we will have to conduct some repair works for our facility to make sure our premises are safe. But after that, we should be able to look forward to more competitions for the juniors, seniors and veterans."
In the Crocodile Challenge Cup Primary 5 & 6 boys' singles final, Aron Ng beat his Nanyang Primary School teammate Zhou Jinghe 11-7, 11-9, 11-8, while in the girls' singles final, Kong Hwa School's Ang Rae Shyn beat Eudora Lee from Nan Hua Primary School 13-15, 11-5, 11-8, 11-8.