Table tennis: Puerto Rico's Diaz sisters batting for 'little kids from little islands who have big dreams'

SPH Brightcove Video
Puerto Rican table tennis sisters Melanie and Adriana Diaz are a world No. 5 womens' doubles pairing.
They will be playing at the inaugural World Table Tennis Grand Smash at the OCBC Arena, running until March 20.
The Diaz family (from left) Gabriela, Fabiola, Adriana, Marangely, Bladimir and Melanie. PHOTO: LATIN AMERICAN TABLE TENNIS UNION

SINGAPORE - Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful beaches and Ricky Martin, but now it also has a pair of table tennis sisters who are bang on in their pursuit of sporting greatness.

Martin could have been singing about Melanie or Adriana Diaz when he pronounced that "she looks like a flower, but she stings like a bee". Both are no taller than 1.65 metres, but pack a punch with a bat in hand.

Adriana, 21, reached a career-high world No. 11 in January and has stayed there, while Melanie, 25, was No. 61 in 2019 but dropped nine spots since.

In the Central American country where table tennis is not prominent, and in a sport where the Chinese reign supreme, the sisters are trailblazers who have competed at the Olympics and are ranked fifth in the world as a women's doubles pair.

They will be playing in both the singles and doubles at the inaugural US$2 million (S$2.73 million) World Table Tennis Grand Smash event that runs until March 20.

At the OCBC Arena, up to 3,000 fans will be able to witness the Diaz sisters' chemistry and combative qualities, which were also unmissable as they interviewed each other for The Straits Times.

When asked what she liked most about her sister, Adriana, who likes video games like Super Smash Bros, said: "I admire her dedication the most ... she really puts a lot of effort into everything she's doing, from cooking to fashion to Instagram."

Melanie, who enjoys cooking and baking cupcakes for her sisters, returned the compliment and replied: "Her capacity to come back even stronger after losing a match is something I really admire because not many people have that."

As with most siblings, they do quarrel, and sometimes the arguments can bother on the hilarious - Adriana has an issue with Melanie's pimples, and protested when Melanie vowed to fix her taste in music.

But Melanie was quick to add: "We have issues but we solve them very quickly, like in five minutes. After the fight, we're talking again... and it's like it never happened. I think that's also very important because we're also teammates, so we cannot be mad at each other for long."

Adriana chipped in: "We are both very competitive, so sometimes in the training, we want to win points and push each other to be better. We work hard and have a lot of fun together."

While baseball, basketball, and boxing are the most popular sports in Puerto Rico, which has also produced Olympic champions in tennis player Monica Puig (Rio 2016) and hurdler Jasmine Camacho-Quinn (Tokyo 2020), the Diaz sisters actually grew up in a table tennis-loving family.

Melanie shared how their father Bladimir met their mother Marangely at the Aguilas de la Montana Table Tennis Club he owns before they got married. They have two other sisters Gabriela, 24, and Fabiola, 19, who also play the sport.

Melanie grew up idolising China's indomitable Zhang Yining, while Adriana was fascinated by the pace of another Chinese great, Liu Shiwen, who is also in Singapore for the Grand Smash.

Other than being able to train with family, being at their father's club did not bring extra privileges as they practised six days a week, twice a day, with weights, yoga and running sessions thrown in.

But still, with their country in a debt crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, resources for sport were scant and in the following year, they had to rely on local rapper Daddy Yankee to sponsor their airfare so they could compete at the Swedish and Austrian Opens.

The sisters hope they can break more ground and make their countrymen proud with their sporting success, as Adriana told the ITTF Foundation: "I know that a lot of people in Puerto Rico support me and every time I go out there to play, I do it for them.

"I think I can try and be an example for those little kids who come from little islands but have big dreams."

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