Table tennis: Singapore in medal hunt after defeating Netherlands

They overcome Dutch to top group and face either N. Korea or Romania but Feng a worry

Feng Tianwei hits a return against Li Jiao of Netherlands during their women's singles round match of the 2016 World Team Table Tennis Championships.
Feng Tianwei hits a return against Li Jiao of Netherlands during their women's singles round match of the 2016 World Team Table Tennis Championships. PHOTO: AFP

Singapore's hopes of clinching a medal at the World Team Table Tennis Championships received a boost when they beat third seeds Netherlands 3-2 to top Group C.

They will face either ninth seeds North Korea or 10th seeds Romania in a quarter-final tonight or tomorrow. The match time was not available at press time.

They beat Romania 3-1 at the last world team championships two years ago in the quarter-finals. At the 2012 edition, Singapore beat North Korea 3-0 in the group stage.

But it remains to be seen if world No. 8 Feng Tianwei, who has played 10 matches and 37 games already, can recover in time.

Yesterday at the Malawati Stadium, Feng, struggling with a shoulder injury, lost the first singles to the Netherlands' world No. 25 Li Jiao. The latter had sat out her team's previous match against France on Tuesday to prepare.

However, the Singaporean soldiered on, icing her shoulder during the break and returning to the table to win the fourth singles against world No. 18 Li Jie 11-7, 11-3, 11-9.

At the mixed zone, Feng broke down, seemingly distraught that she had let the team down by losing the first match. "It wasn't easy, especially after losing the first singles. There was more pressure (on everyone),"said the 29-year-old, wiping away tears with a towel.

Taking a moment to compose herself, the three-time Olympic medallist said: "Playing so many matches took its toll on me. I couldn't really lift my upper arm. The fourth game I just tried to press on to give (Yu) Mengyu a chance to win for us."

Feng's determination was not lost on her rival. Li Jiao said: "Tianwei looked injured but her fighting spirit is really commendable.

Singapore had their world No. 34 Yu to thank for helping them secure a spot in the last eight. As Feng faltered, she won both her matches to help her team win, although Isabelle Li lost the third singles.

After a jittery opening day, Yu seemed to have rediscovered her groove with each game. Yesterday, she held her nerve in the crucial fifth singles to beat Li Jiao, a 46-year-old veteran. She also made light work of Li Jie in straight sets (11-6, 11-7, 11-7).

"I was really touched by how Tianwei pressed on despite her injury. Today was good because I was able to play a controlled game, didn't rush my shots," she said.

Yu has already played two deciding fifth singles at the championships. At the last edition in 2014, she played twice only once - in a 3-1 group stage win over France as Feng was rested.

The 26-year-old said: "I'm satisfied with how I've performed so far. I feel like I've matured a lot. But I'm still not where I want to be yet."

Women's head coach Chen Zhibin said Yu's improved form might make him consider fielding her as the team's first singles, depending on whom they face.

"Actually technique wise, Mengyu is sound. She just has to work on her match temperament."

Chen, who coached the Dutch women from 2009 to 2012, also used yesterday's match to hammer home his point about taking every training session seriously - which he had emphasised in the lead-up to the competition.

He said: "Sometimes you get injured because your body is not used to the high intensity during competitions. One way to counter this is to give everything during training, go for every ball, hit every shot powerfully, so during competition you are used to the strain."

A semi-final spot guarantees a bronze with no third-place play-off. The Singapore men's team lost 1-3 to Ukraine to end bottom of Group C. They will play for positions 13-24 today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'S'PORE'S S-FINAL HOPES GOOD'. Print Edition | Subscribe