SINGAPORE - On court, their ages added up to that of an octogenarian. But it was veterans Feng Tianwei and Li Jiao – 33 and 47 respectively – who bravely led the battle for Olympic berths on Thursday (Jan 23), as Singapore and the Netherlands faced off at the World Team Qualification Tournament in Gondomar, Portugal.
In a thrilling battle that went down to the wire, the third-seeded Singapore women - who beat Luxembourg 3-1 in the earlier round - eventually edged out the Dutch 3-2 in the round-of-16 contest to earn their ticket to Tokyo.
Nine spots were up for grabs, with teams who made the quarter-finals earning an automatic berth to the Tokyo Games. The losing teams in the last 16 will compete in a knockout format for the final spot.
Countries that have earned a team berth will also gain two slots in the women’s singles.
Singapore, silver and bronze team medallists at the 2008 and 2012 Games respectively, got off to a shaky start with the doubles pair of Yu Mengyu and Lin Ye losing the first match 11-9, 7-11, 11-7, 9-11, 11-6 to Dutch veterans Li Jiao and Li Jie.
World No. 8 Feng Tianwei levelled the score for Singapore in the next match, sweeping aside 25-year-old Britt Eerland – the highest-ranked Dutch player at world No. 45 – 11-9, 11-6, 11-8.
A tight contest between Yu, 30, and 35-year-old Li Jie, ranked 52nd and 55th respectively, appeared to be on the cards but the latter was forced to withdraw while trailing 8-11, 0-2 owing to a calf injury.
With Lin losing the next singles 11-8, 8-11, 11-6, 11-7 to Eerland, it was up to Feng to save the day.
The battle of the veterans saw her clinching the first game (11-8) against six-time European champion Li Jiao, but the second was a see-saw contest as the world No. 278 Dutchwoman clawed back to win 15-13.
But 2012 singles bronze medallist Feng, determined not to give up her team’s Olympic spot, clinched the next two games 11-5, 11-5 to seal the victory and earn Singapore’s ticket.
“We did adequate preparations for a tough match and prepared for the scenario where we were trailing our opponents. I went into the rubber match to play my best game, which I would have done regardless of my opponent,” she said.
"Li Jiao and I are long-time rivals and old friends and she was previously my coach so we know each other very well. She is a great player and has been a big help to me, and I'm grateful to her.
"2020 is a new beginning and the team and I will work even harder. I hope that by working with the Singapore Table Tennis Association, we can see a miracle in Tokyo."
This is the Singapore women's team's third appearance at the Olympics since the team event was introduced in Beijing in 2008. After winning a team silver and bronze in 2008 and 2012, Feng and Co. returned empty-handed from Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The national men’s team are out after Koen Pang, Clarence Chew and Josh Chua were beaten 3-2 by Hong Kong in the round of 32.
Hao Anlin, head coach of the women’s team, said: “I have confidence in Feng Tianwei, she has been through many major competitions. It was not easy qualifying for the Olympics. It was a team effort. We will work hard to win a medal.”