Table Tennis: Singapore women's team earn ticket to 2020 Tokyo Olympics but men are out

(From left) Singapore's Feng Tianwei, Lin Ye and Yu Mengyu at table tennis' ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, on Jan 22, 2020.
(From left) Singapore's Feng Tianwei, Lin Ye and Yu Mengyu at table tennis' ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, on Jan 22, 2020.PHOTOS: INTERNATIONAL TABLE TENNIS FEDERATION

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.”