SINGAPORE - Unable to shake off eight months of competitive ring rust, Singapore's world No. 9 Feng Tianwei lost 4-2 (11-7, 11-8, 11-9, 8-11, 8-11, 13-11) to world No. 27 Lily Zhang in the round of 16 of the ITTF Women's World Cup in Weihai, China on Monday (Nov 9).
The duo's only previous meeting was also in this competition, when Feng beat the American 4-1 to win the bronze medal last year.
Feng's last event was the Qatar Open in March, after which she returned to Singapore as a precautionary measure during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The circuit breaker also meant she resumed training only in June.
Zhang also had a shaky start to her campaign, but unlike Feng who gained direct entry to the knockout rounds based on her ranking, the 24-year-old could overcome a 4-2 loss to Ukraine's Margaryta Pesotska in her opening group game to beat Puerto Rico's Adriana Diaz 4-2 and Canada's Zhang Mo 4-3 and progress.
Feng, 34, said: "The key thing was this was my first match in a long while and I could not get used to the match tempo. It never feels good to lose, but I was pleased with how I fought when I was down by three games."
In a gruelling match that lasted 57 minutes, Zhang had raced to a 3-0 lead, only for Feng to pull two games back.
But the three-time Olympic medallist could not close out the sixth game despite a 10-7 advantage.
Feng's coach He Keyi said: "That was the turning point, because if Tianwei had made it 3-3, I'm sure she would have won the match.
"Today, Tianwei didn't settle down fast enough and couldn't play to the best of her abilities because it was her first match.
"But losing is part of the process and it doesn't mean we have not made progress in the past few months. It's just that there are new conditions and strategies to get used to, and in the process there will be road bumps for us to overcome.
"The defeat today will affect the points that count towards the Olympic seedings next year, but our target hasn't changed. We are aiming for an Olympic medal and we will continue to train hard and win more matches."
Feng will now set her sights on the Nov 19-22 ITTF Finals in Zhengzhou, before she travels to Macau for a promotional World Table Tennis showcase event from Nov 25-29.