Table tennis: Singapore's rivals no longer content to play second fiddle

For years, Singapore's paddlers kept a stranglehold on their regional rivals. But after some unexpected defeats at the SEA Games, the world-class team suddenly look vulnerable - and their opponents are smelling blood.

World No. 4 Feng Tianwei's defeat yesterday by eventual champion Suthasini Sawettabut of Thailand in the women's singles round-robin stage, by far the biggest upset of the Games so far, came almost immediately after team-mate and two-time silver medallist Isabelle Li was also booted out of the event.

The losses meant Singapore ceded the Games' women's singles crown for the first time in 20 years - without even making the final four.

Singapore's two-decades-long reign as regional kingpins has only spurred their rivals on, said Table Tennis Association of Malaysia vice-president Wong Jee Seng.

"The level of the rest of the countries has improved," he told The Straits Times yesterday.

"Psychologically, other countries have felt (inferior) to Singapore, and that's been the case for very long.

"As a result, other countries try to compete and catch up with Singapore, eventually raising the standard of table tennis in South-east Asia."

Thailand's men's singles player Padasak Tanviriyavechakul, for instance, sought solutions by training overseas last year.

He spent three weeks in Beijing and another six weeks under the tutelage of Swedish four-time world team champion and 1991 men's doubles world champion Peter Karlsson.

The world No. 222 southpaw won a bronze in the men's singles yesterday after he narrowly lost 11-9, 3-11, 12-10, 6-11, 6-11, 11-13 to Singapore's Gao Ning.

He also teamed up with Sawettabut in the mixed doubles to take out Singapore's top seeds Li Hu and Zhou Yihan in the semi-finals, before losing to Yang Zi and Yu Mengyu in the final.

Said the 2014 Youth Olympian: "Singapore are a strong team but we have to train hard and not just for the SEA Games. After all, we are professionals so we have to find the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents."

Still, Sawettabut admitted that before coming to Singapore, the world No. 107 had never dared to dream big.

"When I knew I was grouped with Feng, I was sure it would be too difficult. I had no target and just wanted to try my best.

"The feeling of beating her topped even winning the gold medal," added the fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Youth Olympics.

Competing without expectations, however, played to the Thai's advantage while one wonders if the pressure of playing on home soil got to the Singaporeans.

The Singapore Table Tennis Association, often preferring to remain coy when asked about medal targets before a major tournament, was unusually bold this time in stating its aim of a clean sweep of all seven golds.

Said Sawettabut: "I don't think other countries have anything to fear when playing Singapore - we don't have anything to lose in the first place."

For Malaysia's world No. 161 Ng Sock Khim, who had aimed simply for a place in the semi-finals but will now return with a silver, her result can only mean more hope.

She said: "It's always been Singapore winning so we all knew it was going to be tough. This represents a chance for myself, and for every other country."

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