SINGAPORE – With his black-rimmed spectacles and unassuming air, Felix Lebrun looks like any bookish schoolboy.
But, at the ping pong table, the 16-year-old transforms into a confident pro who is making waves on tour.
At the ongoing Singapore Smash, the 46th-ranked French teenager emerged from three qualifying matches to make it to the main draw.
On Tuesday, he stunned Taiwanese world No. 8 Lin Yun-ju 3-0 (11-6, 11-7, 11-6) to advance to the men’s singles round of 16. He will meet Germany’s Qiu Dang, who beat Singapore’s Koen Pang 3-0 (11-4, 11-4, 11-7).
“I lost 3-1 in our only previous meeting, but today I played amazing and my tactics were perfect,” said Felix, who is still a high school student in Montpellier.
“I have a good serve, which helps with my play after, and then I try to play as fast as possible with my backhand.”
Table tennis runs in his family. His father Stephane was a pro player, while his uncle Christophe Legout featured in three Olympics.
But it is the present generation taking the game by storm, making up over 1,000 places in the world rankings in less than one-and-a-half years.
His older brother Alexis, 19, is France’s top-ranked player at world No. 28. The duo are mirror images of each other but one can tell them apart from their grip – Alexis uses shakehand, while Felix is a penholder.
While Alexis lost to Quadri Aruna in the round of 32 at the OCBC Arena, the siblings are in the men’s doubles last 16.
Felix said: “My father coaches at a local club and I started playing when I was three. I love the tactical aspect and there is no competition between my brother and I, although I would like to record my first win against him soon.”
While he has not gotten the better of Alexis yet, he claimed the scalps of Lin and Swedish world No. 7 Truls Moregard at the 2022 World Table Tennis (WTT) Star Contender Goa.
At the 2022 WTT Star Contender European Summer Series in Budapest, he took a game off his idol and Olympic champion Ma Long before losing 3-1, leading the Chinese legend to comment that Felix was better than he was at 15.
Felix said: “That was fun, a huge honour because he is such a great and charismatic player. It would be amazing if I could be like him, and it would be a dream if my brother and I can qualify for Paris 2024 and compete at the Olympics in our country.”
Also harbouring Olympic ambitions is Luxembourg’s Ni Xialian, who has proven that table tennis is not exclusively a young person’s sport.
The 59-year-old teamed up with compatriot Sarah de Nutte to beat Americans Amy Wang and Lily Zhang – who are 21 and 26 respectively – 3-0 (11-7, 11-7, 13-11) to progress to the women’s doubles quarter-finals, where they will play China’s Chen Meng and Wang Yidi.
At the 2022 event, the pair reached the last four.
A former world champion with China’s women’s team in 1983 and a five-time Olympian, Ni was a clear crowd favourite, as she handed her jersey to a fan who gifted her with barbequed meat.
She said: “It feels good to finally win a match after losing my singles match. With age comes experience, but I also have had to work hard in the right direction to make the most of that.
“The downside with age is I take longer to recover, so I have to manage that well.
“I will be 60 and Paris 2024 would be my sixth Olympics. If I qualify, I will be there.”
In the women’s singles, Thailand’s world No. 35 Suthasini Sawettabut slayed another giant when she beat Japan’s sixth-ranked Hina Hayata 3-2 (11-8, 11-6, 4-11, 7-11, 11-4) to reach the round of 16, where she will face Monaco’s Yang Xiaoxin.
The 28-year-old had also upset Singapore’s then world No. 4 Feng Tianwei en route to winning the women’s singles gold at the 2015 SEA Games.
She said: “Hina is a good player, but she made some unforced errors today which I took advantage of. I also made mistakes but I try to forget about them and keep trying to win the next point by staying aggressive and attacking whenever I could.
“This win is a confidence boost ahead of the SEA Games in May. I lost in the final to my teammate last year, so I hope I can win gold this year.”