Terrence Voon – Straits Times
Two Olympic medals in London is the lofty goal for Singapore’s paddlers, and the path to the games has been inscribed in bold.
Giant banners bearing motivational Chinese phrases dominate the four corners of the Toa Payoh Sports Hall, inescapable reminders to the Republic’s table tennis players who train there every day.
One of the slogans invites them to “be resolute, and full of confidence.” Another urges them to “persevere, and exceed oneself.” “Be strong in the face of challenges,” a third shouts.
Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Li Jiawei would do well to heed the advice.
To meet the two-medal target set by Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) chief Lee Bee Wah, the Beijing Olympics women’s team silver medallists will have to return to the podium in London, and also snatch an unprecedented medal in the women’s singles.
As the likely third seeds for next month’s Games, as opposed to being No. 2 in Beijing, the going will be tougher.
Li, who is entering her fourth Olympics, knows it. “In 2008, we weren’t 100 per cent certain we could win a medal,” she said. “This time, it feels like we have to win it, no matter what. We know it will be very difficult, but our team have never been stronger, our skills are sharper, so I hope we can combine for a good result.”
The Singapore women have a history of flexing their collective muscles. Since May 2008, they have not lost to any country other than China.
On their own, results have been less impressive. A series of shock defeats sent Feng’s world ranking sliding from No. 5 to No.10 in less than six months. Wang fared better, but had been troubled recently by injury.
Li, who lost the Olympic bronze-medal play-off in 2004 and 2008, will play no part in the singles this time. This is because only the top two paddlers from each country are allowed. In Beijing, three could enter.
On the flip side, the new rule opens up the opportunity for a non-China player to win a medal. But the concern remains that Feng’s weakness against choppers may undermine her chances.
Singapore’s captain is now devoting daily training time to prepare for those ultra-defensive players, compared to just three to four times a week before.
But that creates another problem: Will the gruelling routine aggravate her old shoulder injury?
“If that happens, everything will fall apart,” admitted Zhou Shusen, the women’s head coach. Aside from the intense scrutiny, Feng and her teammates will also have to cope with a much shorter lead-up to the Olympics.
Before the Beijing Games, they had up to two months for centralized training. They will have less than a month this time, because their battle for ranking points ended only this month.
“Our training time is less compared to Beijing, but we probably have more competition experience now,” said Feng.
The men are also battle-hardened. Gao Ning and Yang Zi saw action in Beijing, and newcomer Zhan Jian, a former Chinese national player and doubles specialist, will add bite to the team.
A medal, however, could be beyond the trio, who are 10th in the world. Gao, who is No. 16, is the highest-ranked singles player. This means the pressure to fulfil the two-medal target falls firmly on the shoulders of the women.
It is a fact not lost on the STTA. Pictures and tactical data of the top women players from China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong line the Singapore team’s training hall.
The men are not subjected to such reminders.
But the banners and the slogans, installed last week for the start of centralized training, are more explicit: The biggest obstacles facing Singapore’s paddlers could be themselves.
Additional reporting by May Chen
Reprinted Courtesy of Straits Times