HANGZHOU – After promising performances in which they reasserted their authority to top the 2022 Commonwealth Games and 2023 SEA Games, the Hangzhou Asian Games have been a comedown for Singapore table tennis.
Koen Pang’s 4-0 defeat to South Korea’s Jang Woo-jin on Friday in the men’s singles round of 16 ended the Republic’s involvement in the entire competition. The furthest anyone got was the quarter-finals for the men’s team and mixed doubles pairing of Clarence Chew and Zeng Jian.
After picking up medals at the 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 Games, Singapore will return home empty-handed.
But Singapore Table Tennis Association president Poh Li San was mindful of the “different level” of competition. She said: “The world’s best players are here, while nine out of our 10 players here are Asian Games debutants, and their average is under 22.
“Although we didn’t clinch a medal, I’m happy with their overall performance. This is an invaluable learning experience and our players certainly still have plenty to learn and improve.”
Since the 2002 edition in Busan, Singapore’s 10 table tennis medals at the Asian Games have been powered by its China-born athletes. Stalwarts like Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu have since retired, leaving Zeng to lead the women’s team while the men’s team are all local-born.
Still, there were some creditable performances. Besides the men’s team and Zeng and Chew’s run, 32nd-ranked Pang and Wong Xin Ru gave China’s Lin Gaoyuan and Wang Yidi an almighty scare and led 7-6 in the decider before the Chinese world No. 14 mixed doubles pair won 3-2 in the round of 16.
Poh said: “Improvements are still needed in our players’ techniques, speed and consistency, to match the high standards displayed by the top teams. We will continue to send our players to more international competitions, train in foreign leagues and spar with academies.
“In fact, they are going for the Oct 2-8 WTT Star Contender in Lanzhou right after Asian Games. It’s a tough life but they are a good team of resilient and passionate paddlers.”
As the women’s team look on enviously at Thailand winning a bronze for their first Asiad medal, national women’s coach Jing Junhong agreed that it would take a while before her charges catch up.
She said: “We were average here. We fought hard but were thin in terms of quality. The players were cautious in their first Asian Games, and were unable to play above themselves to beat stronger players.
“The Thais’ success is not surprising as I have watched them gradually develop from teenagers to become pro league players, while we are just starting out. This process takes time and we need a virtuous cycle of goal-setting, commitment, courage, perseverance and learning from setbacks to train hard to get there.
“There is no short cut. Some of our players will go to France, Austria and Portugal for league matches and play in some WTT tournaments in Europe, and it will not be until Christmas before they get a short break.”
National men’s coach Gao Ning is also eyeing improvements through more competitions as his players aim to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics through the World Team Table Tennis Championships in February and other continental qualification events.
He said: “Overall, the team did well to finish in the top eight. I felt our men’s singles were generally weaker in terms of quality and experience, while we had a chance to go further with our men’s doubles.
“However, we fell short in terms of game management and shot quality, which we will review and work on. There were times we failed to hold on to big leads during games as our young players became too conservative and anxious. We will continue to engage sports psychologists from the Singapore Sports Institute to address this.
“Our plans are similar to the women’s team. To get better, there is really no substitute for hard work and strong competition.”