Table tennis is a sport won on spin, speed and skill, yet for Clarence Chew, it is also a race against time.
A chase after techniques he hopes to develop; a sprint to evolve into the player he desires to be. Someone whose shoulders are broad enough to carry the national men's team.
So each time he trains and competes alongside more illustrious team-mates like world No. 15 Gao Ning, the world No. 193 measures mentally if he has inched a little closer to a similar standard.
For when he is called to step up in Singapore's rapidly ageing men's team, the 20-year-old knows he must be ready.
"Our senior players are getting older but they have a lot of experience and I've learnt a lot from them these past few years," said Chew yesterday.
"Training with them has improved my standards. Hopefully, I can improve as quickly as possible because you don't know when exactly they will stop playing."
Gao is 33 this year while veterans Yang Zi and Zhan Jian are also in their 30s.
Li Hu is 27 while Chen Feng is 21.
To prepare Chew, the Singapore Table Tennis Association has been putting the young paddler through his paces over the past few years.
There was the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010 when he represented Singapore on home ground and came close to winning a mixed team medal with Isabelle Li.
At the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar, he clinched a creditable bronze in the men's singles.
He was also part of the gold-winning team at last year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
But it was on one of the sport's grandest stages, just over a year ago, that Chew found the breakthrough and belief he had long been hunting for.
As a debutant, the youngest and most inexperienced among Singapore's men at the World Team Table Tennis Championships last year, he claimed the two biggest scalps of his career.
Then a lowly world No. 259, he beat Hong Kong's Wong Chun Ting and Sweden's Par Gerell, both of whom were ranked more than 200 spots above him, to help Singapore make the quarter-finals.
The victories inspired him.
They also taught him a lesson in fear.
He said: "I finally felt like I could compete against the top players in the world and it gave me a lot of confidence that I can keep improving.
"Most importantly, I learnt about fighting spirit.
"I would usually feel inferior against higher-ranked opponents and that was something I've been trying to overcome.
"But I realised if you go into a match feeling like that, your chances of winning are going to be slim even before you start."
This SEA Games, Chew is in for one of his sternest tests yet.
Earmarked by coach Yang Chuanning as the No. 2 player in the men's team behind Gao, he will be playing in the singles, doubles (with Chen) and team events.
He is expected to contribute to the team's target of a clean sweep of all seven table tennis golds.
Said Yang, who hopes his charge can win at least a silver in either the singles or doubles event: "We've let him shoulder quite a big responsibility this time and it's going to be a big test for him.
"(But) he will start to play a much bigger role in time to come and you have to start preparing a player, and give him time to make mistakes, learn and be ready for it. This is just the first step."
When Chew walks into the Singapore Indoor Stadium next month, the circumstances will be familiar in many ways.
He has competed in the arena before, he knows the atmosphere of a home Games and will again feel the expectations on him.
But the essential difference this time is that he is ready to fight, to contend and to make a big stride forward.
This article was first published on May 21, 2015.
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