SINGAPORE - For someone who has been part of successful table-tennis teams who have bagged medals at the World Championships as well as Asian and Commonwealth Games, Isabelle Li has felt more like an observer.
With team-mates Feng Tianwei (world No. 5) and Yu Mengyu (No. 13) doing most of the heavy lifting in major competitions and winning the bulk of the points, Li's contribution at team events was limited.
But there was nothing minimal about the 20-year-old's impact at the ITTF World Team Cup earlier this month in Dubai though.
She made the difference as Singapore won a bronze medal by clinching the crucial final tie of the quarter-final against Hong Kong's Lee Ho Ching, beating the world No. 20 3-2.
"It came as a surprise that I could contribute the fifth point," Li, ranked 130th in the world, told The Straits Times last week.
"I felt like I was really playing a part in it, not just being a spectator.
The experience was mine, instead of just going there to watch."
While she is the local-born face of a sport that relies heavily on players recruited from China, she, nevertheless, stressed the importance of Feng and Yu's presence in the national set-up.
"I've really benefited from training with them. They're constantly discussing the game and giving me advice on how to get better," she said.
Li's desire to improve was apparent since childhood when losing a game of checkers would lead to tears. Such competitiveness remains, she admitted sheepishly while fiddling with her bat, but it has also evolved.
"The change now is I'm learning to stop competing and start excelling," said the eight-time singles champion on the ITTF Junior Circuit who initially struggled in her transition to the ultra-competitive senior ranks.
"Winning is more of a comparison against others so now I'm more focused on my own improvements.
"It's helped me to be patient in tough times, to be faithful in times when you can't see progress but believing it's happening even when you cannot see it."
Thanks to her victory over a much higher rated opponent, Li's world ranking is likely to soar when the standings are released next month. Her previous best was world No. 121 in April 2011.
But such numbers do not dominate her thoughts which are instead centred on identifying and addressing her weaknesses.
In her first encounter with top-ranked Ding Ning of China at the World Team Cup semi-final, Li lost in straight games but smashed her way to a respectable 12 points by being aggressive in her play, a conscious deviation from her patient chopping style.
"I'm a defensive player and that will never change. The only thing I can change is the ratio of my attacking game in contrast to my defensive game. That's something I've been working on which I think has reaped benefits."
Li's evolution did not escape national women's coach Jing Junhong who has seen her charge blossom from an impish teenager into an assured young woman.
"She understands sacrifice now and the hard work involved to become a top-class player," Jing said. "You could see she was nervous in the first game against Ding Ning but, after that, she overcame her fear and played at a higher level."
Another big test awaits in June at the SEA Games on home soil where Li, who dabbled in Chinese dance, wushu, piano and swimming in her childhood before giving them all up to focus on table tennis, will be hoping to go one better than the two silver medals she won at the last two editions.
The ultimate dream for Li, whose bedroom wall is adorned with photos that act as visual representations and reminders of her sporting goals, will be to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Feng and Yu are likely to lead Singapore's charge with Li competing for the third and final spot against team-mates Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan, ranked 52nd and 62nd in the world respectively.
Said Li: "Going to Rio is one of my aims and although it looks hard right now, it's something to work towards."
Her odds have definitely improved. After all, she is no longer just a bystander.
NOT A BYSTANDER
It came as a surprise that I could contribute the fifth point. I felt like I was really playing a part in it, not just being a spectator. The experience was mine, instead of just going there to watch.
- Isabelle Li on her crucial contribution in the ITTF World Team Cup
This article was first published on Jan 19, 2015.
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