Little Li takes big leap forward

Little Li takes big leap forward
Singapore paddler Isabelle Li in action on the first day of the table tennis competition against Sri Lanka at the Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland on 24 July 2014.

Ranked No. 130, she beats No. 20 Lee in q-finals to help S'pore secure third bronze.

It will be remembered as the tournament where Isabelle Li came of age.

The world No. 130 paddler may have been powerless to prevent Singapore's women's team from being swept 3-0 by powerhouses China in yesterday's ITTF World Team Cup semi-finals in Dubai but she had already stamped her mark in the previous round.

The 20-year-old, the youngest and most inexperienced member of the Republic's squad, manufactured the biggest victory of her career with an improbable 3-2 win over world No. 20 Lee Ho Ching, 22, of Hong Kong in the fifth and deciding quarter-final match.

She told The Sunday Times last night: "I was able to play to a level that I couldn't normally reach, which was a very important breakthrough personally.

"I really felt I had played a part in the team's result, and I've seen improvements in my game."

Reflecting on Li's overall performance at the tournament and her breakthrough result, national women's team head coach Jing Junhong said: "I'm very happy and proud of Isabelle. She's done very well throughout the week.

"This was a big step for her and by beating a top 20 player, the best player Hong Kong had, she showed us the potential we always felt she possessed.

"She also proved to herself that all the hard work she's been putting in through these years will pay off."

With no third-place play-off in the competition, Li's heroics secured Singapore a third straight bronze medal at the competition despite last night's loss to the top-ranked Chinese.

National team-mate and world No. 5 Feng Tianwei had won her six previous matches in Dubai and almost extended that run - but eventually fell 11-4, 8-11, 5-11, 11-8, 6-11 to her Chinese rival Zhu Yuling (ranked sixth) in the see-saw semi-final opener.

A second giant-killing act proved beyond Li as she was outclassed in the next singles match by world No. 1 and Olympic champion Ding Ning 11-2, 11-6, 11-4.

It was the first time Li had faced the top seed, and she said: "The rhythm that she plays at, I've never encountered before. She was returning the ball at a different class.

"It was very useful to play against a player of her calibre and it will benefit me in the future."

Ding then formed a formidable partnership with world No. 2 and 2014 Asian Games singles gold medallist Liu Shiwen in the doubles match.

They booked their country's place in today's final with a hard-fought 11-9, 11-7, 11-9 victory against the Singaporean combination of Feng and world No. 13 Yu Mengyu.

Said Jing: "The scores were quite close and there were only a few points that made all the difference in the end so it's a shame that we lost.

"Tianwei's match was also very even though her defending could have been better at times.

"But the Chinese players are still a level higher than us at the moment.

"Overall, I'm quite satisfied with the team's performance and getting another bronze was a good result."

The eight-time champions will face North Korea - 3-0 victors against Japan in the other semi-final - in a repeat of the 1990 final, which was also the inaugural edition of the International Table Tennis Federation competition.

jonwong@sph.com.sg

ITTF World Team Cup:

Women's and men's finals

StarHub Ch203, 5pm & 8.30pm

Defining win

"This was a big step for her and by beating a top 20 player, the best player Hong Kong had, she showed us the potential we always felt she possessed. She also proved to herself that all the hard work she's been putting in through these years will pay off."

- JING JUNHONG, Singapore women's table tennis coach, on Isabelle Li's breakthrough

Quite a pity

"The scores were quite close and there were only a few points that made all the difference in the end so it's a shame that we lost."

- JING, on the team being whitewashed by China in the semi-final


This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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