In a stunning move, the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) yesterday announced that the curtain has come down on the career of its biggest star, Feng Tianwei.
Feng owns one Olympic silver medal and two bronzes.
She was part of the Singapore women's team that finished second in the 2008 Olympics and third four years later, when she also collected a bronze in the women's singles.
In a release issued yesterday, the STTA announced a revamp of its high performance strategy to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The STTA drew up the plan after a consultation session with key stakeholders, including Sport Singapore, Singapore Sports School, Singapore National Olympic Council, coaches and players.
Feng, currently the women's world No. 6, will not be part of the team for the 2020 Olympics as she will be 34 then, and "does not fit into the STTA's current plans for rejuvenation".
The 30-year-old, who has earned close to $3 million in salary, sponsorship and monetary rewards, had just carried Singapore's flag at the Women's World Cup in the United States earlier this month, when she won the singles bronze after losing to eventual champion, 16-year-old Japanese Miu Hirano in the semi-finals.
STTA president Ellen Lee said: "Feng Tianwei has been a cornerstone of the national team since 2007.
"She has brought many golden moments to the sport. We would like to thank her for all that she has done for Singapore table tennis, and we would like to take this opportunity to wish Tianwei all the best in her future endeavours.
"After the Rio Olympics, it is indeed timely for STTA to develop, rejuvenate and refresh our teams to be future ready. Bold moves are needed if we are interested in challenging the top table tennis nations for honours.
"With competition becoming a lot keener, and with rivals like Japan catching up with Singapore, winning at the world stage has become a lot harder.
"We need to develop and rejuvenate our national teams to be future ready, and we need to place greater emphasis on the development of our youth players."
Feng, who moved to Singapore from China under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme in 2007 and received citizenship the following year, anchored the team to a momentous triumph over mighty China in the final of the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships.
She led the women's table tennis team at the Rio Olympics in August, and they failed to win a medal for the first time after tasting success at the last two Games.
Despite being the second seed, Feng was blitzed by Japan's Ai Fukuhara 4-0 in the women's singles quarter-finals, and she was also blanked by both Kasumi Ishikawa and Mima Ito 3-0 in the women's team bronze-medal match as Singapore fell 3-1 to the Japanese.
Feng, who met up with Singapore Sports Institute chief Toh Boon Yi yesterday, did not respond to The New Paper's queries.
But on her Facebook page, she posted: "I will continue to compete in international competition using a different method.
"I will share my plans with the media and the public in a few days' time. Thank you everyone for your concern, I will not leave the international scene!"
It is understood that she may still be able to compete on the ITTF Pro Tour at her own cost, subject to STTA's endorsement and her agreement to the association's terms and conditions. She may also play in a foreign table tennis league.
The future of Singapore's No. 2 female paddler, Yu Mengyu, hangs in the balance, as the STTA said it will monitor her injuries closely.
The 27-year-old world No. 13 had been resting with a back ailment after the Olympics and could still lead the women's team at the next Olympics.
Endorsing a trio of younger China-born paddlers, the STTA noted that 20-year-old world No. 18 Zeng Jian, 22-year-old world No. 31 Zhou Yihan and world No. 71 Lin Ye, 20, "are in their early 20s, and will be able to lead the national team for the next two Olympic cycles".
Said Lee: "With our plans in place, we strongly believe that our younger generation of players will lead Singapore to greater sporting achievements, with the aim of scoring a medal at the 2020 Olympics.
"We also hope to field a local-born talent at the 2020 Olympics.
"We urge Singaporeans who have put their belief and trust in us to continue to support us."
It has been a week of upheaval at the STTA, who sacked men's No. 2 Li Hu on Monday for "repeated code of conduct breaches".
The men's team also face changes.
Singapore's top male paddler, world No. 41 Gao Ning, will undertake a new role as national men's team assistant coach cum player, understudying national men's coach Liu Jiayi.
The 34-year-old will be closely involved in mentoring and training the younger generation of players from the national and intermediate squads. Gao is expected to retire from playing after the Asian Games 2018.
However, with Li Hu gone and Zhan Jian's earlier retirement due to injury, coupled with Gao's impending retirement, the men's team will almost certainly struggle on the international stage.
The team are light on numbers, with 22-year-old world No. 117 Chen Feng and 20-year-old world No. 192 Clarence Chew the only ones in their 20s, while world No. 168 Yang Zi is 32.
The STTA will place their emphasis on Chen and Chew, who will be primed to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
Chen proved himself by qualifying for the men's singles event in Rio.
Feng Tianwei career highlights
2008: Olympics silver (team)
2010: World Team Table Tennis Championships: 1st Commonwealth Games gold (singles, team)
2012: Olympics bronze (singles and team) l ITTF Pro Tour Grand Finals: 1st (doubles)
2014: Commonwealth Games gold (singles, doubles, team); Asian Games bronze (singles, team)
2015: Asian Cup: 1st (singles)
Tough decision to drop Feng
It was never an easy decision for the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) to part company with Singapore's most bemedalled Olympian Feng Tianwei, but Ellen Lee felt it was necessary to make a bold decision to be future-ready.
The STTA president told The New Paper: "This was not an easy decision and changes will also be made to the national women's squad.
"Feng Tianwei, who has been a member of the national team since 2007 and who will be 34 during the Tokyo Olympics, does not fit into the STTA's current plans for rejuvenation.
"And this is the time for us to place greater emphasis on the development of our youth players."
The move stands in stark contrast to how the association handled the player-coach fallout last October, when Feng and Singapore women's No. 2 Yu Mengyu clashed with then-national women's table tennis coach, Jing Junhong.
Jing was eventually re-designated as chief coach of youth development, while Yu was served a warning letter for "being disrespectful and for causing embarrassment to Singapore and the STTA".
TNP understands that Lee would have preferred to take more drastic action against the players, but the Rio Olympics was only months away, and the decision was made to take a more lenient approach towards the players who were regarded as genuine medal contenders.
Speaking yesterday, Lee said: "It is important to think long term and to be future-ready.
"At times, very difficult decisions need to be taken in the interest of the long-term sustainability and viability of the sport."
The STTA will throw its weight behind younger players and will endorse a trio of paddlers - 20-year-old world No. 18 Zeng Jian, 22-year-old world No. 31 Zhou Yihan and 20-year-old world No. 71 Lin Ye - who will be able to lead the national team for the next two Olympics cycles.
Zhou competed at Rio 2016 and also teamed up with Lin to beat China's Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen 3-0 in the Japan Open women's doubles semi-final last year.
All three are China-born players.
Lee added: "Zeng Jian has been a team member since 2014 and she has contributed much to Singapore.
"The STTA will support her application to apply for citizenship. But it is important for us to give more opportunities to Singapore-born athletes who are keen to represent the country at table tennis and we must help them achieve their dreams, too."
To help increase the base, the STTA will be promoting more local talent to the intermediate squad, set up last year to develop high-potential athletes for progression into the national team.
They will provide "more support and resources" to several high-potential youth players whom they hope will be able to reach greater heights.
The likes of 17-year-old Lucas Tan and 16-year-olds Eunice Lim, Tan Enhui, Zhang Wanling and Zermaine Lew have been invited to join the intermediate squad.
Lucas, Enhui, Wanling and Zermaine were all winners in the Singaporean team that bagged a record 10 gold medals at the recent South-east Asian Junior Championships.
The STTA will also continue to work closely with stakeholders, like the Singapore Sports School, to provide high-potential athletes with the best support in their pursuit of sporting excellence.
They will continue with the school-within-school programme in the Sports School.
At the elite level, the STTA will spare no effort to improve its paddlers' world rankings to achieve better seedings at major Games.
Lee said: "We will customise the training and competition plan for each paddler. We are also working closely with the Singapore Sports Institute to fine-tune the sport medicine and sport science plan for each of them.
"There are also plans to engage long-term and short-term sparring partners of different playing styles to train with the team."
This article was first published on October 26, 2016.
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