Singapore will face mighty China today in the women's semi-finals of the World Team Table Tennis Championships, assured that they will return with a medal no matter the result.
After downplaying themselves as underdogs throughout the whole tournament in Tokyo, the paddlers beat Romania 3-1 yesterday for a place in the last four.
China whitewashed North Korea 3-0 to book their spot in the semi-finals. With no play-offs for third place, losing semi-finalists at the event are awarded joint bronzes.
Despite several lapses of concentration yesterday, the fifth-seeded Singaporeans were able to get past the No. 9 seeds Romanians, a team riding on their upset of third seeds South Korea just a day earlier.
But national women's team head coach Jing Junhong is well aware that her charges can afford no such mistakes if they are to accomplish mission impossible today against China, the world No. 1 and overwhelming favourites to retain the Corbillon Cup.
She told The Sunday Times: "China have the world's top five players. They are definitely on another level. They are a team who give you no leeway. We have to fight for every point and hold on to any lead we can get."
Yu Mengyu held out in the first singles in her see-saw encounter against Romanian No. 1 Elizabeta Samara, winning 11-8, 4-11, 11-8, 2-11, 11-7.
The world No. 18 Singaporean had allowed her world No. 26 opponent to string nine straight points together at one point, but held firm in the final game to get the Republic off to a good start.
World No. 7 Feng Tianwei, too, was troubled by a fierce comeback that world No. 53 Daniela Monteiro Dodean mounted late in their match before closing it out 12-10, 11-8, 11-9.
She also won her second match against Samara 11-8, 11-5, 11-9.
Both Feng and Yu are undefeated so far at the championships.
World No. 159 Isabelle Li, meanwhile, committed too many uncharacteristic errors on her forehand chop to lose the psychological battle against world No. 59 Bernadette Szocs, a foe she had beaten thrice before - including at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games when the Singaporean took silver.
The 19-year-old lost 11-4, 9-11, 9-11, 11-5, 8-11.
Admitting that her charge had suffered a mental blow, Jing said: "Isabelle hasn't been able to close out her matches even when she's leading, and that has affected her.
"Her opponents were all very experienced players and it showed. She'll need to learn to adapt more." Jing added that there is no pressure on her team to repeat their famous upset of 2010, when Singapore dethroned China in the final in Moscow to be crowned world champions.
"I can finally breathe easy and enjoy a meal in peace today," she joked. "There is no pressure or burden, but we also won't accept defeat before going out on court."
In the men's quarter-finals, local-born paddler Clarence Chew was rewarded for his stellar performance at the championships so far with the first singles' slot.
Yang Zi was left out of the line-up with a relapse of an old back injury, with an unranked Pang Xue Jie standing in.
The 21-year-old even took the first game off Germany's world No. 37 Patrick Franziska but the trio, including Gao Ning, still were no match for the world No. 2 team, losing the tie 0-3.
This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.
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