Resolute Isabelle ready for debut on world stage

For all the uncertainty surrounding how a young Singapore side will fare at this week's World Team Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo, one thing is for sure: Isabelle Li will play a part in it.

After all, the 19-year-old has already played through ailments that would have derailed less-determined players.

Take her breakthough tournament, the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, where she won silver despite being seeded only seventh.

Fans applauded her tenacity on court, but off court, few knew that she battled knee pain with shockwave therapy throughout the Games.

Then, at last year's International Table Tennis Federation Global Circuit Junior Finals in Guatemala, she blacked out early in the tournament after a bad bout of diarrhoea.

She was taken to hospital to be put on drip, but completed only half the prescribed treatment before insisting on returning to her match. She eventually went on to win silver.

She recalled: "It was my last competition as a junior, so there was a reluctance in me for it to end by withdrawing.

"It's okay if I lose, but I wanted to close that chapter on my own terms."

No doubt, Li's refusal to cower from a challenge or make excuses for herself is a key trait that has served her well in her development as a top local paddler.

This week's world team championships, however, will provide the two-time SEA Games runner-up with yet another tough mountain to scale, as she will be called upon to play a key role in a competition second only to the Olympics in terms of prestige.

Each tie consists of five singles matches played by three paddlers from each side. Singapore's attack will likely be fronted by Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu and Li.

Ranked No. 159 in the world, Li knows there is a gulf between her and her potential world-class opponents, describing it herself as "not a small difference".

In fact, the enormity of stepping up to play the world's best players threatened to consume her, shortly before joining the national team in Taiwan last month for centralised training to prepare for the tournament.

"I was quite down," she said. "I was feeling quite a bit of pressure... that I couldn't match up to the level of the competition. That's the reality of it."

True to her resolute self, she tried to overcome her nerves by putting more in training - spending 40-plus days labouring over every stroke at the centralised training sessions.

She said: "I realised that I just have to focus on becoming a better player, instead of dwelling on the fact that I'm not good enough.

"This is an opportunity for me. I have to step up, not just in terms of earning points for the team, but also influence with that kind of attitude. That will help bring us to greater heights and that's what I can do for the team now."

This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.

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