S'pore women paddlers face uphill challenge

Feng Tianwei playing at the 50th World Team Table Tennis Championships held in Moscow.

Despite escaping powerhouse China and rivals Japan, the path for Feng Tianwei and Co at next month's World Team Table Tennis Championships is no easier.

The team were grouped with South Korea, Russia, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg in Group C in Saturday's draw in Tokyo, where the tournament will take place from April 28 to May 5.

Singapore lost the chance to earn one of the top four seedings after its world ranking dropped from No. 3 to No. 5 this month, a fall that guaranteed meeting one of the world's top four sides in the group stage.

"It was within expectations," national women's team head coach Jing Junhong told The Straits Times in a telephone interview from Taiwan, where the paddlers are undergoing centralised training.

"Our first task is to ensure we do well enough to make it into the knock-out stages."

The top three teams in each group will take the top 12 positions, with group winners earning a bye into the quarter-finals.

Old foes South Korea, the world No. 3, are favourites to top Group C. "It will be an uphill battle against them," said Jing.

While world No. 7 Feng is ranked higher than the Koreans' top paddler Seo Hyo Won (No. 9), the Singaporean often has a tough time playing defensive specialists. She was beaten in her only meeting with the chopper on the International Table Tennis Federation circuit, losing 1-4 at the Korea Open last year.

World No. 23 Yu Mengyu, meanwhile, has an inferior head-to-head record against South Korea's No. 20 Yang Ha Eun (2-4). She is 2-2 against Seok Ha Jung, the world No. 19.

Added Jing: "We are definitely at a disadvantage against the Koreans and we cannot take for granted that it will be straightforward against the European teams."

All these factors are compounded by the fact that the Singapore side is this time without the expertise and experience of Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu, both of whom have retired.

Together with Feng, they led 2010 world champions Singapore to a second-place finish at the last team world championships in 2012, losing to China in the final.

Yu Mengyu will step up to the big stage, while Isabelle Li and Yee Herng Hwee will make their team event debut.

Said Jing: "In a way, not being one of the top four does take some pressure off the team. The whole team is still going through renewal and adjustment and while the younger ones have improved, it is a process that will take time.

"We are realistic about where we stand now."

Meanwhile, the men's team, ranked 15th in the world, have been drawn in Group B. They will face Germany (No. 2), Hong Kong (No. 7), Croatia (No. 9), Denmark (No. 17) and Ukraine (No. 27).

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