For the first time since 2008, the Singapore women's team failed to reach the final of the World Table Tennis Championships.
They were blitzed 3-0 by mighty China in yesterday's semi-finals in Tokyo.
Singapore's female paddlers finished second, first and second in the last three editions of the biennial competition but had to settle for a bronze this time, as they had no answer against the all-conquering Chinese machine.
Singapore No. 1 and world No. 7 Feng Tianwei started brightly in the first singles, but eventually fell to Li Xiaoxia 8-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-7.
Yu Mengyu was comprehensively beaten by Ding Ning 3-0 (11-6, 11-3, 11-6) and Isabelle Li also fell 3-0 to Zhu Yuling (11-4, 11-7, 11-7) to complete the Chinese whitewash.
Hosts Japan beat Hong Kong in the second semi-final to set up a final clash with China.
With no play-off for third, the Hong Kong women's team and their Singapore counterparts will both be awarded bronze medals.
After the retirement of stalwarts Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu, the Singapore women's team knew they had a mountain to climb in the first semi-final.
Especially when they were up against a Chinese team that were a potent mix of youth and experience, featuring 19-year-old Zhu (world No. 5), 26-year-old Li (world No. 3) and 23-year-old Ding Ning (world No. 2).
The final result was hardly a surprise.
But national women's head coach Jing Junhong took heart from the overall performance of the team, singling out Yu for special mention.
"Mengyu has stepped up this year and is narrowing the performance gap between herself and Jiawei and Yuegu in the past," said Jing.
"Isabelle was also very composed and brought the fight to Zhu Yuling, despite facing such intense pressure - of facing China in a semi-final of a major competition for the first time."
Despite the positive performances, Jing said the two younger players - Yu is 24 while Isabelle is 19 - still have a lot of room for improvement.
She said: "The good thing is that they've seen for themselves that we are not far off from the rest of the countries like South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong."
With Feng, Li and Wang in the ranks, the Singapore women's team caused the sport's biggest upset of 2010 when they beat China in the final in Moscow.
But Jing said the world No. 1 team and Olympic champions are now clearly at another level.
She said: "When we beat them in Moscow, the likes of Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning were still very inexperienced, while our team then were battle-hardened.
"Their players have gained loads of experience since then, while many countries in the top eight are undergoing transition."
The outing in Tokyo bodes well for the Republic, ahead of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, in September, especially when the women's team were missing some of their higher-ranked paddlers.
Isabelle is ranked 159th in the world while reserve Yee Herng Hwee is 306th. In contrast, Lin Ye is the world No. 44 while Zhou Yihan is ranked 57.
But the latter two, who were originally from China, were not eligible for the world championships because of the International Table Tennis Federation rules restricting foreign-born paddlers at world championships.
The rules don't apply at the Asian Games, but Jing said: "Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan may be higher-ranked, but they still lack the big-match experience that Isabelle has now gained.
"We will go back to the drawing board and see how they progress in the coming months."
Meanwhile, the Singapore men finished joint-fifth after losing 3-0 to Germany in the quarter-finals, alongside Portugal, Austria and South Korea.
Gao Ning and Co finished eighth in the 2012 edition.
This article was published on April 5 in The New Paper.
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