Table Tennis: Juggling act to build next world-class women's team

Lin Ye, 17 (Above)

Female paddlers in the spotlight  

SINGAPORE - The Singapore women's table tennis team are building towards the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The women ended a 48-year Olympic medal drought for Singapore when they clinched a team silver in Beijing in 2008.

In London last year, the women's team clinched bronze while Singapore No. 1 Feng Tianwei won bronze in the singles event, as the Republic claimed two Olympic medals for the first time.

With Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei retiring after the London Olympics, young paddlers such as Isabelle Li, Yee Herng Hwee, Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan have been called upon to step up.

National coach Jing Junhong has warned that it would be a slow process to turn the women's table tennis team into a world-beating outfit, again.

Singapore's 2008 and 2012 Olympic women's teams featured the same trio of Feng, Wang and Li.

With Feng the only stalwart left, the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) has to, for the first time, grapple with International Table Tennis Federation's (ITTF) regulations on naturalised citizens representing their new nations, and it has made their task tougher.

Players who are under 15 when they change nationalities will not be eligible for the World Championships, World Cup and World Team Cup competitions for three years.

For players between 15 and 17 years of age, the sit-out period is five years, while those aged between 18 and 20 will have to wait seven years.

Paddlers who are 21 and above when they convert their nationalities will not be eligible at all. The rules do not apply for major Games like the Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.

The 2013 SEA Games will be held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar from Dec 11 to 22.

The 2014 Asian Games will be held in Incheon, South Korea, from Sept 19 to Oct 4.

Glasgow, Scotland, will host next year's Commonwealth Games from July 23 to Aug 3.

The World Table Tennis Championships will be held in Tokyo from April 28 to May 5 next year. Ineligible

Lin Ye, 17, and Zhou, 19, became Singapore citizens in March and will have to sit out several major competitions for five and seven years, respectively, including next year's world championships.

Going by the latest ITTF rankings, Zhou is No. 99 in the world, while Lin Ye is 90th on the list.

Youth Olympic Games silver-medallist Li, 18, is No. 212, while Asian Youth Games-bound Herng Hwee, 16, is ranked 550th.

While coach Jing said all four youngsters, and even de facto Singapore No. 2 and world No. 32, Yu Mengyu, are still raw, Zhou and Lin Ye have a slight edge over Li and Herng Hwee.

Nevertheless, the STTA is committed to grooming both the local-born players and the naturalised paddlers for the 2016 Olympics.

STTA high-performance manager Eddy Tay said: "We wouldn't want to put all our eggs into one basket and focus on certain players - who's to know which one of them would come into form nearer the Olympics?

"We are also hoping that the younger players from the Singapore Sports School's School Within a School programme can produce more paddlers."

The women's team clinched a team bronze at the recently-concluded Asian Championships in Busan, South Korea, where the ITTF rules on eligibility applied.

It didn't apply at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships in New Delhi earlier this year, when Singapore's female paddlers won two of the three golds (women's doubles, women's team) on offer, missing out in the women's singles title.

While a host of world-class teams were absent from the Commonwealth Championships, including mighty China, one can expect the Singapore women to fare better at events like the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games - where Zhou and Lin Ye are eligible in addition to Li and Herng Hwee - as the team build towards the 2016 Olympics.

The road to Rio will be made tougher as the composition of the women's table tennis team changes periodically, compared to the relatively stable team of Feng, Li and Wang in the past.

Said Jing: "The chemistry is definitely a factor that will be affected, but my hands are tied by the rules for some competitions.

"I thought Isabelle performed beyond my expectations at the Asian Championships in the women's singles. She was the underdog but she showed tremendous fighting spirit in her 4-3 loss to India's Mouma Das.

"Herng Hwee was nervous in the women's singles, but performed better in the doubles event.

"Still, the road ahead is very long and a lot of patience is needed, along with the commitment of the young players."

Name: Yu Mengyu

Birthday (Age): Aug 18, 1989 (23)

World ranking: 32

Notable achievements(selected):

World Table Tennis Championships women's doubles bronze (2013)

World Tour Grand Finals women's doubles gold (2012)

World Team Table Tennis Championships champion (2010)

Name: Feng Tianwei

Birthday (Age): Aug 31, 1986 (26)

World ranking: 4

Notable achievements (selected):

Olympic Games (1 silver, 2 bronze)

World Team Table Tennis Championships champion (2010)

Pro Tour Grand Finals women's singles champion (2010)

Name: Lin Ye

Birthday (Age): Feb 1, 1996 (17)

World ranking: 90

Notable achievements (selected):

Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships women's team champion (2013)

Swedish Junior & Cadet Open girls' singles silver (2012)

Name: Yee Herng Hwee

Birthday (Age): June 21, 1997 (16)

World ranking: 550

Notable achievements (selected):

Singapore YOG training team

Will compete at Asian Youth Games (2013)

Part of the national youth team, but has joined senior team for training and competitions

Name: Isabelle Li

Birthday (Age): Aug 28, 1994 (18)

World ranking: 212

Notable achievements(selected):

Global Junior Circuit Finals girls' singles silver (2013)

South-east Asia Games women's singles silver (2011)

Youth Olympic Games girls' singles silver (2010)

Name: Zhou Yihan

Birthday (Age): Jan 30, 1994 (19)

World ranking: 99

Notable achievements (selected):

Global Junior Circuit Finals girls' singles champion (2013)

Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships mixed doubles champion (2013)