After a barren campaign at the last Olympics, the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA)'s target of a return to the podium on the world stage could receive a boost.
It wants to secure citizenship for Zeng Jian, a China-born paddler who at world No. 25 is now the highest-ranked woman in the national body's set-up.
In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Straits Times yesterday, STTA president Ellen Lee said the association has been working to set the application into motion, and that Zeng's addition to the national team will help "lift the game even higher" for Singapore.
"She's (Zeng) put in a lot of effort, worked very hard. We want her to be part of the national team and be one of us as well," she said at the STTA's headquarters in Toa Payoh.
It is understood that an application to place Zeng on the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme - to earn her citizenship and the ability to don national colours at events like major Games - was submitted late last year, and the STTA has been working on enhancing her eligibility based on feedback from the Singapore Sports Institute.
Should the request go through, the 20-year-old would become the latest foreign-born paddler to join the national women's team. Prior to her application, the last ones to join were Zhou Yihan (No. 36) and Lin Ye (No. 73) in 2013.
Zeng, a Hunan native, arrived in late 2014 as a sparring partner and began competing on the international circuit under the STTA's auspices in February 2015.
She picked up three Under-21 singles titles (China, Japan, Qatar) last year, quickly reaching a career-high of No. 18 in October.
Her meteoric rise previously led the China media to tout her as the one to take over the mantle of leading the Singapore charge from world No. 3 Feng Tianwei.
The latter is no longer part of the STTA but continues to play for Singapore.
Lee, however, maintained that bringing in Zeng does not diminish the STTA's support for the local-born athletes.
The STTA has in recent years put its weight behind local-born players and declared its ambition to field them at the Olympics in the future.
"We've never gone out to say we want only foreign-born paddlers," she said, noting the likes of Isabelle Li, Pang Xue Jie and Clarence Chew as examples of local-born players who have made the national team.
"The message has always been (that) we want to groom talent and as much as possible, we give opportunities to the local-born (players) because they form the (majority)."
"While we're grooming and investing in (Zeng), we're also grooming and investing in local-born players. Zeng Jian is also a positive influence, she's good motivation and a good partner for everybody."
The aim, said Lee, is for all players within the STTA to achieve progress. She also emphasised moving away from a "local-born versus foreign-born" mentality because "it's never healthy".
Lee, president of the STTA since September 2014, will balance that long-term objective with goals that are more pressing now.
This includes the search for a replacement for women's team head coach Chen Zhibin after the German-Chinese's contract expires at the end of this month.
Lee said there has been no deadline set to appoint someone so as not to put "unnecessary stress on ourselves", but said the STTA will consider anyone who proves to be suitable - including former head coach Jing Junhong.
Jing was at the helm from 2012 but redeployed as chief coach (youth development) in November 2015 following an internal coaching conflict with the women's team.
But the former national paddler has a vote of confidence from Lee, who said: "She (Jing) has proven herself exceptionally well. We have great faith in her."
Change is also afoot on the sponsorship front. The STTA has been one of the most successful national sports governing bodies in securing sponsorship dollars, pulling in seven-figure sums a year at one point.
But it is now seeking a fresh injection of funds after its partnership with several sponsors ended as the terms changed or ran out.
For instance, its competition jersey no longer bears the 100Plus logo on the front although Lee maintained that the brand continues to sponsor in kind.
The isotonic drink, produced by Fraser & Neave, had been one of the STTA's biggest backers, first inking a $750,000, three-year deal in 2011, then extending it to the end of last year with another $800,000 partnership.
Said Lee: "Sponsors also have their changes as well - in management, in thinking, in philosophy, and we have to respect that.
"It's not our right to demand sponsorship. It's a question of us approaching more sponsors who feel they are ready to sponsor."
This article was first published on Mar 07, 2017.
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