Thai Noppawan keeps focus to bag women's tennis crown
Top-ranked Thai bounces back to beat compatriot for women's singles title
Some of them clad in flamboyant traditional Thai suits and flashy head-dresses, they kept up a constant refrain of cheers.
They formed a group of boisterous Thai fans occupying a corner of the spectator stands.
In fact, almost directly in Noppawan Lertcheewakarn's line of sight.
They were impossible to ignore, but the 23-year-old Thai kept her steely gaze fixed on compatriot and doubles partner Varatchaya Wongteanchai as the latter prepared to serve in the women's singles final at the SEA Games tennis competition at Kallang yesterday.
It was only after Noppawan won the match that she acknowledged the Thai cheering section with a smile and performed the wai, pressing her palms together and bowing slightly in gratitude.
Citing women's world No. 1 Serena Williams as her inspiration, Noppawan said: "She's just outstanding; she's won everything and she doesn't even have to play a lot of tournaments.
"She knows what she's doing, and she's just very focused - that's why I like her."
The 2009 junior Wimbledon champion did well to emulate her idol's focus yesterday, as she regrouped after an error-strewn first set to outlast 25-year-old Varatchaya 3-6, 6-0, 6-4 to win her first individual singles gold of the Games.
"I'm very proud of myself," said Noppawan, who had been runner-up at the 2011 Games in Palembang - the last time tennis featured at the biennial event.
"I lost the first set because I made so many mistakes. So, after that I just kept hitting and focused on getting the ball in to take the pace off a little.
"I'm glad I managed to come back and win the gold medal."
For Noppawan, whose singles ranking reached a career high of 149 in 2011, this Games represents a chance for her to make her comeback into professional tennis.
Reflecting on the difficulty of succeeding at bigger tournaments after she had won the girls' singles title at Wimbledon, Noppawan said: "My schedule wasn't well-organised, as I didn't play enough of the smaller tournaments.
"I went straight for the big tournaments, and I couldn't get enough wins to boost my confidence and ranking."
The double-hander had also aggravated an ankle injury when she insisted on competing in the qualifying rounds of last year's US Open.
"I stopped for one week and went straight to the US Open," said Noppawan, wincing slightly as she recalled the memory.
"I really wanted to play, so I just forced myself to carry on, and then my injury became worse."
Now world-ranked 412 in singles, Noppawan is gearing up for a return to the top 200.
"I'm coming back from the injury, and I'm getting a little bit more match play," she said.
"The SEA Games experience will help my progress as I've had a lot of good matches in singles and doubles, and I've learned to focus on myself instead of thinking too much about my opponent.
"My goal is to be in the top 200 at the end of this year."
Suwat Liptapanlop, president of Thailand's Lawn Tennis Association is confident Noppawan has what it takes to ascend the ranks of professional tennis.
He said: "Noppawan has always been a good player.
"Sometimes the transition from juniors to the women's events takes some time, but she is much more mature and definitely stronger now."
Yesterday's results (selected):
Women's singles final:
Noppawan Lertcheewakarn (THA) bt Varatchaya Wongteanchai (THA) 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Men's doubles final:
Sanchai Ratiwatana/Sonchat Ratiwatana (THA) bt Jeson Patrombon/Ruben Gonzales Jr (PHI) 6-4, 6-4.