Doubles events hold key to clean sweep for paddlers
Men and women could trigger off a gold rush for table tennis, and Singapore
June 2, 7pm, Singapore Indoor Stadium.
That could be the moment the Republic's table tennis team march towards an all-conquering seven gold medals at this year's South-east Asia (SEA)Games, and a record overall haul for hosts Singapore by the time all competitions come to an end on June 16.
The women's doubles title will be the first gold on offer at the Games, with world No. 4 Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu (13th), expected to feature in the final, possibly against teammates Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan.
That final will be immediately followed by the men's doubles final, where the Republic's Gao Ning and Li Hu are the hot favourites for gold, with their opponents possibly compatriots Chen Feng and Clarence Chew.
The two finals will set the tone for the Singapore table tennis team, and they have been working extra hard at three doubles events - including the mixed doubles - ahead of the SEA Games.
Speaking on the sidelines of the team's SEA Games media conference at the Singapore Table Tennis Association's Toa Payoh headquarters yesterday, men's head coach Yang Chuanning said: "The doubles events are crucial; we are rather strong in the singles and the team events but, in the doubles, there's more room for surprises, so our preparations in this area have to be stronger."
The 28th SEA Games officially begins on June 5 with the opening ceremony at the National Stadium, but some sports, like table tennis, football and netball, start slightly earlier.
Thailand and Vietnam have been singled out by both Yang and women's head coach Jing Junhong as the biggest threats, while individual paddlers from Indonesia and Malaysia may cause trouble in the singles events.
Singapore have won 22 out of 23 gold medals at the SEA Games since 2007, with only Vietnam successfully getting in the way in the men's doubles title in 2009.
Team manager Eddy Tay said: "There are several left-handed players in both Thailand and Vietnam and, for this centralised training, we invited the Taiwanese team, which comprise some left-handers, and a South Korean to train with us."
While the squad's main goal for the Games will be gold, both coaches will also be looking at how the younger paddlers perform and handle the tremendous pressure of playing in front of a home crowd.
While Chew and Isabelle Li have experienced such an environment at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games here, young guns Chen Feng, Lin Ye and Zhou will gain valuable experience competing at a home Games.
Women's singles world No. 61, Zhou, said: "Our competitive experience is rather limited, especially in big competitions, so this Games will be important for us for the future.
"We are already feeling the Games atmosphere now, and it's important for us to play to our best."
"I'd like to get the gold medal if I can!" added the 21-year-old, who will compete in the women's and mixed doubles, as well as the women's team event.
STTA deputy president Alex Yam added: "We hope to win all the events... we have worked very hard and fielded our best possible team.
"We are leaving nothing to chance into our last stretch of preparations before the Games.
"We will be playing on home ground... and there will be a lot of positive reinforcement from the majority of the crowd cheering for us, which also means expectations are far higher.
"But our paddlers relish that challenge, and they will do their best."
Clarence hopes for another golden flourish on home soil
Five years ago, Clarence Chew experienced the magic of a boisterous home crowd at the Singapore Indoor Stadium when he competed at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
He loved feeling it and hearing it, for the adrenaline rush and the inspiration.
Now 19, the national table tennis player is relishing a return to the same arena where he enjoyed his breakout international tournament, when he represents Singapore at the 28th South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
Chew was described by men's head coach Yang Chuanning as the de facto No. 2 in the team, behind world No. 15 Gao Ning, and the duo will be competing in all three events of the men's competition.
"The atmosphere will probably be the same but, this time, there will be more expectations because it's the SEA Games and we are the top country (in the sport)," said Chew, who will compete in the men's singles and team events, as well as the men's doubles with Chen Feng.
"I really liked that atmosphere in 2010, I am sure I will experience it again this year and, hopefully, it will spur us on to play ever better.
"This is the first time I am taking on three events and I want to repay STTA's (Singapore Table Tennis Association) faith by doing well in all of them."
Chew will be joined by his fellow YOG teammate Isabelle Li, who will be competing in the women's singles and team events.
"I really hope to give my best performance during the SEA Games, especially since we have the homeground advantage," said Li, 20, the women's singles silver medallist at both at the 2011 and 2013 SEA Games.
"I have more experience now, having competed in two SEA Games already... most times in competition my biggest opponent is myself, so the most important thing for me is to play to the best of my abilities."