Head coach Jing praises paddlers despite Asian Games defeat to Japan
The retirements of Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu after the 2012 London Olympics may have signalled the end of an era, a time that saw Singapore table tennis knocking on the door of Chinese domination.
Perhaps here at the Asian Games, new hope has been forged - not in an joyous victory, but in agonising defeat.
Singapore's women fell 3-2 to Japan last night at the Suwon Gymnasium in the semi-finals of the Asian Games team event and, with no bronze play-off, will share the medal with North Korea, who fell 3-0 to China in the night's other semi-final.
It was not the medal that brought a smile to women's coach Jing Junhong.
"Although it's a pity we lost today, it was good to see the younger players come out and fight in their first semi-final (at a major Games)," she said.
World No. 10 Yu Mengyu - Singapore's next best paddler behind world No. 4 Feng Tianwei - had been ruled out of the Asiad with a back injury before last night's semi-final, leaving third-ranked Singapore as clear underdogs against world No. 2 outfit, Japan.
But 20-year-old Zhou Yihan stepped up to the plate, with Lin Ye, 18, a little less effective, but just as stirring.
Lin and Feng fell in the first two singles match-ups, seeing Japan race to a 2-0 lead but, then, came Zhou, gangly frame bouncing around the table, virtually expressionless even in the face of dropped points.
Against Sayaka Hirano, compact, energetic and audibly talking to herself between points, often nodding in agreement with her own words, the two could not have been more different.
Instincts pointed to the more gregarious 29-year-old as the more likely winner, especially after she took a tight first set 13-11, but Zhou dug in.
The Singaporean eventually took the see-saw match 3-2 (11-13, 11-8, 3-11, 11-8, 11-3). And the reigning Olympic bronze medallists were back in it.
"Without Mengyu, we lost only 3-2," said a tired Feng, who, as per the format of the event, returned to play in the fourth singles.
"And it was because these two kids gave us some hope."
Feng promptly despatched Ai Fukuhara 3-1 in 30 minutes to level the tie at 2-2 and, suddenly, it was no longer a lost cause.
As Feng put her match to rest, Lin, the next paddler up, bounced up and down on the sidelines. Maybe it was nerves, or a simple way to warm her engines.
When she stepped to the table, Lin let fly. She attacked Kasumi Ishikawa from the get go, but got little joy.
Grimacing, she threw her head to the side at every point lost and there were many in the first two sets, as she went down 11-2 and 11-7.
But she came back.
Winning 11-7 in the third set, Lin earned nods and applause from her coach and teammates, only for youth to succumb in the end.
She fell 11-4 in the final set, but not before earning plaudits from her team.
"Despite the loss, I am very satisfied," said Jing. There is a gap in technique between Lin Ye and (Ishikawa) but, for this 18-year-old to play like she did, gives us hope for the future."
With Feng and Yu as the pillars and the burgeoning potential of Zhou and Lin, confidence is already starting to grow in the Singapore camp.
"I think the next time we meet (Japan), we'll have a better chance to win," said Jing.
"Although it’s a pity we lost today, it was good to see the younger players come out and fight in their first semi-final (at a major Games)."
- Singapore women’s table tennis coach Jing Junhong