World No. 8 Feng Tianwei still gets the butterflies
Singapore's star paddler aims to ease herself into world champs
One could sense that the organisers faced a race against time to get the Malawati Stadium ready for the World Team Table Tennis Championships, which begin today.
The sound system was being tested while a number of paddlers were busy working out the finer aspects of their play, at the same time a 10m-long partition that cut off a corridor from the press conference room collapsed midway during the pre-event media conference.
There are some who wonder how well prepared the Singapore's women's table tennis team are for the world championships.
They will kick off their campaign this morning against France, before facing Ukraine later in the evening and while names like Carole Grundisch (France) and Tetyana Bilenko (Ukraine), ranked 97th and 49th in the world, respectively, are unlikely to hurt them, Singapore's Feng Tianwei, the most experienced paddler in squad, admitted she was nervous.
After training yesterday, the world No. 8 said: "I am quite anxious about tomorrow; we've just had a new coach (two weeks ago) and this is an important competition before the Olympics, so it's important to get our form up.
"It will be physically demanding on me personally because I could be playing two matches in each tie tomorrow... I won't be in my best form since it's the start of the tournament, but I'll be trying out some of the new techniques that our new coach (Chen Zhibin) has taught us."
Feng, 29, will not underestimate her opponents, and there is just cause for her to be cautious.
After all, the Singaporean has suffered upsets in recent months against lower-ranked opponents on the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour, including a 4-3 reverse against chopper Bilenko at the Swedish Open last November.
But Chen said Feng had been brushing up on her weakness against defensive specialists, and does not see a problem getting results today.
The team have a sports psychologist with them to help with the paddlers' mental preparation.
The draw has been kind to the Singapore women - they are drawn in Group C with Holland, Poland, Ukraine, France and Belarus - and they also got the rub of the green with their match schedule.
After the double-header today, Feng and Co. will face Belarus tomorrow, Poland the day after, before ending their group-stage campaign against Holland, giving Singapore's paddlers enough time to get up to speed on court.
The top team from each of the four groups will advance to the last eight, while the second and third-placed teams will battle it out to see who will join them in the quarter-finals.
Singapore's world No. 34, Yu Mengyu, said: "I've been having problems with my form of late and... I'd prefer to face the stronger teams later because hopefully I'd be in better shape then."
The Singapore men will also be in action this afternoon.
Gao Ning and Co. start their Group C campaign against Poland.
Singapore Women's team still a force, say rivals
The Singapore women's table tennis team may be a shadow of the powerful team they once were, but the giants are certainly not counting them out.
The team have won a silver and bronze at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, respectively, with Feng Tianwei also clinched an individual bronze in London four years ago.
But Feng, 29, as well as fellow senior player Yu Mengyu, have been out of form for months, leading to upsets by lower-ranked opponents.
The team have had three coaches in the last six months - Jing Junhong was replaced by Liu Jiayi last November, while current coach Chen Zhibin took over the reins just two weeks ago.
Once they were ranked second in the world behind mighty China, today they have fallen to seventh, which may prove crucial with the Olympic draw and seeding for the team event.
Yet, both China's world No. 2 Ding Ning and Japan's world No. 4 Ai Fukuhara believe Singapore will be a force to be reckoned with at both the world championships and the Olympics.
Ding Ning said: "They may have changed their coaches and the players' forms may have fluctuated, but Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu are excellent players, and it's normal for paddlers to experience highs and lows.
"So, I believe they will have made their adjustments before major competitions such as these.
"The absence of players such as Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan would definitely affect the overall standard of the Singapore team at this World Championships, but at the Olympics, their inclusion will be a breath of fresh air for them, and they would still be a very strong team."
Lin Ye and Zhou Yihan, ranked 56th and 45th in the world, are not eligible for the world championships because they have yet to satisfy residency rules in Singapore set by the International Table Tennis Federation.
There are no such restrictions for the Olympics.
Japan's Fukuhara is also not underestimating Singapore's strength, even though Japan defeated Singapore en route to winning team silver, behind China, at the London Olympics, although Feng beat Kasumi Ishikawa for the women's singles bronze.
Fukuhara said: "All along they (Singapore) have been our biggest rivals, at the Olympics if we want to win a medal we have to beat Singapore. It was this case in London.
"Players can't play well all the time, but they are still a very, very big threat to us."
- LIM SAY HENG