Injuries behind him, Yang Zi's looking forward
He had not played a singles match for so long - eight months to be exact - that he does not even have a world ranking now.
At last year's World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, he lost all but one of his matches even though the Singapore men's team came in fifth for their best finish, and looked out of sorts and out of shape.
But, after edging out Clarence Chew 4-3 (6-11, 11-9, 10-12, 11-6, 11-5, 6-11, 11-9) in a thrilling National Grand Finale men's singles final at the Lee Kong Chian Toa Payoh Table Tennis Training Hall yesterday afternoon, a fitter former Singapore No. 1 Yang Zi told The New Paper that his injury woes are behind him.
"You are not going to see a new Yang Zi, hopefully you will see the old one," quipped the 30-year-old, who was ranked as high as world No. 21 in 2008.
Yang was not so optimistic a year ago, after a slipped disc made him wonder whether if his decade-long service as a national paddler was coming to a premature end.
The affable, 1.84m-tall southpaw recalled: "It was Jan 3, 2014. I remember that day all too well. I was training here and something just went in my back and I couldn't move.
"To get from the second floor to the first, I took 20 minutes. That's how bad it was.
"After the slipped disc was diagnosed, doctors suggested surgery but I was worried about the risks and opted for more conservative treatment instead.
"I was in great pain, but I had to try to give my best for the national team at the World Championships because we didn't have the depth (Zhan Jian, Li Hu and Chen Feng were ineligible then). Thankfully, Clarence stepped up to win some crucial matches.
"I grew to 86kg because I couldn't train or play. I could only work hard on my back muscles and, thankfully, it improved gradually.
"I'm relieved to be back playing without pain and, yes, I have lost 10kg, trying to make up for lost time in training."
Since taking up citizenship in 2005, Yang has won many medals for Singapore, most notably in mixed doubles events, where he has remained unbeaten at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games and Commonwealth Games.
Even though he was calm while claiming his fourth National Grand Finale singles title yesterday - his first since 2010 - the triumph must have meant a lot in terms of restoring belief.
But Yang knows there are bigger challenges ahead of him - namely the SEA Games in June, and qualifying for next year's Olympics.
"It is a big thing for Singapore, with the SEA Games held at home ground in our 50th year of independence, and we definitely want to contribute as many gold medals as we can," he said.
"The Singapore Table Tennis Association has come a long way since its humble beginnings from when I first joined, to the successful, well-oiled machine it is now. All the success I have achieved would not be possible without the STTA.
"This upcoming SEA Games would also be a personal milestone for me, marking 10 years since my first SEA Games in 2005. It's up to the coach to decide who plays in which event, but I would love to win the mixed doubles again.
"There's also the Olympics, which we have to try to get as many ranking points from now on to boost both the team and individual rankings.
"The pressure is definitely on, but you can be assured everyone in the team will be giving their all for Singapore."
- Yang Zi bt Clarence Chew 4-3 (6-11, 11-9, 10-12, 11-6, 11-5, 6-11, 11-9)
- Feng Tianwei bt Lin Ye 4-0 (11-6, 11-8, 11-7, 11-9)
- Daniel Wong/Goh Yi Long bt Zhai Yu/Darren Loy 3-2 (11-6, 5-11, 11-13, 11-7, 11-7)
- Lin Ye/Zhou Yihan bt Ang Wan Qi/Tay Hui Li 3-0 (11-3, 11-5, 11-4)
- Darren Loy/Ang Wan Qi bt Jonas Ang/Tan En Hui 3-1 (11-5, 6-11, 13-11, 11-9).