Four debutants to the fore at SEA Games table-tennis competition
Goi, Xin Ru, Chua and Koen aim to help Singapore maintain dominance at SEA Games table-tennis competition
Four local-born teenage paddlers - Koen Pang, Josh Chua, Wong Xin Ru and Goi Rui Xuan - are aiming for a smashing debut at the SEA Games in the Philippines from Nov 30-Dec 11.
The quartet, who were promoted to the senior team earlier this year, make up half the squad heading to Subic, the others being seniors Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu, Ethan Poh and Clarence Chew.
Unlike the last edition in Kuala Lumpur, where Singapore's paddlers bagged five golds, six silvers and one bronze, there will be no team event this time around. Hence, they will be targeting a clean sweep of the singles and doubles events.
Koen, who is eyeing a gold in either the men's singles or doubles, is on a positive momentum following a breakthrough year.
In August, the 17-year-old became the first Singapore paddler to reach the junior world No. 1 ranking. He also caused an upset at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships four months ago, when he sent then-world No. 32 Sharath Kamal Achanta packing.
Trailing 3-1 and on the brink of elimination, Koen discovered Sharath's weakness and managed to win 4-3 and qualify for the semi-finals.
"That was an important win this year. (I learnt) to not stop believing in myself. There was a technique that the opponent couldn't answer to," he said during a media event at the Singapore Sports School yesterday.
"So, you can still come back from a deficit. Also, I focused on every ball instead of the result."
Koen acknowledged that his promotion to the senior national team has added pressure on him, but he has improved technically and mentally.
The full-time paddler has gained great exposure with numerous competitions and training stints all over the world. He recently returned from a six-week sojourn in Europe, training in Sweden, Germany, Belarus and Poland.
He said: "I learnt to change my game by knowing all the things that I can do with every ball, and then which kind of shot to play."
Men's coach Gao Ning, who won two golds and a silver at the last SEA Games before retiring last year, is confident that Koen will perform well despite lacking experience.
"For Koen, speed is his advantage. He is also a left-hander with a strong forehand," said Gao through a translator.
Gao added that Koen's doubles partner, Chua, complements him well with his "control and fast movement".
The 18-year-old Raffles Institution student has also had a successful year.
Since January, Chua jumped over 650 spots in the world rankings and now sits at world No. 395. He attributed it to the multiple training and competitions he gets now.
"We train about 12 sessions a week and we have back-to-back overseas competitions and training camps. That allows us to play against more experienced players... and learn more skills," he said.
Chua is in school by sunrise and heads straight for training at 4.30pm. Then he practises till 10pm, with an hour's dinner break in between.
His steep improvement also came from sacrifices like deferring his A-level exams.
"I discussed with my parents for a long time and we talked to the school too. We found that this is the best choice for me, so that I can focus on SEA Games this year and then A levels next year."
Goi, 18, also put her sports and leisure management diploma studies at Republic Polytechnic on hold, after deciding to train full-time last year.
"I feel that I have a heavier responsibility as I'm a full-time athlete, so I have to set higher targets for myself," she said.
"There are big expectations from the people around me. But I've received a lot of support from friends and coaches and that helps me to improve at a faster pace."
Having been able to focus on training has helped Goi hone her craft. This year alone, she has participated in 10 competitions in countries such as Qatar, Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Goi, Chua and Koen will also compete at the World Junior Championships from Nov 24-Dec 1 in Korat, Thailand, before the SEA Games competition five days later.
Goi's Games target is at least a bronze in the women's doubles, in which she will be pairing up with Xin Ru, 17.
Women's coach Hao Anlin believes this partnership shows promise, saying: "Goi is diligent and consistent. Xin Ru is smart, tall with a wide reach and plays with a backhand-pimple style, which is an advantage for us."
Xin Ru, a second-year business student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, had a baptism of fire at April's World Championships in Hungary, where she met China's world No. 1 Chen Meng.
Although Xin Ru lost 4-0, she impressed in the first two sets by stretching Chen to 11-9, 11- 9.
"Since transiting to the senior team, there are more expectations in terms of skill, performance and even mental strength, (so) I learnt how to deal with the different kinds of pressure internally and externally," she said.
"(Goi and I) don't want to pressure ourselves by being too result-focused. We aim for the gold medal but will be happy with a podium finish."