Table Tennis: Young paddlers punch above their weight at SEA Championships, ready to step up at senior level

The Straits Times by DAVID LEE

The retirement of stalwarts Gao Ning, Yang Zi, Zhan Jian and Pang Xue Jie in recent years, and the sacking of Li Hu for disciplinary reasons, have left a void in Singapore's men's table tennis team but the next generation is ready to step up.

Led by 22-year-old Clarence Chew, the team of mostly teenagers put up a strong showing at the Nov 15-18 South-east Asian Table Tennis Championships in Bali - winning four golds (singles, doubles, team and mixed doubles), two silvers and three bronzes.

Chew took the singles gold by beating Koen Pang, who partnered Ethan Poh to doubles success. Goi Rui Xuan added a women's singles title as Singapore won five out of seven events, and had four silvers and seven bronzes as well. More impressively, the paddlers swept the top four positions in both singles.

The fresh crop of talented youngsters bodes well for next year's SEA Games in the Philippines.

"Players like Clarence and Ethan have been to several major games. They have also won SEA Games medals," said Singapore Table Tennis Association's senior high performance manager Eddy Tay.

"This year, Koen reached the men's doubles semi-finals at the Commonwealth Games and finished in the top eight of the Youth Olympics.

"With such strong showings, we think they deserve to be selected for the SEA Games."

Koen, 16, admitted that there is now more pressure on local-born players to step up. But he relishes the challenge, saying: "Since the China-born players stepped down, the pressure is on us, the local-born paddlers, to produce the results.

"It helps that we train together often. It has helped to build understanding, chemistry and friendship among the players."

While the women's team can still count on their A-listers Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu, the young ones showed their potential at the championships in Indonesia, with Rui Xuan, 17, defeating Wong Xin Ru, 16, in the singles final.

Tay added: "At the SEA Games level, our local-born girls can compete with the top nations. They took gold, silver and bronze in the women's singles event which showed their potential and ability."