Singapore table tennis women reach World Championships' knock-out rounds
Singapore's young women's team have exceeded expectations by qualifying for the knock-out rounds at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Chengdu, China.
With an average age of 21, and missing stalwart Feng Tianwei, they managed to top a tricky Group 4 and will now face the Czech Republic in the round of 16.
There, they will be hoping to go at least one step further than they did at the last edition in 2018, when they fell 3-2 to Ukraine at the same stage.
On Tuesday, they concluded their group campaign with an inconsequential 3-1 defeat by Thailand. They had secured top spot earlier by beating Iran and Luxembourg 3-0, and South Korea 3-1, defeating several higher-ranked players along the way.
Their achievement is all the more remarkable, with Feng, a member of the 2010 championship-winning team, now a full-time student at Peking University.
Their coach Jing Junhong said: "Topping the group was unexpected but what is important is our young guns fought hard for each win.
"One of the biggest factors behind their group-stage success is their team spirit which has helped them deliver outstanding performances at the tables."
She credited "core player" Zeng Jian for "playing very well alongside youngsters like Zhou Jingyi and Wong Xin Ru".
However, Jing is not taking their early success for granted, saying: "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves and overthink things. We will do our best to prepare and let the girls take it one match at a time. Only with a good mentality and fighting spirit can we move up to a higher level."
World No. 130 Zhou, the youngest member of the squad at 17, contributed a memorable comeback 3-2 win over Luxembourg's Ni Xialian, a 59-year-old who had won this tournament with China in 1983.
She said: "From 2-0 down, I was surprised to beat an experienced player who had taken two points off South Korea earlier. I didn't really think about winning or losing because she is still a very good player despite her age.
"We prepared thoroughly in terms of technique and tactics and will continue to try and do so."
Singapore's men however, have been eliminated after finishing third in Group 7. With an average age of 20.2 years, they delivered a better performance and result than in 2018. Then, they lost all five group matches to finish bottom.
In this edition, squandered match points prevented them from scoring an upset over Croatia (they lost 3-2), and they were beaten 3-0 by Belgium before a solid 3-1 win over Chinese Taipei.
World No. 116 Koen Pang said: "It feels very wasted that we were not able to capitalise on the opportunities we had.
"The positives are that we were able to compete against some of the best players in the world. We need to learn to be more confident and not second guess ourselves at crucial moments."
Their coach Gao Ning felt his players were generally above par, but demanded improvement.
He added: "From a leading position, we lost to Croatia mainly because we were not strong mentally and our foundation skills were not stable enough. There were too many errors and we contributed to our own downfall.
"But such matches are exactly what our players need to go through to learn how to navigate tournaments better. The ability to play under pressure is there, but sometimes the will to win is not strong enough. The boys still need to add more scoring weapons to their arsenal."