Teen paddlers Izaac Quek, Zhou Jingyi make their mark in Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM - An injection of youthful exuberance has helped Singapore's men's and women's table tennis teams in their Commonwealth Games medal hunts and offer optimism for future silverware.
Izaac Quek and Zhou Jingyi, 16 and 17 respectively, may be the youngest paddlers from either squad but both have impressed with their matured performances.
After being overlooked for selection at the Hanoi SEA Games in May, Izaac has seized his chance in Birmingham where he is making his major Games debut.
He won both his doubles and singles match in the group stage and featured four times in the knockout rounds, posting a commendable two wins and two losses.
He and teammates Clarence Chew, Ethan Poh and Koen Pang also battled bravely in the 3-1 defeat by India in the gold medal match on Tuesday (Aug 2).
Izaac,who became the first Singaporean to top the Under-15 boys' world ranking list in April last year, said: "It's very satisfying if you win, not only just by your abilities, but also using your brain to think, how to outplay or counter my opponent.
"Although I've played it for so many years, I still find new things to learn. It's a very creative sport... so that's what keeps me motivated."
After a rest day on Wednesday, he returned fired up on Thursday, partnering Jingyi in the mixed doubles as they easily beat South Africans Shaun Jones and Musfiquh Kalam 3-0 (11-6, 11-6, 11-3) in the opening round of 64.
Jingyi, who won all seven of her matches in the women's team event as she, Feng Tianwei, Zeng Jian and Goi Rui Xuan reclaimed the gold medal, is fully committed to her chosen path.
She graduated from the Singapore Sports School's polytechnic through-train programme last year but has put her studies on hold to focus on table tennis.
Jingyi, who clinched two silver medals at the recent SEA Games, said: "Everyone knows not everything goes smoothly, there are bound to be ups and downs. I know I'm doing this for myself, I have the passion for this game and it's something that I want to do and need to do."
Izaac, who picked up the sport at seven, could take a similar route. The Singapore Sports School student is planning to take a gap year to focus on next year's SEA Games in Cambodia and September's Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Both teenagers have enjoyed success in their early careers, winning several World Table Tennis youth events, they acknowledged that competing at the senior level is a different challenge but are determined to realise their dreams of competing at the Olympic Games one day.
Their respective coaches are cautiously optimistic. Gao Ning, national men's team coach, noted that Izaac "has a good feel for the competition environment and grasp of his opponents' technical abilities" while his backhand attack is his biggest strength.
But the three-time Olympian added that there was still plenty of work needed for Izaac's forehand strength and application as well as physical conditioning.
Head coach of the national women's table tennis team Jin Junhong praised Jingyi's mental strength, particularly given her inexperience at major Games where the quality of opponents was higher than at youth tournaments.
She said: "The bigger the stress, the stronger she bounces off it, and this is a quality I feel every elite athlete must have. From a technical point of view, she still has to level up in many areas through competitions.
"As she enters senior competition, this is a good start but there is no instant success. She will need to learn how to manage setbacks and defeats.
"Ups and downs are inevitable and we need to be here for her, help her set and achieve short-term milestones and long-term targets along the way."