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Women’s table tennis team fails to qualify for Olympics

Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) Poh Li San said inexperience has cost the women’s team a place at the Paris Olympics, ending a run that spanned four Summer Games beginning at the 2008 edition in Beijing.

The latest world team ranking was released on March 4, and the Republic slipped from 10th to 18th. This meant they missed out on the last four qualifying spots based on world rankings. These instead went to Thailand (No. 11), Poland (12), India (13) and Sweden (15).

The drop in rankings came after the trio of Zeng Jian, Zhou Jingyi and Wong Xin Ru were defeated 3-0 by Poland in the round of 32 at February’s World Team Table Tennis Championships in Busan, South Korea. Had they beaten the Poles and progressed to the last 16, they would have secured enough ranking points to qualify for the Olympics.

Poh attributed the team’s decline to the retirement of China-born players Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu and Lin Ye, who were all ranked in the top 35 at some point, as well as inexperience.

Feng has three Olympic medals to her name, while she and Yu were part of the side that beat China to become world champions in 2010. The likes of Wang Yuegu and Li Jiawei, part of the women’s team that captured silver at Beijing 2008 and bronze at London 2012, had also stopped playing years earlier.

Poh said: “Both our men’s and women’s teams comprise almost all local-born players – such as Clarence Chew, Izaac Quek, Koen Pang, Xin Ru and Jingyi – trained through the STTA’s junior development squad and Singapore Sports School’s school-within-a-school system.

“Zeng Jian is the only foreign-born talent in the national team and she only started representing Singapore in 2022 at the SEA Games in Vietnam.

“The average age of the women’s team is 21 years old, the second-youngest team out of the 64 teams at the world championships after Japan. Hence, our team are admittedly still rather raw and inexperienced compared to the other teams.”

The same trio of Zeng, Zhou and Wong had reached the quarter-finals of the 2022 world championships and came close to a surprise joint-bronze before losing 3-2 to Chinese Taipei in the quarter-final.

But in 2024, when more countries fielded their strongest team with Olympic quotas at stake, the Singaporeans struggled. All three women lost their individual matches 3-2 to their Polish opponents.

STTA senior high performance manager Eddy Tay said the team worked with a sports psychologist during their training camp in Shimada, Japan, before the world championships and will continue to do so.

Zeng plays in the Pro A women’s league in France, Zhou competes in the Campeonato Nacional in Portugal, while Wong features in the Austrian National League. Such exposure against strong competitiors in European leagues is necessary and will benefit the players, said Tay.

The association’s high-performance committee carries out a thorough analysis after every major Games and tournament, added Poh, and will review what further technical refinements and training programmes are required.

She did not want to comment on whether there will be changes to the coaching team, which is led by national women’s coach Jing Junhong, but said: “With more time and exposure, I am confident that both our men’s and women’s teams will do better in future competitions.”

Under Gao Ning, the men’s team lost 3-0 to Iran at the world championshpis round of 32 and also missed out on Olympic qualification. Their last appearance was at the quadrennial Games was in 2012.

Spots in the individual events at Paris 2024 are still up for grabs, however.

World No. 24 mixed doubles pair Chew and Zeng will hope to claim one of four tickets available at a qualification event in Havirov, Czech Republic from April 11-12. There are six men’s and women’s singles quotas available at the May 6-12 continental Olympic qualification tournament, while another route is though world rankings.

Zeng, ranked 57th in the women’s singles, said: “We are very disappointed to not have qualified for the Olympics women’s team event but we will continue to work hard and give it our all to try to qualify for the individual events.”

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