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Published: 07 Jan 2011 07:30PM (Singapore)
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Rekindling the ping-pong passion
How the young table tennis athletes in the Singapore Youth Olympics Games made our writer want to pick up her old table tennis bat again.
By Tan Yi Wen
16-year-old Koki Niwa (in black) of Japan handled the pressure well during the boys' singles match of the mixed team finals for a 3-2 win over South Korea's Kim Dong Hyun (in red). Niwa is the only table tennis player to remain unbeaten in the YOG after winning both the boys' singles and mixed team gold medals. PHOTO: Tan Yi Wen

Alright, I admit that I was not too excited about going to watch the Youth Olympics Games (YOG) table tennis mixed team bronze medal and finals matches.

As a former table tennis player myself in my school days, I had watched world number ones live in action and even gotten the autographs of a few.

Surely these youths cannot be as good to watch as the world class acts that I used to watch live, I thought.

So I entered the Indoor Stadium that day prepared to sit through a few hours of boring matches, but I left the venue re-inspired instead.

I never thought that the values of sportsmanship, teamwork, humility and perseverance that were instilled in me during my table tennis days would once again be reflected in youth athletes I saw that day.

It has been more than three years since I practised my forehand drives. While I played table tennis competitively for seven years of my school life, I promptly chucked my bat into the drawer for the more exciting activities of college life.

When I graduated and found a job, my table tennis days were driven even further from my mind as I dived into the uncharted waves of the working world.

But as I sat amongst a group of cheering students in the spectator stands that Thursday morning, I marvelled at how enthusiastic the students in the audience cheered for their favourite teams.

Then I remembered how I used to cheer my fellow team mates on until my voice turned hoarse too.

I expected the youth athletes to be nervous, because it must be nerve-wrecking to play in front of such a big crowd.

Unlike team sports like football and basketball, table tennis is a fairly individual sport, with at most a fellow doubles partner standing beside you on the 'battle ground'. I still remember fighting to keep my trembling hands under control while trying to serve the ball during big matches.

I watched Japan's Koki Niwa pull one stunning backhand smash after another as he fought to help even the score after his teammate Ayuka Tanioka lost the opening game against South Korea's Yang Ha Eun in the girls' singles of the mixed team finals.

The calm professionalism exuded by Niwa during the YOG eventually helped Japan clinch the mixed team gold medal, which is an event consisting of a boys' singles match, a girls' singles match and a mixed doubles match.

Niwa is the only table tennis player who remained unbeaten in the Singapore Youth Olympics.

The 16-year-old had been competing at the international level since July 2007.

Currently ranked 83rd on the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Men's World Ranking, Niwa won the ITTF Japan Open Men's Doubles title in July last year with teammate Kenta Matsudaira, beating higher-ranked and more experienced players along the way.

The Intercontinental Team 1, consisting of Tunisia's Adem Hmam (bottom left) and China's Gu Yuting (bottom right) cheering after winning the table tennis mixed team bronze medal by beating the North Korean team of Kim Kwang Song (top left) and Kim Song I (top right). PHOTO: Tan Yi Wen

Another match that piqued my interest was the earlier Bronze medal mixed team match. I was disappointed to hear that the Under-15 World No. 1 Yin Hang had withdrawn from the entire Games following an injury before the event.

It was therefore a curious sight at first for me to see the relatively-unknown Tunisian Adem Hmam taking the place of Yin and partnering China's Gu Yuting to the mixed team event, where they won the bronze medal.

When the interviewer asked Gu how it felt to win the mixed team bronze, she replied in Mandarin that she felt even happier than when she won the gold medal in the earlier girls' singles event.

This is because even though there was a language barrier in communicating with her doubles partner Hmam, she was glad that their constant mutual encouragement in simple English and teamwork paid off.

Such cross-cultural partnership, while common in other sports such as football and tennis, is rather unheard of in the table tennis world where China and other East Asian nations dominate.

Known as the Intercontinental Team 1, I thought Gu and Hmam exemplified the spirit of the YOG in promoting cross-cultural interaction among the youth athletes.

Watching the youths reminded me of why I picked up my first table tennis bat so many years ago.

While the YOG table tennis matches I saw may not have been played at the high international level that I was used to watching, they were played with as much spirit, teamwork, determination and passion as any world-class sports player would.

Now I just need to go dig out my table tennis bat from my drawer and find a willing partner to play with.  

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