By Raj Kumar for Team Singapore Website
Feng Tianwei has met world number 1 Ding Ning on nine other occasions prior to their encounter at the Excel Arena in the Olympic women’s singles semi-finals. And their head-to-head record stands at eight losses and one win for the Singaporean. And that solitary victory came in the 2010 World Team Championships, when the Republic’s women’s team stunned the Chinese to be crowned champions. Thus, it was always going to be an uphill task to defeat Ding Ning in London last night.
Day 4 of the Games started well for Tianwei, when she took down the Korean veteran Kim Kyungah 4-2. It was a seesaw battle in the quarterfinals that got underway at 10am London time. The Singaporean paddler had a good start, winning the first 2 games 13-11 and 11-7. Kim won the 3rd game 11-4. It was the 4th game that was the crucial point of their encounter. Tianwei was trailing by 4-5 points and coach Jing Junhong, called for a timeout. That allowed Tianwei to refocus and she came back strongly to win 11-6. The next 2 games were close affairs, with Kim winning 12-10 and Tianwei finishing up the match with a closely fought 12-10. “It was a good tactical move on Junhong’s part and that 4th game was the turning point”, said team manager, Loy Soo Han.
Tianwei had about five hours rest before returning to play in arguably, the biggest match of her career. She was about to face an opponent who surprisingly, was taken to seven games before beating Ai Fukuhara of Japan 4-3 in the quarterfinals. So 4pm came and both semi-finalists had a great reception from the 3,000-odd crowd. They included the Republic’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam, his wife and Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean. There was also a Team Singapore support group comprising well-wishers and family members who had flown to London for the Games.
Following the fanfare and colourful introductions, it was down to business. And as expected, the world number 1 settled in very fast and took the 1st game 11-7 against Tianwei. Ding Ning continued her momentum and dominated in the next game with the biggest lead of seven points as the score stood at 8-1. That was before wrapping it 11-4. Trailing by two games, Lady Luck started to smile on Tianwei as she opened up with a 5-1 lead in the 3rd game. At this specific point, there was a rally that lasted for almost 90 seconds and the world witnessed every possible shot/strike in the sport known affectionately as ‘ping pong’. It was almost ‘poetry in motion’ as Ding Ning positioned herself almost two metres away from the table. That allowed her to fend off the fierce strikes from her rival who ‘threw almost everything but the kitchen sink’ at the world number 1. And in the end, Ding Ning won the point, much to the roar and the stamping of feet by the crowd. It was amazing to see the Chinese superstar crouch, dive, lunge and jump in order to win that point. But she couldn’t stop Tianwei from winning the game 11-9 much to the excitement of President Tony Tan and Team Singapore fans who rose to their feet and cheered for Tianwei.
The 4th game came and it was neck-and-neck all the way. The battle to reach the Gold medal match was fought fiercely, only for Ding Ning to prevail 12-10. Faced with elimination, 25-year-old Tianwei recomposed and opened the next game with a 3-1 lead. With the Singaporean paddler leading 5-2, there was yet another fantastic rally between the two superstars that lasted almost two sensational minutes. And once again, Ding Ning demonstrated her prowess and amazing abilities in fending off the ‘killer strikes’ from Tianwei, to win the point but she lost the game 6-11.
Trailing by 2 games to 3 and facing elimination, Tianwei then mounted another strong challenge in Game 6. There were several shouts of ‘Singapore’, ‘Come on Tianwei’ and there was even a guy yelling ‘Majulah Singapura’ periodically from the spectator stands, which all helped in motivating the Republic’s top paddler. That’s because the Chinese starlet was racing to the finish at 9-3. But Tianwei refused to surrender and fought desperately to rescue her campaign. She managed to claw her way back up to 6-10, before succumbing to defeat. There was no shame in her defeat as Tianwei received hugs and compliments for a hard-fought match. She might have lost 4-2, but she put up a resilient performance against a much superior opponent.
“I’m tired but at least it’s over. I feel OK but disappointed. Ding Ning is the best player in the world and I’m happy with my performance against her”, said the world number 8. President Tony Tan is expected to attend the bronze-medal playoff match, which will be against Japan’s Kasuki Ishikawa. And if Tianwei can win, it’ll be the Republic’s first individual medal since the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. “Tianwei is always the best when it comes to climbing mountains. You can see the tenacity and fighting spirit. She’s a wonderful girl and I wish her the best in tomorrow’s 3rd and 4th placing”, highlighted DPM Teo who’s also the President of Singapore’s National Olympic Council.
Singapore’s Wang Yuegu was also in the quarterfinals action earlier as she faced Kasumi Ishikawa. But Yuegu, as hard as she fought, just could not get the better of her Japanese opponent. The Singaporean lost 4-1 and said “I think I played well, but she was just too quick and I couldn’t catch her.”