The Singapore way: doing more harm than good?

Singapore's progress in table tennis has largely been due to its recruits from China. It won six of the seven gold medals at stake at the Commonwealth Championships in Jaipur, including the men's and women's team titles.-PICS. SANDEEP SAXENA

Singapore flaunted its `Chinese' power at the Commonwealth Championships. The nation's near sweep of the gold medals has raised a number of questions. K. Keerthivasan reports.

Singapore is a small island city-state, modern and sleek, but for all its technological advancement and development, the nation has not been a front-runner in sport. However, things are slowly beginning to change, and the 17th Commonwealth table tennis Championships in Jaipur provided ample proof of the fact that Singapore is gaining prominence in the sport.

Singapore's progress in table tennis has largely been due to its recruits from China. The nation's near sweep — it won six of the seven gold medals at stake — of the Commonwealth Championships at the Sawai Mansingh Indoor Stadium, has raised several questions that remain to be answered.

Realising that its players' base was weak, Singapore recruited Chinese players, especially the ones who found it extremely difficult to make it to the national team from the highly competitive environment in the land.

Is the players' base really weak in Singapore?

"Yes," said Ho Jun Yi, 17, a member of the Singapore team. According to him Singapore loses most of its promising table tennis players, as they prefer to go for professional courses. And talking of the Chinese players playing for Singapore, he explained, "It's a symbiotic relationship between the Chinese players and Singapore. Both get to gain from this."

"Moreover, our country encourages racial harmony," he added.

Gao Ning of Singapore who won the men's singles title.-

Singapore has five divisions in table tennis. The first consists of the National team, while the second comprises the Chinese players along with a few Singapore paddlers. The third division has mostly the local players, while the fourth and fifth divisions have children who are specifically interested in the sport.

However, there is a feeling among a section of the public that the Chinese players recruited by Singapore are hindering the progress of their own youngsters. But there seems to be no way out, and at least the Singapore Government is not worried about it.

Jason Ho Jiare was the last Singapore player to do well at the international level. He played in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, but now that he is into compulsory army service, he will not be able to represent Singapore for two years.

Top-seeded Gao Ning, who won the men's singles title in Jaipur, and runner-up Yang Zi speak only Chinese. As a result the media had to depend on Ho Jun who acted as their interpreter.

Gao Ning and Yang Zi, however, were quite fluent on the table. They were well ahead of their rivals. As for the Indian players, it will take quite a while to reach the level of Ning and Zi.

Sun Bei Bei, the women's champ.-

Though not a very attractive player, Ning's game is very effective. He stays close to the table and loves to attack. He also uses his wrist wonderfully to make placements.

In the case of Yang Zi, it's his approach more than style that makes him a wonderful player. He came to Singapore in 2003, while Ning came over a year later. The two players have represented Singapore in the Asian Games, Asian Championships, Commonwealth Championships and the World Championships.

Born in the Chinese province of Hebei, Ning took up table tennis when he was eight. At the age of 12, he came under the wings of coach Liu Wen Qing.

And by the time he went to Singapore, he had played in several Pro-Tours and other important championships. He gradually rose in the rankings — he is ranked No. 18 in the world — thanks to the exposure provided by the Singapore Government. Considering that Singapore had players of the calibre of Ning, Yang Zi (ranked No. 33 in the World) and Cai Xiao Li, India did reasonably well in the championships.

India, as expected, topped the first and second stage of the tournament before losing to Singapore in the final. The first rubber between Sharath Kamal and Yang Zi was error-prone. Sharath could have made a match of it, but Yang Zi rose to the occasion to defeat the Indian.

After Sharath lost his match, the task of guiding India to victory was beyond Soumydeep Roy and Subhajit Saha. Singapore won 3-0. The Indian women's team was a bit unfortunate to be placed in the group where Singapore figured in the second stage. By finishing second in the group, India could manage only a bronze medal.

In the singles, Sharath was the lone Indian to make it to the semifinals. He seemed to peak against Cai Xiao Li in the quarterfinals, but against Gao Ning, Sharath simply had no chance.

The Indian admitted defeat gracefully. "I was up against a better player," said Sharath.

Ranked No. 97 in the world, Sharath will now find every step forward very difficult. He is, however, of the view that there is still a lot of scope for improvement in his game. Working towards it will prove to be the key to his success.

A passionate paddler

Alan Cooke, 41, has a special bond with the Commonwealth table tennis championship. Ever since he was a kid, his only ambition was to win the men's title here.

"For some winning a World Championship or an European Championship would be the goal, but for me a realistic target was to win the Commonwealth title. I have always enjoyed playing in the championships," said Cooke, who won the singles title in 1989 in Cardiff besides reaching the singles final four times in 1985, '94, '95 and '97.

Cooke is currently the coach of England women's team. He does his job with the same intensity that he played for England at the highest level for two decades.

As a member of the England teams that won the silver in 1988 and '92 and the bronze in 1990 and '94 at the European Championship, Cooke has played against the likes of Jan-Ove Waldner, Jorgen Persson, Michael Appelgren and Erik Lind. Unfortunately for him, on all the four occasions England crossed swords with the mighty Sweden. "They were the best in the business at that time. We could hardly do anything," said Cooke.

Does he regret losing in the final of the Commonwealth Championship on four occasions? "Not really," said Cooke. "Thrice I lost to better players. The only time I thought I could have won was in 1997 when I lost to Mathew Syed in Glasgow, Scotland."

After 15 years of non-stop table tennis Cooke finally gave up active play in 1997, preferring to coach instead. "I was burnt out after playing without any break," he said. That was when he plunged full time into coaching.

In 2003 he made a comeback, winning the National Championship, which stoked a desire in him to compete once again. And when a few English paddlers opted out of the Commonwealth Championship in Kuala Lumpur in 2004, the national association turned to him. Cooke obliged after giving it some thought. Subsequently, in the team championship final he defeated India's Sharath Kamal.

A fitness freak, Cooke won the 2006 World above-40 Championship in Bremen. "I concentrated on my fitness only after I made my comeback in 2003," he said. However, Cooke is of the view that key to winning a match still lies in the head. "I strongly feel that what makes the difference between the best and the rest is mental strength."

At a time when TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India) is scouting for a foreign coach, some of the top Indian players feel Cooke would be the best man for the job. But Cooke himself does not have a clear-cut answer when asked if he would love to coach India. "I am still wondering whether a foreign coach will be effective for a National team," he said. "But at the moment, I am working with a young England team and I am focussed on getting them ready for the 2012 Olympics in London." he added.

THE RESULTS Team championship final Men: Singapore bt India 3-0

(Yang Zi bt A. Sharath Kamal 7-11, 11-7, 9-11, 11-9, 11-7; Gao Ning bt Soumyadeep Roy 16-14, 11-7, 11-7; Cai Xiao Li bt Subhajit Saha 7-11, 11-4, 11-9, 7-11, 11-6.)

Women: Singapore bt Malaysia 3-1

(Sun Bei Bei lost to Beh Lee Wei 8-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-5, 8-11; Wang Yue Gu bt Ng Sock Khim 11-7, 11-4, 5-11, 5-11, 11-8; Tan Paey Fern bt Chiu Soo Jin 9-11, 11-7, 13-11, 11-8; Wang Yue Gu bt Beh Lee Wei 11-9, 11-9, 7-11, 11-4.)

Men's singles final: Gao Ning (Singapore) bt Yang Zi (Singapore) 6-11, 11-7, 11-8, 11-6, 11-7.

Men's doubles final: Monday Merotohun & Kazeem Nosiru (Nigeria) bt Gao Ning & Yang Zi 6-11, 11-7, 9-11, 12-10, 11-8.

Women's singles final: Sun Bei Bei (Singapore) bt Yue Gu Wang (Singapore) 11-3, 10-12, 8-11, 11-7, 13-11, 11-3.

Women's doubles final: Yue Gu Wang & Sun Bei Bei bt Sara Yuen & Mo Zhang (Canada) 11-6, 11-6, 11-4.

Mixed doubles final: Yang Zi & Yue Gu Wang bt Gao Ning & Sun Bei Bei 11-9, 11-7, 11-7.