27 Apr 2017

Feng Tianwei could be the antidote to table tennis' identity crisis.

by Wade Townsend

To consider a thirty year-old the future of table tennis might seem like a crazy idea. Surely I should be looking at someone like Miu Hirano? The thing is, Feng is different to any of the other top players in the world. She is flying solo.

Since October last year, Feng Tianwei has been supporting her own table tennis. She wasn’t considered part of the Singapore Table Tennis Association’s ‘rejuvenation plans’ and was kicked out of the national team. This means no coaching, no training and no practice partners provided by STTA.

Ever since Feng has been sourcing her own training, a completely independent athlete. She’s had six months on the outside and she’s got a Korea Open title to show for it.

There are others that don’t exactly march to the national team’s tune. Take a look at Japan. Over the past five years or so and their two biggest athletes have been largely independent. Jun Mizutani and Ai Fukuhara have both been bringing their own catching staff in to the Japanese national team. However, they are integrated, throwing a national uniform on the coach while they sit on the bench.

Surely someone like Ai Fukuhara, a hugely commercial athlete, has the resources to go completely independent? However, an individual isn’t allowed to enter an events on the World Tour, the national association has to enter for you. The shackles are tight. Lucky for Feng Tianwei she hasn’t found any resistance from STTA in participating in international events.

What we come to is a problem of identity. Table tennis struggles in defining itself. Are we participating in a team or individual sport? For the most part it is individual, however it comes time for the final of any singles event, the camera pans across the crowd and you notice the national teams are all sitting together in matching uniforms, cheering on their one last remaining squad member. And if you look at the tournament calendar you would realise that at the moment we straddle the worlds of tennis and football/soccer. We have a tour and we also have enormous world events with global participation.

So with the current situation the athletes have a problem. Why would a major sponsor look to invest in a top ten player in the world? They turn up to the biggest event table tennis has to offer, and they will be wearing their national team shirt funded by the tax paying citizens of their country. It is impossible to have big personalties on the tour when they have their every action filtered by a contract with a national association, instead of answering to their own sponsors.

There are those who are against making the national association more peripheral to the sport.  But for the most part their resistance will come from those who are salaried by these associations, their wages dependent on their existence.

If Feng can continue to succeed flying solo, then perhaps more players will attempt to take the plunge and breakaway. With national associations taking a back seat, a borderless table tennis world could be established, were we are more interested in the players and their personality rather than national identity. And with the team shirt done away with, then maybe the biggest brands in the world will have a reason to start getting interested in this sport.

General News Jun Mizutani Feng Tianwei Ai Fukuhara