by Kabir Nagpal
As someone who is considered the main face of Singapore table tennis, it comes as no surprise when one sees the amount of experience that Feng Tianwei boasts at the highest level of the sport. A winner of three Olympic Games medals – two bronze and one silver – along with 10 Commonwealth Games medals, she also helped Singapore to gold medal success at the Liehberr 2010 World Team Championships.
These are the lofty stages to which Feng’s career truly belongs. Her importance to the Singaporean team is beyond essential and now it comes to a point where she is about to enter what could be her final attempt to reach the Olympic Games.
The journey begins
An athlete hailing from Heilongjiang Province in the north of China – same as Kong Lingui – Feng arrived in Singapore on a “Sports Scholarship”. From thereon, she started making history for her country.
Her journey at the Olympic Games began when she represented Singapore for the first time at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. On 15th August 2008, the Singapore team, comprising Feng and her teammates Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu, defeated the Korea Republic 3-2 in the semi-finals. The same team lost to China in the final, obtaining the silver medal. This was Singapore’s first Olympic medal in 48 years and the first as an independent nation.
In May 2010, she brought together a work of art when she and her teammates Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei stunned the reigning champions China 3-1 at the Liebherr World Team Table Tennis Championships in Moscow. This crowned Singapore as World Champions for the very first time, and also etched Feng’s name in sporting history.
Continuing her conquests, in August 2012 Feng defeated Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa 4-0 to win the women’s singles bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. This was Singapore’s first Olympic singles medal since 1960!
Later in the same month, she was part of the women’s team with Li and Wang that achieved bronze against the Korea Republic. This was the first time Singapore had won two medals at an Olympic Games – and they had their leader to thank for it.
No pit-stops on the World Tour
Even on the World Tour, Feng holds the record of making an astounding 12th appearance at the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals when she took to the table in Incheon last December, having been crowned champion the last time the event was hosted on Korean soil in 2010. That venue has seen her win the Korea Open three times in 2009, 2011 and 2017.
Sadly, it took her a long time after that success in 2017 to record a win against one of her top rivals. When she played against Japan’s Miu Hirano in the round of 16 of the T2 Diamond Malaysia event in Johor Bahru, there was something different about her. Usually a poker-faced athlete near the table, her fans were very pleased when she broke into a child-like smile after beating the world no.9.
It felt like the 33-year-old had finally unlocked a puzzle she has been struggling with for some time. It had been 27 months since she last beat a top-10 player at an ITTF tournament. Back then, she was world no.3 and had accounted for fourth-ranked Kasumi Ishikawa in the Korea Open final. That title in April 2017 also happened to be Feng’s last World Tour.
Asian Championships offer hope
Eventually, for one of the most powerful female athletes in table tennis, reaching the Olympic Games one more time is the ultimate goal. Team Singapore will need to win the Asian Championships starting on 15th September in order to gain automatic qualification to Tokyo 2020. However, Feng will need a lot of support from her peers and a dash of luck to make that happen.
Feng’s advantages over her opponents have waned over the years mostly because of the excessive analysis of athletes that is the norm of today. Her reliable and very powerful forehand has become easy to work around because most athletes that come up against her are advised to go for her backhand side instead.
Effect on Olympic Games gold medallists
Success and her success has not only had an effect on Feng Tianwei, it has also had an effect on other players; notably the two most recent world champions, China’s Ding Ning and Liu Shiwen. Both lost to Feng Tianwei in the memorable Moscow 2010 team final.
For Ding Ning the defeat had a positive effect; she was crystal clear the following year in Rotterdam, after winning the women’s singles title at the 2011 World Championships; that the pain of the defeat in Moscow was such that it provided a massive source of inspiration and motivation.
Conversely for Liu Shiwen, following the 2011 World Championships, Liu Shiwen again lost to Feng Tianwei; she suffered defeat in Shenzhen at the ITTF World Tour China Open. Kong Linghui, the national coach at the time was clear in his assessment; the defeat in Moscow had caused Liu Shiwen to be nervous at the thought of facing Feng Tianwei, it was all in the mind.
During the time period of 2012-2016, Feng really had to only deal with the elite Chinese athletes as her main rivals. However, with the addition of Japanese professionals like Kasumi Ishikawa, Mima Ito and Miu Hirano, staying at the top of the ladder has become rather difficult.
If there’s a positive lining – other than her enormous experience – it is the fact that she has the advantage of no pressure whatsoever. Her home fans adore her, no matter if she can win a medal or not. And for realistic success moving forward, she would need to take every chance she gets and require the likes of Ito or Ishikawa to slip up.
Should this strategy work, she would probably like to celebrate her potential Olympic Games qualification with some ‘durians’:
“My favourite dish is durians. When I return from my overseas training or competition, the one thing I must do is rest and eat my favourite food” Feng Tianwei