by Kabir Nagpal
Falling under the sport jurisdiction of Oceania, New Zealand has had plenty to say over the last few years in regional competitions. Thanks to the steady rise of athletes like 16-year-old Nathan Xu on the ITTF World Junior Circuit, heads have turned to the Kiwis to see how they plan to give players like Nathan the platform they deserve to consistently compete on the world stage.
This is the task facing Simon Fenwick in his role as Chairman of Table Tennis New Zealand. In short, Simon has lived and breathed table tennis from his youth, travelling around the world with the sport, such as playing for a club in Prague in the 1990s and in large tournaments in the United States, Korea Republic and all around the Pacific region. He still plays today in a limited capacity at a few veterans tournaments. Needless to say, his countless experiences have brought about his passion for the sport to the forefront.
“There is a special feeling of excitement and anticipation when you walk into a big competition. You are seeing lifelong friends, competitors, supporters, staff and volunteers. We all have one thing in common: we all love table tennis. This special feeling is actually why I am on the Table Tennis New Zealand board. I think that all table tennis players should get to feel that buzz, whether they are new to the sport or not, no matter what their level, no matter where they come from.” Simon Fenwick
New Zealand’s new exciting generation
After his first outing at the 2014 ITTF World Cadet Challenge in Bridgetown, Barbados when on duty for the Hopes Team the then 11-year-old Nathan Xu made people aware of his admirable work ethic and natural gift for the sport. His promise was then realised at the 2018 ITTF Oceania Championships, when he, alongside Dean Shu and Alfred Dela Pena in the under 21 men’s team final, emerged as the shining example for New Zealand in Gold Coast Australia.
It was the performance which made the world stand and take notice of a nation often found in the background of Oceania table tennis, but times are changing.
“We have been making steady progress over the past 10 years, but numbers have stayed relatively flat. There is a new generation of players coming through and their ability and enthusiasm are infectious and exciting for all of us. We can always do more!” Simon Fenwick
Indeed they are doing more, with efforts from both the national federation and agreements with local sports clubs in the country, there are clear short and long term goals set up. A strategic plan has been put in place to address the needs of the athletes for the years 2020-2025. In the long term, this plan will see New Zealand’s favourite indoor sport transform into table tennis, as has been evidenced by various test events in the nation and from the popular word.
In the short term however, the focus remains looking after the current crop of players and continuing to encourage newer athletes to join and make their journeys smoother. Such players will naturally have targets to reach the competitions on the world stage again and they are certainly training hard to achieve this. The Commonwealth Games and the World Championships are definitely the main names on that list, as well as attending more tournaments in the Oceania region.
The good signs in that department are the success of athletes like Nathan, who recently secured the under-18 singles title at the 2019 ITTF-Oceania Junior Championships in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. The young Kiwi made sure that it was not a clean sweep of silverware for Australia, making his presence felt in more ways than one.
By winning that title, the teenage talent assured himself an AUD $1,500 scholarship to assist with his table tennis development. Helpful aids like these are what younger athletes currently need, and that is where the ITTF’s support will prove invaluable.
ITTF CEO Steve Dainton is travelling to Auckland this weekend to meet Simon and the country’s table tennis officials to discuss the strategy of growing the sport nationwide, and how the ITTF can be most helpful:
“There is plenty of growth potential in New Zealand to become a future force in international table tennis, as we have seen with the rise of their exciting youth players in recent years. As an international federation, we are here to support New Zealand in their endeavours. Expanding and enhancing the popular appeal and participation levels of our sport across different regions of the world can only be a positive for table tennis.” Steve Dainton
Simon too was vocal about how the ITTF has already made the right steps:
“I think that the growth initiatives organised by the ITTF have been bold and exactly what’s required. From our corner of the world, we would love to see more ITTF events staged down under, as the Australian Open has been an inspiration for us. We would love to host more, but we would need support from the ITTF to do this. The proposed Oceania regional training facility would also be a great help to us, as the cost of sending players around the world for training is often prohibitive.” Simon Fenwick
Make no mistake, table tennis is on the rise in New Zealand. Watch this space for upcoming developments!