By Peh Chu Ming
Photos courtesy of James Hii
To the uninitiated, Table Tennis appears to be a relatively easy sport that does not require much from its players. You do not need lightning-fast footwork or impressive physical fitness. After all, two absolute beginners with reasonable coordination can start enjoying rallies right away. Watch a match between two top players live and close up, however, and it becomes readily apparent that table tennis is a highly intense and challenging sport which not only demands fast reflexes and stamina, but also an impeccable sense of judgment and an undying fighting spirit from its players.
Prior to this year’s Inter-Faculty Games (IFG), Team USP was almost unheard of within the table tennis arena in NUS, struggling to win even a single match during the preliminary round of last year’s IFG. This year, however, after several gruelling weeks of trials and training, we assembled a formidable team consisting of team captain Kenneth Ler (Year 2), team manager Ke Yu (Y2), main players Ann Cheng Koon (Y3), Song Shuang (Y2), Ouyong Huixiang (Y2), Shermaine Yung (Y1), Olivia Lin (Y1), Walter Seow (Y1), William Naftali (Y1), Jun Ke (Y1), Zheng Xiaowen (Y1) and myself (Peh Chu Ming, Y2).
Despite being the dark horse of the competition, our team remained unfazed by challenges and managed to secure a spot in the semi-finals after emerging victorious in all our matches during the preliminary round. The advancement to the semi-finals was especially significant given the strong performances put up by big-name faculties such as Law, Engineering, Yale-NUS and the School of Design and Engineering. In order to progress to the finals, we had to first score a win against the Faculty of Science in the semis, which was in itself a Herculean feat given Science’s recent track record in the sport.
The semi-finals against Science was a testy one indeed, as both teams raced to three games out of five. In order to have a slightest chance against Science, we had to give our all. First up from Team USP was Song Shuang in the women’s singles event. Despite having accrued countless competitive experiences in the sport from junior college, this match proved to be an extremely difficult one for her as she lost the first two sets (11-5, 11-1) to Science’s anti-spin rubber player (the anti-spin rubber has very little friction, causing the ball to slide off the rubber when hit, creating unusual spin variations that make it extremely counter-intuitive to play against for the opponent).
Instead of being devastated by the scores, Song Shuang stood her ground and increased her forehand attacking power in the next two games. This turned out to be extremely effective as the opponent from Science was caught by surprise on numerous points, bringing the game to a fifth and deciding set.
If anything, the fifth game was a psychological battle between both players. The points were extremely close throughout the entire set as both players pulled off several stellar shots that forced errors from their opponents. The game eventually reached a 10-10 tie. After establishing a one-point lead at 11-10 due to a service error from the opponent, Song Shuang was just one point away from winning the women’s singles game. Song Shuang did not disappoint as she ripped her opponent apart with pure unadulterated power in her forehand loops, pulling off a spectacular winner which the player from Science simply had no answer to. USP had won the first point in the match against Science.
Next up was the women’s doubles event, where we fielded Shermaine and Olivia. Despite a rough start as we lost the first game by a close two-point margin (9-11) to Science, Shermaine and Olivia managed to refocus their concentration in time, cruising through the next three games with much ease (11-6, 11-8, 12-10). Shermaine’s almost faultless forehand and backhand loops proved too much for the opponents to handle, as USP clinched the second point in the overall match against Science.
The third match of the day was a highlight – the men’s singles event. Kenneth, the captain of Team USP, adopted an offensive tactic against the experienced player from Science. His ferocious and lightning fast shots allowed him to maintain a comfortable lead, eventually winning the first set coolly. To the surprise of many, the next two games were not as tightly contested as expected. Kenneth was exceptionally brutal in his forehand attacks, forcing his opponent into uncomfortable positions. The opponent’s defense was clearly inadequate in countering Kenneth’s lethal loops. Kenneth eventually won with a clean sweep of 3:0. The team members all jumped and cheered in ecstasy as the clinching of the third point meant that we had beaten Science and advanced to the finals.
USP: Science – 3:0
Onward to the Finals
The advancement to the finals was particularly momentous as it was only the second time that USP had made it through in the history of IFG. The team had already gone far beyond than what we had initially set out to achieve, which meant that we could play without reservations in the finals against Business. Team USP had previously overcome Business during the preliminary round, winning by a narrow margin of 3:2. Yet, this brought with it a new host of challenges because Business had now gained a better understanding of our tactics and playing styles, allowing them to alter their strategies and line-up to our disadvantage.
The match commenced with the women’s singles event. Having emerged victorious in her previous match in the semis against a strong opponent, Song Shuang played much more confidently this time round, eventually nailing the entire game with a 3:0 score (11:7, 11:4, 11:4), illustrating the vast disparity in skills and tactical nous between both players.
With team USP winning the first point of the match, it was up to Shermaine and Olivia to extend the overall lead to 2:0 in the women’s doubles event. Business started off the game with much ferocity and we struggled to keep them at bay, making several forced errors along the way. We lost the first match by a small margin (11:9). However, the duo from Business lost their momentum in the subsequent games, as they made significantly more unforced errors, giving us a comfortable lead in the games. Again, the unforgiving forehand loop of Shermaine did the most damage as the opponents were left completely helpless by her continuous attack. Eventually, we won the next three games and clinched the second point of the match, bringing the total score to 2:0 against Business.
Having won all the women’s events, the men’s events were a lot less smooth-sailing as we faced competition from some of the best table tennis players in NUS. Despite the strong resistance put up by our team, we were unfortunate to lose both the men’s singles and men’s doubles event to visibly stronger opponents. The battle for the championship title now depended on the fifth and final event – the mixed doubles.
It fell to Kenneth and Huixiang to bring the hope of clinching gold to realization. In the first two games, Kenneth and Huixiang pulled off shots of finesse and placing that prevented Business from pulling ahead. We won the first two games. Yet, it was still an amazing effort put up by Business, forcing our players to have to fight for and earn every single point. The Business duo remained unfazed by the continuous attacks from our team and they played the third and fourth game with much more intensity and focus, eventually winning both games.
The entire competition was brought to a climax in the final game. The atmosphere was tense and everyone watching the match felt nervous for the players they were rooting for. Much to the dismay of the Business team, the mixed doubles duo underperformed and made numerous errors that resulted in a huge lead for us right from the beginning. Kenneth and Huixiang were, however, in no mood for mercy as they tore their opponents apart with a final score of 11:4. The entire team jumped in joy at the realization of our victory and gathered together in a group hug, realising that we had just made history.
USP: Business – 3:2
Team USP not only clinched USP’s first-ever gold medal in IFG, but its team members have also forged lasting friendships through the highs and lows of the competition. On many levels, this experience has been so much more than just the gold medal, or the history-making feat, or even the pride of saying that we had overcome the traditional powerhouses in IFG. It was also about personal lessons on perseverance, teamwork and sportsmanship. On behalf of the team, I would like to thank all those who came down to support us during the finals or have shown concern towards the team’s progress in this year’s IFG.
Last but not least, I would like to leave us all with a line from Ke Yu, our team manager, which has resonated with me deeply even till now: 我希望你的心够坚强，每一次的挥手触球都没有对不起自己的努力！(Translation: I hope that your hearts will be strong, and that every stroke you make on court would be your best, and justify the hard work that has gone into perfecting it!)