For the last 13 years, Feng Tianwei has been ranked inside the world’s top 13, an astonishing record which no current female table tennis player has come close to matching.
The world No. 9 is set to achieve another milestone at Tokyo 2020 when she competes at her fourth Olympics – joining former paddler Li Jiawei and swimmer Joscelin Yeo as the only Singaporeans to do so.
Asked how she has withstood the test of time, Feng, 34, stressed the importance of a strong mindset, saying: “Each day that I am on this stage, I want to perform well, I want to improve and find more breakthroughs. I demand a lot of myself and I still have a strong desire to stay within the top 10 and remain among the A-listers.
“I’m very happy to see improvements every day and to be able to qualify and compete at the Olympics at my age… this could be my last, so I want to enjoy this entire process.”
Mental strength is a precious commodity in the pandemic. Based in Japan since 2019, the last few months have been full of unease and monotony, as her life revolved around home and four hours a day at the training hall in Osaka.
She said: “Life has been very boring. There is not much we can do to de-stress because we want to avoid crowds and the risk of being infected. I either cook simple meals or order food delivery, and the only other thing I do to unwind is go online on my phone (to check out social media).”
Sacrifices have been made. She has soldiered on despite a troublesome wrist, and to reduce the burden on an injured knee, she decided to lose weight by having only salad and yoghurt for dinner.
Laughing, she recalled: “I was so hungry I once dreamt I ate 40 buns of different flavours.”
Her bank account is also leaner. After being cut loose by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) in 2016, her main source of funding is from Sport Singapore as a SpexScholar. She also receives an allowance representing Japan Paint Maretz in the professional T.League.
She tries to play 20 to 30 events a year, but that has been made impossible by the pandemic. So, she has to dig deep into her savings to stump up hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain a team which includes coaches He Keyi and Wu Jingping, a former coach with China’s men’s team, to support her.
These efforts help Feng keep up with the times and changes such as the replacement of celluloid balls by plastic ones in 2015 and the arrival of a new wave of young and powerful players.
In rallies, a plastic ball bounces higher and flies faster, which gives players less time to react and produce as much spin as they can with a celluloid ball. While rallies are shorter, the punchier and quicker strokes require greater physical conditioning to avoid injuries.
“The new balls needed getting used to, but I also had to overhaul my old thinking which had been with me for 20 years. That was most difficult to change,” said Feng, who plays with a right-hand shakehand grip.
“In the past, I would rely more on a change in the spin and tempo to disrupt opponents, but these don’t have as big an effect with the plastic balls, so I have had to find ways to improve on my quality of shots in terms of power and placement.”
She endured her fair share of early exits as she gradually came to grips with the changes, and did not have a good outing at Rio 2016 where the women’s team lost the bronze-medal playoff and her singles run ended at the quarter-finals.
But she has enjoyed some encouraging results since, including a stunning 4-0 win over world No. 1 Chen Meng at the 2019 German Open, as well as victories over top Japanese players Kasumi Ishikawa (10th) and Miu Hirano (12th).
She also battled her way to the final of the star-studded World Table Tennis Star Contender Doha event in March, before losing to Japanese world No. 2 Mima Ito.
The wins are registered in her mental database, giving her a blueprint to beating the same strong opponents in the future. But she is also aware of the need to stay on her feet, especially at what could be her Olympic swansong.
The sixth seed said: “The first singles match will be most important to shake off the rust. After that, it is all about getting into the rhythm and trying to advance as deep into the tournament as possible. I also believe in the capabilities of our women’s team.”
Feng does not need to talk about medals because, fairly or not, it is expected of her as Singapore’s most bemedalled Olympian. She owns a team silver from Beijing 2008 and pocketed a singles and team bronze at London 2012.
Sandwiched in between is the high point of her career – Singapore’s stunning 3-1 victory over mighty China in the 2010 world team championships.
But perhaps, through toil, talent and timing, Feng is destined for fairy tales.
Born in China, she was five when she picked up the sport because “my mum liked it and wanted me to be good at something”.
As a child, she had to cope with myocarditis, a heart inflammation, after she continued training despite catching a cold. She had a more serious attack when she was 16 and thought about giving up, but fortunately, has not had a relapse.
It was around then that her father died of multiple sclerosis, and a few months later, she left for Beijing to train with the national team.
“Losing my father woke me up. Table tennis was more like a past-time before that, and I realised I had to shoulder the burden of supporting (my) family. That motivated me to play more seriously,” said Feng.
So, when opportunities to break into China’s first team were lacking, she jumped at the STTA’s invitation to join its ranks in 2007.
Feng knows her playing career will end one day. She is not dreading it because then she will be able to make up for one regret.
Referring to her late father, she said: “I’m sure he is watching over me and is happy for me. I have been so busy travelling around the world to play and train, that I have not been able to return to my hometown with my medals to pay my respects to my father. I would like to find the time to do so.”
Hopefully, with a fourth or even fifth Olympic medal.
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