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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

Sports

C'wealth Games: Singapore men paddlers win team gold

The New Paper | Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

Singapore's victorious male paddlers (from left) Yang Zi, Gao Ning, Zhan Jian, Li Hu and Clarence Chew on the podium after winning gold in the men's table tennis team final at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

He pranced excitedly in front of the TV cameras, brandishing the Commonwealth Games gold medal around his neck and flashing two thumbs up. Singapore paddler Zhan Jian had every reason to celebrate, after he contributed two points in the Republic's 3-1 win over England in the men's table tennis team final yesterday at the Scotstoun Table Tennis Centre in Glasgow, Scotland.

The gold was the third for Singapore at the Games and the second in table tennis, after the women's team's achievement on Sunday.

The 32-year-old Zhan kept his nerve even when he was down 2-1 against Paul Drinkhall in the first singles, and his big-match experience helped him to win 3-2 (5-11, 11-5, 6-11, 11-7, 11-2).

In the second singles, Singapore's top male paddler Gao Ning, the world No. 12, made light work of Liam Pitchford to win 3-0 (11-9, 13-11, 11-3).

But Gao and Li Hu were stunned by Drinkhall and Andrew Baggaley in the doubles, going down easily 3-1 (11-8, 6-11, 8-11, 3-11).

It was left to Zhan to right the ship and he returned to the table to secure the winning point, dismantling Baggaley 3-0 (11-4, 11-8, 11-9) despite a heavily strapped thigh.

"I'm so happy and emotional now, because this is my first Commonwealth Games, and I have my first gold medal," he told The New Paper excitedly. This was a far cry from the frustrated figure he cut on Sunday, when he lost a point in the semi-finals against Nigeria as the world No. 34 was unexpectedly beaten 3-1 by world No. 126, Quadri Aruna.

High Stake

Zhan explained: "Maybe it was because medals and a place in the final were at stake, but the atmosphere and pressure reached a level I did not expect. It is comparable to the Olympics to be honest, and that surprised me to the extent I could not play my normal game.

"But I learned from that, and even though the pressure today is greater because I was playing the first singles in the final - and the team's morale hinges on how the first match went - my experience told and I was able to help the team secure two points."

National men's table tennis coach Yang Chuanning praised Zhan for his exploits and revealed they had a one-hour meeting to analyse what went wrong after his defeat on Sunday.

He added: "Zhan Jian was too flustered after falling behind, and his game became too uptight.

"So we reminded him that he is a good player and he should think positive and loosen up."

Yang had a word of caution for the beaten pair of Gao and Li if they are to go on and win the men's doubles event, a category Singapore have never won since table tennis was introduced as a Commonwealth Games sport in 2002.

If Singapore are to complete an unprecedented clean sweep of all seven table tennis golds on offer, then the men's two pairs have to step up to the plate.

"We were 2-0 up overall and they wanted so badly to make it 3-0, they (Gao and Li) became too conservative all of a sudden," said Yang.

"The opponents went all out because they had nothing to lose and we had no reply. Gao Ning and Li Hu cannot play like this if they want to win the men's doubles final.

"The good thing for Team Singapore is we have two good duos in Gao Ning and Li Hu and Zhan Jian and Yang Zi, and some of the pressure has been lifted after winning the men's team event.

"But there are also some good players from England, Nigeria and India competing in the singles and doubles events.

"We have two golds from table tennis, but it's not over yet, so we cannot afford to take things lightly."

davidlee@sph.com.sg

This article was published on July 29 in The New Paper.

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