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Rohit Brijnath
The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014

Sports

Empathy makes Neo much more than just a spectator

The Sunday Times | Rohit Brijnath | Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014

Feature on Vanessa Neo, fiancee of Derek Wong who just won a silver medal for badminton at the recent Commonwealth Games.

By the end in Glasgow last Sunday, Vanessa Neo, 27, can barely look at the man she loves. Face in her hands. Tears welling up.

Wanting, she says, to walk out because the pressure is like a noose. This Commonwealth Games final has been a hard match for her fiance Derek Wong, 25, but, damn it, what about her?

Neo, ranked in the world top 10 in mixed doubles, is a gifted player, she's used to being in control on court, deciding her future.

But now, in the stands, she's immobile, bereft of control, unable to influence the destiny of this man she's known since she was 12 and he was 10.

Neo's life is one of quick reflex but now, as Wong plays India's P. Kashyap, she can't move. If her hands are folded and he's winning points, she won't change her posture, for to alter her position is to tilt the delicate balance of the match. "No toilet breaks either," she laughs, "if he's winning." From heart to bladder, this is a test of her, too.

Seven days have passed since that heroic, heart-breaking final and everything is about Wong but it's the charming Neo, passionate as he is restrained, who is equally fascinating. For she lives and plays the final alongside him with an intimacy that is raw and beautiful.

Athletes date other athletes often because only they appreciate their own secret, smelly sect with its foreboding wake-up calls, its mad ricocheting between defeat and triumph, its constant embrace of pain, its amputated life span as a competitor. It is a complicated life lived in public yet its private agonies are only known to a few.

One of these can be watching a match like last Sunday. For Neo is not just a fan like you, she is critic, partner, resource, comforter, so many conflicting roles played all at once. But distilled to its essence, it is this: Wong's pleasure in some exquisite way is hers, but so is his pain.

Neo sends Wong a supportive text the night before the final but offers no tactical advice. "The singles game is different," she explains, "he has his own way of preparing, he has to trust himself."

Wong is clearly a descendant of warrior monks - aggressive in game, meditative at our breakfast yesterday - and lives on his own unsuperstitious planet. Last Sunday as he walks on court he allows himself a single idiosyncrasy: He wipes his face. "As if everything is now fresh, a new start," he says.

Neo is sitting close to where Wong enters but he, who sees nothing but court, rival, umpire, doesn't see her or look for her. "Terrible," she laughs.

"Focused," he grins back.

Neo's appreciation of Wong is so subtle it is as if she is his second skin. She knows when he's tired by the way his feet move, knows when he's unsure in a match by how he won't react to smashes. This day she likes his walk, for she glimpses in it the "slight bounce" of confidence. "I could tell he was enjoying the atmosphere."

For the early part of the final she's the critic, right till he's 12-8 in the final game when suddenly he alters tactic. "He was coming fast at Kashyap and then slowed down his pace," she says. He shouldn't have, she says; he had to, he says, for Kashyap had changed his own game.

Still, she shouts. In Mandarin. "Hit further from the net." Often she yells, but this time it's not support but tactical advice, which she is not supposed to articulate but desperation is gently beginning to overwhelm protocol. Wong, immersed in battle, doesn't hear her. He doesn't shout either when she plays and sometimes, Neo laughs, she wishes he did.

Kashyap leads 19-16. Wong makes it 19-19. Neo's hands are clenched. She and Wong, they've been here before, as players and watchers, on this fine sporting precipice, where you must take trust, and faith, and skill, and just leap. Some days you fly; on this day he falls.

There is an emotional turbulence to this life of chances found and chances lost which Neo understands. She is never angry with Wong, not for an error made, not for an unwise choice taken, for she knows "no athlete wants to make a mistake. On court you make your decisions, you have to go with your own instinct".

She also knows what defeat tastes like and she knows words immediately are superfluous. So in Glasgow she just reaches out for Wong's sweaty body and hugs him.

"Hardest match you've had to watch?" I ask her. "No, the best match he's ever played," she says.

Wong is disarmingly calm in defeat and this elicits antagonistic emotions within Neo. She, who would wear her disappointment more overtly, is "impressed" by his smiling control, his wearing of defeat with grace. Yet she also believes that perhaps he needs to feel the corrosiveness of loss more deeply so that it becomes a motivation of its own. "Maybe," says Wong in partial agreement. Maybe also this is just who he is.

Friends might talk about the final, but they don't. It's over. It's done. "We're constantly moving on," says Wong. Always there is a new day, a new hope, a new chance, a new match. Always one will watch, separated briefly from the other. Always they finish, perhaps hold hands as they did on the plane from Glasgow, and go home. Together.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 10 in The Straits Times.

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