Singaporean table tennis starlet Isabelle Li defends foreign-born teammates

Isabelle Li Siyun at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in 2014. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Isabelle Li Siyun at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in 2014. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Teng Kiat

Despite its roaring success at the recently-concluded Commonwealth Games, Singapore’s table tennis team received widespread scorn for fielding a large number of players originally hailing from China.
 
Even national athletes piled on the criticism, with one revealing a lack of interaction between the naturalised paddlers and other local sportspersons.
 
But Isabelle Li Siyun, one of two Singapore-born players in the team alongside 18-year-old Clarence Chew, begs to differ.
 
“I spend a lot of time with them because we have training and we go on overseas trips [together],” she explained, during the team’s visit to primary schools on the eve of National Day. “We do not just train together, we do life together and I think they really see Singapore as their home.”

Stepping up

Set to turn 20 at the end of August, Li has come a long way from the cherubic, short-haired teen who first captured Singapore’s attention as the youngest-ever player to don national colours at just 11.

Isabelle Li playing at the Youth Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of SSC)
Isabelle Li playing at the Youth Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of SSC)

She burst onto the scene at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, bagging a singles silver medal on home soil, before transitioning into the senior team near the end of 2013 on the back of a highly successful campaign on the junior circuit.

Having helped the women to gold in the team event at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Li now hopes to play a bigger part in the paddlers’ future successes.
 
She has embarked on a full-time training schedule since graduating from Republic Polytechnic in May, and Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) president Dr Lee Bee Wah believes Li is ready to shoulder more responsibility.

“Immediately after the Games, I had a talk with Isabelle and I told her [while] this is her very first one, we hope that for the next one four years later, she can be a key player and we expect her to play two singles [matches, as opposed to one currently],” Lee stated.


 
Global star in the making?
 
While Li has various team medals in her collection, she has yet to truly emerge from the shadow of current, more experienced teammates Feng Tianwei (world No. 5) and Yu Mengyu (No. 18), as well as former ones like Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu.
 
But Isabelle, who now sports a long pony-tail, feels she is ready to step up and has targeted the 2015 SEA Games as her platform.
 
“My aim is definitely a gold medal and I hope to be one of the leaders of the Singapore team, especially when it’s played locally, as that has a special significance to it,” the two-time SEA Games silver medalist declared.

“I’m really looking forward to it and I am confident of my ability because I have played in two SEA Games and I am confident that I will be able to do it.”

Isabelle Li at the World Team Classic Table Tennis in 2013. AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images
Isabelle Li at the World Team Classic Table Tennis in 2013. AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images



She has the full backing of her coach Jing Junhong, who believes her protégé has the potential to go far.
 
“Since she turned full-time, the speed of her progress has been very evident,” the former national star pointed out. “As for next year’s SEA Games, I think she can assume the mantle of leading the table tennis team if things go as according to the current training plan.”
 
Jing also feels that Isabelle can even crack the top 10 of the world rankings in future, likening her current playing style to the China’s world No. 4 Wu Yang, but warns the process will be an arduous one.
 
“It’s down to whether her resolve to get there [to world-class standards] is strong, because this path is very difficult and takes a long time,” she asserted. “2020 might be the time when she peaks. For now, it’s only the beginning for her.”



Mutual inspiration

 
Together with the rest of Singapore’s female and male paddlers, as well as Dr Lee, Li visited Maris Stella High and Montfort Junior School on Friday morning as part of the schools’ National Day celebrations.
 
The athletes received enthusiastic receptions at both campuses and had the students cheering loudly when they sparred with members of the schools’ table tennis teams.
 
Li and Chew both expressed hope they have demonstrated to aspiring athletes that it is possible to succeed while balancing studies and sports.
 
“They have inspired me with their energy and enthusiasm; it was really child-like faith,” said Li of the secondary school students. “It made me feel younger just to be here and I hope we have inspired these kids to pursue their dreams and be bold.”
 
Their message came across strongly to Maris Stella’s Dominic Wong, this year’s individual champion for the senior boys category at the National Primary School Table Tennis Championships.
 
“I watched almost all the games,” the Primary Six student recalled of the Glasgow tournament. “I was inspired and I hope that I can be like them in the future.”

Yu Mengyu and Isabelle Li battle for gold at the 2013 SEA Games, with <a href=http://sg.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/fit-to-post-sports/sea-games-table-tennis-singapore-teens-exhibit-fighting-071403390.html target=_blank>the older, more experienced Yu coming up tops.</a>
Yu Mengyu and Isabelle Li battle for gold at the 2013 SEA Games, with the older, more experienced Yu coming up tops.