SINGAPORE — For a 17-year-old, Koen Pang has had quite a year to remember.
From sweeping three titles at the Singapore National Championships in January, to becoming the first Singaporean to be ranked the world’s No. 1 Under-18 table tennis player in August, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise to his still-nascent sporting career.
Yet, when he faced the expected interview scrum at a media event organised ahead of the upcoming SEA Games by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) at the Singapore Sports School on 18 November, he remains a sheepish teenager unaccustomed to his sudden rise to fame.
“First time doing this, a bit nervous,” the current junior world No. 6 said as he asked for a break to wipe away sweat from his face.
He was far more comfortable when the camera crews asked him to do some sparring with his national teammates. Immediately, he seemed to focus and shut out the media attention, and began rallying with robot-like precision, underlying his innate talent in the fast-paced sport.
“I like to play aggressively, so I put a lot of effort developing my first three shots in a rally. I’d rather finish the points fast than play a long rally,” Pang told Yahoo News Singapore.
“But now that I’m starting to enter adult competitions, I’ll also try and look up how my opponent plays, and think of how to use my game to beat him.
“It’s a big learning process in order to build up the experience in dealing with all sorts of opponents. I’ll just have to put in the hard work during training to keep improving.”
Target on his back after top ranking
With a top junior ranking position means that Pang now has a target on his back, with rivals sizing him up and eager to take him down. Indeed, in one of his first competitions after his No. 1 ranking, he fell to a surprise defeat at the Asian Junior and Cadet Championships in Ulaan Baatar in September.
Yet, Pang approaches his challenges with a matter-of-fact determination, something that earns the admiration of national men’s team coach Gao Ning as they attempt to dethrone Vietnam for the team event gold.
“Skills-wise, Koen is already up to the standards of the senior national players, and most opponents at the SEA Games,” Gao said in Mandarin.
“Experience counts for a lot in this sport, so it’s good that he is willing to put in the effort to gain insight into his opponents. We do have high expectations for him, but we have to be patient.”
Medal would be milestone in sporting journey
Going into his first SEA Games, which begins on 30 November, Pang hopes to land at least a medal in the Philippines. It would be a milestone in his sporting journey, which he began when he was five, joining his mother and elder brother in playing recreational table tennis.
Already there are other significant milestones, such as reaching the men’s doubles semi-finals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, reaching the boys’ singles quarter-finals at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, and winning three golds at the 2018 South-east Asia Table Tennis Championships in Bali.
Support and the ensuing expectations are high, but the Singapore-born paddler remains unfazed at the challenges ahead of his career.
“Being able to represent my own county means a lot,” he said.
“Do I feel special? Not really lah, I just feel that a lot of hard work that I’ve put in my training is finally paying off. Hopefully I can keep on going.”