SINGAPORE — Huddled into a corner of a meeting room for a photo shoot with TODAY, Feng Tianwei oozed K-pop cool in her monochrome outfit of asymmetrical jacket, cropped jeans, and white sneakers.
Perhaps flying solo for the first time in her professional career agrees with the 30-year-old, who is gunning for a fourth Olympic medal in 2020.
This was not the Feng that Singaporeans saw some five months ago, when the paddler was cast into the international wilderness after the Singapore Table Tennis Association’s (STTA) shock decision to axe her from the national team.
Faced with the fight of her life, Feng had to publicly dismiss talk that her alleged ill-discipline and misconduct had caused the association to cut ties with its most successful player.
With the incident now done and dusted, the world No 3 paddler was clearly not in the mood to discuss it any further. Stoic, even philosophical about the toughest time of her career, Feng told TODAY: “My issues with STTA are in the past, and everything is peaceful now. Moving on, I hope we can work well together.
“Whether I know (why I was dropped) is not important anymore. There’s no point talking about what happened in the past.
“Right now, I am training on my own, and I have my own sparring partners and an interim coach.
“I am now focused on getting sparring partners and hiring players with different styles and techniques each month to train with.”
LEARNING TO BE ALONE
After working out an arrangement with the STTA which allows her to train and compete as an independent player, Feng — who is also a SpexScholar — now trains at the OCBC Arena.
She is scheduled to compete in next month’s Asian Table Tennis Championships, the World Table Tennis Championships in Dusseldorf in May, June’s inaugural season of the T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League, as well as International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) World Tour events in Korea, Japan, China, and Australia.
Faced with the unusual situation of flying solo for the first time since donning Singapore colours in 2008, Feng admitted she is still getting used to her new life on tour.
“The biggest challenge is loneliness… Having to face any challenges and difficulties on your own,” she said.
“If you’re in a team, everyone can deal with an issue together, but now I have to compete on my own, be on the competition arena and face any challenges alone.
“This solitude is something different that I face as compared to the past.
“Solitude is not scary when you actually face it. What makes it frightening is when you dread it, or fear it, but when I had to face it and got used to it, I felt that I could do it.
“I have a new arrangement now with the Singapore Sports Institute, SpexScholarship and this team to support me. There are a lot of people supporting me, and that gives me more strength to deal with it.”
Feng also draws inspiration from former world No 2 tennis player Li Na and doubles specialist Peng Shuai, who found success on the women’s professional tennis tour after choosing to go solo from China’s government-controlled sports system.
“Tennis and table tennis are not the same and I never thought about going solo before,” she added.
“But when this happened, I had to deal with it. But accepting this new method and seeing their success (Li and Peng), their example gives me inspiration and encouragement to be brave and strong and carry on.”
“This may be where the sport is headed in the future, and I won’t rule it out. Maybe this journey will be longer, but I can’t foresee now if this path will be a good or bad one, or if it’ll be long or short. I just hope to do it well.”
After a poor outing at the Rio Olympic Games that saw Feng and her teammates returning home empty-handed for the first time since 2008, the paddler – who has had to cope with a number of injuries in recent years – is determined to press on.
Feng added: “I am really looking forward to the 2020 Olympic Games, my goal has not changed, and I hope to win a medal to make up for my regret of not winning a medal in Rio.
“It will be a tougher task (in 2020), but if I maintain this physical condition, I still have a good chance.
“These few years, because I’m going solo, arranging my own training and competition schedule and plans, this is a test for myself in my plan for Tokyo. There’s a lot to do, but I believe I can do it well and face the challenges head on. No matter how it turns out, I don’t want any regrets.”
Feng’s unflappable calm under pressure was what helped her win three Olympic medals (Beijing 2008, London 2012), and a historic world team title in 2010, and the Harbin-native knows she will have to dig deep once again as she battles for glory at the 2020 Olympic Games.
“My biggest takeaway and lesson (from this experience) is being able to deal head on with these challenges,” she told TODAY.
“I have to be able to deal with and face it head on, and become stronger and braver, and not cower in the face of challenges.”
ABOUT T2-ASIA PACIFIC TABLE TENNIS LEAGUE
World No 3 Feng will join a star-studded roster of paddlers competing in the inaugural league — which has yet to announce a venue for its first season – in June.
Touted as the richest competition in professional table tennis, the US$1.5 million tournament will see 24 of the world’s best paddlers battling it out in a mixed team, innovative format that will include player drafts and unique scoring systems.
Fourteen players have confirmed their participation to date, including Olympic men’s singles bronze medallist Jun Mizutani of Japan (6), South Korea’s Yang Ha-eun and Jeon Ji-hee, and SEA Games gold medallist (women’s singles) Suthasini Sawettabut of Thailand.
“It’s (T2) promoting not only a new style of competition for table tennis, but also other activities outside of table tennis to everyone,” said Feng. “I think this is important for the future of sports development…As long as it’s a table tennis competition, if it’s fresh and interesting, the fans will like it.”