One wore a stoic expression each time she was spotted – on the court, in media interviews, outside the hall with autograph-hungry fans. The other, younger in years, wore her cherubic grin like a champion as she lifted her first Women’s World Cup trophy here in Singapore.
On court, world No 1 Li Xiaoxia is the superior athlete – technically brilliant, aggressive, and deadly at the table. Ding Ning, 21, on the other hand, is one for the big occasion after claiming the world championships singles crown in Rotterdam and last weekend’s world cup. And she beat her teammate Li at both events.
Outside the world class action of smashes, rallies and top spin, what truly captivated the audience of ping pong fans and media alike was Ding Ning’s winning personality. She talks a mile a minute, but pauses to provide thoughtful answers to questions. Li, the world No 1, however, is stocked up on standard FAQ replies, and her no-nonsense attitude does remind one of badminton’s female world No 1 Wang Shixian, who riled reporters at this year’s Singapore Open with her sully, uninterested responses at a press conference.
No doubt some of that irritation stems from having to answer the same questions repeatedly, which athletes complain about. But every question on performance, target and achievements is also directed at Tiger Woods, Ian Thorpe and Formula 1 speedster Sebastian Vettel.
Golf’s former world No 1 Woods is languishing at 56th now, having endured a knee injury and a very public divorce after scandals involving several women. He is not known to be the friendliest or engaging of golf’s superstars – unlike the well-loved Phil Mickelson – but Woods was affable, entertaining and professional in his six-minute long interview with local and international media during his 48-hour stopover in Singapore this week ahead of the Presidents Cup in Melbourne.
The same goes for swimmer Ian Thorpe, an Aussie legend who commands respect and attention both in and out of the pool.
Owning the tag of world’s best inevitably comes with a responsibility to the sport. Ambassadors have to engage people because they are the face of golf, tennis, table tennis or badminton, and an engaging superstar is what draws in sponsors, television revenue, and eyeballs – all crucial to allowing them to continue doing what they love, professionally. American swimmer Michael Phelps understands this, as do Kobe Bryant and tennis stars Nadal, Roger Federer and Li Na.
International table tennis chief Adham Sharara admitted early this week that the Pro Tour circuit was lagging behind tennis, which began in 1961. Badminton’s super series events also boast more prize money and bigger stadiums packed with spectators.
Perhaps its paddlers need to do more to take ping pong beyond the table. It is a beautiful game – one that will captivate if we are witness to the emotion, heartbreak, joy, friendship and rivalries behind the masters/mistresses who wield the bats.