The New Zealand women's table tennis team will gather in China from all parts of the globe this week before they chase a medal at the Commonwealth Games.
The five-strong squad of Li sisters Chunli and Karen, Annie Yang, Jenny Hung and player-coach Sun Yang are a tight-knit unit who have developed their own unique environment over the years, Table Tennis New Zealand high-performance director Muray Finch said.
"With the drive of Li Chunli, they have developed their own culture. They get on well with each other within the team environment, they are quite picky with who they let in in terms of the support staff, which is coaching, video analysts and training partners because this close to the event they don't want any disruption to how they operate as a team."
Finch describes Li, 52, as a physical freak, a player who, after four Olympic Games, has lost some speed but none of the raw cunning, reflexes and game knowledge required to compete at the top level.
Li had been "training the house down" in Auckland before joining Australian-based Karen at a training centre in China for the three weeks leading into Glasgow.
They'll be met there this week by Annie Yang, who has been in China training since last month following the end of the competition season in Germany, while Jenny Hung arrives in China from her base in Taiwan and Sun Yang will shift from her base in Beijing.
The women's team, currently ranked in the top six in the Commonwealth, are a real medal chance as long as they can avoid the might of Singapore until as late into the competition as possible.
Singapore has three or four players ranked inside the top 20 in the world, but New Zealand can foot it with the best of the rest from Australia, India, England, Canada and Malaysia.
New Zealand finished fifth in the women's teams event in Delhi four years ago without Li Chunli, but beat eventual silver medallists India in pool play.
"We've got a huge amount of experience in the team. We don't want to overhype this, but I can guarantee you everyone of those five team members is thinking medals, and how they are going to get them," Finch said.
"We will be a team that no one will want to play. The style mix in our team is very wide, they are awkward to play against and that's a good thing."
The New Zealand men's team, led by the newly qualified Teng Teng Liu, will aim for a place in the quarterfinals, with anything more a bonus.
Twenty-year-old Liu, who has lived in New Zealand since he was 16 but only recently became eligible to play for his adopted country, gives the team strike power in the singles but they will need plenty of support from three-time Olympian and former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Peter Jackson, fellow veteran Shane Laugesen and debutants John Cordue and Phillip Xiao.
Best gold medal hope: Four-time Olympian Li Chunli retired from international table tennis after the 2004 Olympics, later taking on the role of national women's coach. She returned to competition two years ago and is now ranked inside the top eight in the Commonwealth.
Best outside medal chance: The New Zealand men's squad have been boosted for the teams event following the residency qualification of 20-year-old Teng Teng Liu. With the talented China-born player a genuine threat in the singles section of the teams event, New Zealand are a chance of challenging the likes of Singapore, India and England for a place on the podium.
New Zealand's medal history: New Zealand's four Commonwealth Games table tennis medals were all won in Manchester in 2002, the first year the sport was included in the programme. Li Chunli contributed to all four medals - a gold, silver and two bronzes.
Did you know? The teams format used at the Commonwealth Games, a complicated blend of tactics and subterfuge, is used at only two other events: the Olympics and World University Games.
- The Southland Times
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