Tran Mai Ngoc wins the 2021 National Table Tennis Championship at the age of 17, becoming the second youngest champion in history. Photo nhandan.vn

Ngoc has risen through the ranks faster than coaches planned, taking just eight years to top the national podium. Now, she will be a key athlete in helping the country gain top results in international tournaments.

The upcoming task of the teenager will be the women’s single gold at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Hanoi. It is a title that Vietnam have not won yet at the biennial competition. 

Journey to the top

Born in Binh Duong Province, Ngoc and her twin sister Tran Ngoc Nga became fatherless when they were two. They lived in poor conditions with their mother, a garment worker.

Tran Mai Ngoc poses with the 2021 National Table Tennis Championship trophy. Photo nhandan.vn

Despite living a hard life, the mother sent the girls to a local table tennis club, which soon became an abiding passion for them. They were then introduced to Hà Nội T&T Club, which offered free training courses for poor junior athletes.

"I had no idea if they were able to play table tennis but it was Hà Nội T&T's charity programme so I accepted them," said coach Vu Manh Cuong.

"The mother and two nine-year-old girls travelled to Hanoi with us. When she returned home, the kids cried a lot. And we had to take turns to take care of them. They stayed at the club, practised with us and visited their home town just once a year. Time flies fast. It has been nearly a decade."

Under the three-time SEA Games champion, the girls, especially Ngọc, progressed remarkably and showed their talent in many junior tournaments.

The 15-year-old Ngoc was picked to take part in the national championship in 2019 after her senior Nguyen Thi Nga, who was defending champion, could not join. The youngest competitor of the tournament made an impressive debut with three silvers, including one in the women's singles.

Ngoc's performance was far better than her coach Cuong could have imagined.

Cuong said he knew his dark horse athlete could do something but three silvers in her first national championship was unexpected at such a tender age.

She was the youngest member of the Vietnam Team and the youngest competitor at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines in 2019. 

A year later, she came first at the National Best Table Tennis Players Tournament.

In last month’s national championship, Ngoc performed brilliantly to become national champion.

The 17-year-old sailed straight through the early rounds with little difficulty. However, she met a challenge in defending champion Mai Hoang My Trang who beat Ngoc in the 2019 final. But in their second meet, Ngoc defeated the 12-time winner 4-2 in the quarter-finals.

Tran Mai Ngoc (left) defeats 12-time champion Mai Hoang My Trang in the quarter-finals of the 2021 National Table Tennis Championship. Photo nhandan.vn

In the final, Ngoc continued epic performance to beat Nguyen Thuy Kieu My 4-0 to take the crown. She is the second youngest champion of the 39-season tournament, the youngest being Nhan Vi Quan who won when she was 15 in 1988. 

Star in the making

"Ngoc has powerful strokes like men and her serves are tough. Her drives are also weapons that can create challenges for every rival," said Cuong.

Speaking to reporters after awarding the gold medal to Ngoc, Phan Anh Tuan, head of the Table Tennis Department of the Vietnam Sport Administration (VSA), said VSA officials and her club managers would discuss giving strong support for Ngoc to reach a top international level.

He said the talented athlete would have a foreign coach to lift her. Ngoc, who has just finished a two-week training course in Hungary, will also enjoy more international courses and tournaments to sharpen her skills.

“Ngoc has shown her strong progress. She is young but chooses an offensive style, which helps her overcome strong opponents. Her championship title resulted from diligence and strong will,” said Tuan.

“She is thin and has good footwork, which enables her to reach the ball quicker and more easily that in turn helps her play a greater variety of strokes. However, she has some disadvantages. Her forehand drives are good but her backhand needs to be improved.” 

Tran Mai Ngoc celebrates a winning point during the women's singles final match of the National Table Tennis Championship on December 4. Photo nhandan.vn

He added that the teenager was a national hope at this May’s SEA Games, where the hosts expect to earn at least two golds.

Two years ago after winning silver, Ngoc said she could not believe her eyes even when holding the medal in her hands. “It is a miracle and I lived in happy feeling for many days after that,” she said.

This time, a golden miracle is in the offing for Ngoc: “I am on cloud nine. Now I want to be on the top of the podium for the SEA Games." 

Source: Vietnam News

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