Trần Mai Ngọc jumped in the air and screamed to celebrate her championship point. She had just become the second youngest national champion ever at the age of 17, and proved herself the future of Vietnamese table tennis.
Ngọc 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 Hà Nội. It is a title that Việt Nam have not won yet at the biennial competition.
Journey to the top
Born in Bình Dương Province, Ngọc and her twin sister Trần Ngọc Ngà became fatherless when they were two. They lived in poor conditions with their mother, a garment worker.
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 Vũ Mạnh Cường.
“The mother and two nine-year-old girls travelled to Hà Nội 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 Ngọc was picked to take part in the national championship in 2019 after her senior Nguyễn Thị 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.
Ngọc’s performance was far better than her coach Cường could have imagined.
Cường 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 Việt Nam 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, Ngọc 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 Hoàng Mỹ Trang who beat Ngọc in the 2019 final. But in their second meet, Ngọc defeated the 12-time winner 4-2 in the quarter-finals.
In the final, Ngọc continued epic performance to beat Nguyễn Thuỳ Kiều My 4-0 to take the crown. She is the second youngest champion of the 39-season tournament, the youngest being Nhan Vị Quân who won when she was 15 in 1988.
Star in the making
“Ngọc has powerful strokes like men and her serves are tough. Her drives are also weapons that can create challenges for every rival,” said Cường.
Speaking to reporters after awarding the gold medal to Ngọc, Phan Anh Tuấn, head of the Table Tennis Department of the Việt Nam Sport Administration (VSA), said VSA officials and her club managers would discuss giving strong support for Ngọc to reach a top international level.
He said the talented athlete would have a foreign coach to lift her. Ngọc, who has just finished a two-week training course in Hungary, will also enjoy more international courses and tournaments to sharpen her skills.
“Ngọc 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 Tuấn.
“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.”
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, Ngọc 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 Ngọc: “I am on cloud nine. Now I want to be on the top of the podium for the SEA Games.” VNS