Even as Singapore’s Pang Xue Jie walked away in disappointment, the Vietnamese athletes hugged each other excitedly.
These were the scenes that were played out at the same time after the final match of the men’s table tennis team event at the Malaysia 29th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
Vietnam ended Singapore’s gold winning streak in the sport at the games, becoming the first team to do so, since Singapore set up their reign in 1995.
The Vietnamese team of three, Dinh Quang Linh, Nguyen Anh Tu and Doan Ba Tuan Anh, made history by winning 3-1 over Singapore, which played Gao Ning, Clarence Chew and Pang, all naturalised from China. Gao is the top-ranked Southeast Asian male player, at No 46.
“It is a historic victory for Vietnam in this regional games. We have taken the men’s singles and doubles, and the mixed doubles titles, but have never won a men’s team event, the most important one, before,” said Phan Anh Tuan, head of Table Tennis Department of the National Sports Administration.
“In other sports, a gold medal must be normal, but this is a valuable one, because ASEAN is home to many world table tennis stars,” said Tuan.
Tuấn is working on documents to submit for the Certificate of Merit from the Prime Minister.
Vietnam had a poor start when Linh lost 1-3 to Gao in the first singles match.
However, World No 427 Tu gave hope to the team by beating No 199 Chew 3-1 in the second match.
The night’s biggest surprise, however, was sprung by Vietnamese doubles side of Anh and Linh, who recovered after trailing 1-2 to secure a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Gao and Pang in the third tie.
The Singaporeans had won the doubles title the previous day.
Their win was a turning point in the finals that gave Vietnam a clear chance to win the overall title.
Tú had the important task of playing Pang in the decisive fourth match.
While members of both teams watched with bated breath, the points were won equally by both the players in the first two sets. Finally, Tu won 13-11 and 11-9.
The more Tu played, the better he became. The Southeast Asian champion gave no chance to 24-year-old Peng, who is ranked 275th in the world, in the third set.
Tú won consecutive points and quickly led 10-3. Taking a long breath he served for the winning point, which was returned to his right hand corner. Tumade a strong hit guiding the ball to Peng’s right A corner. It was so difficult that Peng’s return went wide.
Tú dropped his paddle and jumped into the open arms of his teammates, all of them realised that a new page had been opened in the history of the games.
“We talked a lot about doing well in every match from the group round itself. Now, it is the finals, there is nothing to lose, we have to play our best, earning point by point for the final victory,” said Tú, the hero of the match.
“I felt pressure prior to the match partly because we had set the target for a gold medal, but after six previous events we just had two bronzes.
“It was more difficult for me when veteran Linh lost the first match. If I had failed too, Vietnam would be pushed into a difficult situation. However, the coaches and teammates encouraged me a lot, asking me to give everything I had. And I made it. The win has helped lighten our burden and brightened our hopes,” said Tú.
“It is a meaningful title for us. We have waited to see a gold again for eight years, since the last one that I won with Doan Kien Quoc in 2009,” said Linh, whose 29th SEA Games might be his last.
Head coach Nguyen Hai Nam believed that the victory resulted from careful preparation prior to the games, as well as the unity of the team members.
“Everything was planned. We had intensive training courses in Vietnam and abroad. We have watched our rivals from the group round and analysed their pros and cons. We understood that to take the top podium beating Singapore was a must,” said Hai.
“My players supported each other very well. In the team, we have experienced and young talented players. They all try to make up for others’ weaknesses. And they all put in their best performance that day. So, we could succeed,” said Hai, who received congratulations from other teams such as Thailand, Indonesia and the hosts.
On the other side, Gao said on straitstimes.com that the Vietnamese opponents might have smelled blood after seeing Singapore being represented by a younger and more inexperienced squad.
"It probably gave our opponents the confidence to be more aggressive. The local-born and younger paddlers lacked the experience when the scoreline was close. It’s a pity, but we still fought very hard out there," he was quoted as saying.
Pang rued the doubles’ loss the most, but said it was valuable exposure.
"The atmosphere is different from other tournaments, especially when you have your back against the wall," he said.
The gold was Vietnam’s 58th one at the SEA Games, which helped the delegation beat Singapore to be placed third in the overall ranking, behind Malaysia and Thailand.
It was the seventh for Vietnam in the biennial tournament, since they first participated in the games in 1989.
Table tennis coaches said that the gold would be a strong force to push the development of the sport in the country.
“We have never won this title, but now we have it. Vietnamese players can match up against the world’s high ranking opponents,” said coach Hai.
“I hope that the federation will support us more after this outstanding achievement, so that our players have the chance to sharpen their technique for bigger tournaments.
“I believe that if we pay attention to the doubles events, we can vie for titles against leading athletes in Asia. When we are at the continent-level, we can think of a world medal, because Asia is the hub for table tennis in the world,” said Hai, referring to the Asian Games which will be organised next year in Indonesia.