How persistent cold and cough triggered a career in table tennis for Fu Yu, Portugal’s 44-year old pro

As a young girl in China, a country that dominates the world of table tennis, Fu Yu never thought of taking up the sport. By the age of 7, talented kids are sent to professional academies. At seven, though, Yu had other concerns. Growing up in the Hebei province, one of China’s most populous districts, Yu suffered from constant bouts of cough and cold and had to be taken to a specialist doctor for treatment.

A curious episode transpired, at the clinic. The doctor wanted her to take up an indoor sport that requires a good amount of exertion. It was decided in the clinic that Yu would play table tennis as a cure for her sickness.

That was 37 years ago. The 44-year-old, who currently represents Portugal, was the oldest player at the WTT Star Contender being held at the Dr Shayma Prasad Mukherjee Stadium in Panaji. And she has no plans of stopping any time soon. Neither does she travel with a coach. At 44, she says, she’s capable of playing tournaments without a coach. “It can get very expensive to travel with a coach everywhere and now I’ve been playing for so many years that I’m used to it,” she told The Indian Express. Using a penhold grip, the World No. 19 says she’s ready to write history every time she enters the arena.

FU Yu in action.

There’s something intriguing about the way she conducts herself during matches too. She barely reacts to losing or winning a point and seldom reaches for the towel during breaks. Even when she lost her quarterfinal match to World No. 31 Cheng I-Ching 3-0 (11-5,11-9,11-6) on Saturday, she didn’t show any emotion, just went and sat on her empty coach’s couch.

It’s been an arduous road for her as a professional, she says, but once she started playing the game, she loved it so much that she was ready to dedicate her life to it. Not immediately though. It was only at the age of 12 did she decide that she wanted to make a career out of it. But 12 is considered late in China and so while she performed well, she knew it was going to be almost impossible to make the China team. She had to look elsewhere. So in 1998, at the age of 19, she left China for Spain. After a short stay there, she was invited to play for a club in Portugal. She loved the country and the facilities there that she never really left.

It was not just the facilities, she says. She also found love. More importantly, she says, being a former TT player himself, he was ready to support her in fulfilling her unfinished dream of competing at the highest level. Even after she gave birth to a girl in 2012, she says the thought of leaving the sport never crossed her mind.

In fact, when she got married in 2013 and got her Portuguese citizenship, she tasted success almost immediately. At the 2013 European Championships, she won a bronze in singles. She went on to win four more medals at subsequent European Championships, which include two silver and two bronze. Though she’s done decently at top tournaments including the ITTF Grand Finals, her best achievement to date was gold in singles at the 2019 European Games in Minsk.

So how does she handle being a mother as well as a top-20 player? “My mother lives with me in Portugal so she takes care of my kid while I travel for tournaments,” she said.

She says kid, but at the age of 11, her daughter is already a table tennis star in the making. And it was Yu who ensured that she was introduced to the sport as early as possible.

“I don’t know anything apart from table tennis, so I taught her what I know,” says the Federer fan with a smile.

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