Table Tennis Star Na Liu, Ireland's Quiet Enforcer
Having made Northern Ireland her home, Na Liu talks China, injuries and competing at London 2012
Her profile description on the English Table Tennis Association describes her as ‘Ireland’s quiet enforcer and number one women’s player'. But when you speak with Na Liu, you realise that she's not as timid as she is made out to be.
The 29 year old Chinese-born table tennis player, who has made Northern Ireland her home since 2001, gained British citizenship in 2008. Having represented Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2008, Liu, who is ranked 213th in the world, will have her next major outing for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Between stops on a hectic schedule that has her moving between Bangor, Sheffield and Marmande in France, Liu makes plenty of time to talk.
'The first time I came to Northern Ireland was in 2000 to play in the Bangor Open tournament, but I could not stay,' says Liu. 'I came back in 2001 to coach in schools and clubs. I was also learning English. I really liked it here in Northern Ireland. It was very different from my home on mainland China.
'Initially the standard was not very high and there weren’t that many schools involved, but after ten years we have many more people playing table tennis. Ulster hadn’t won the Junior Inter Pros for some time, but within two or three years of my arrival, we began to win and that showed the progress that we were making.'
Liu grew up in the China’s north east province of Liaoning, an industrial region which has a population of almost 44 million people. She took up table tennis from the age of seven, and had plenty of people to learn from as a junior.
'As we know, the population of China is many times bigger than the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland, and so naturally more people are likely to play table tennis,' she explains. 'Not everyone in China does, though millions do.
'The world rankings in a sport like squash may go up as far as 200. In table tennis there are rankings that go up to 10,000. And that doesn’t allow for all the other brilliant players who are outside the ranking system.'
Liu competes is a fill-time professional with the French Pro A league side Marmande, based in the south west Aquitaine region. 'I go over every two weeks to play. A lot of players from the UK play in that league and in Spain and Germany too. It’s very competitive. It give us plenty of match practice and there are good crowds at matches.'
An attacking type of player, Liu prefers to stand in at the table and ‘meet the ball fast'. While she sees herself primarily as a singles player, she is also prepared to play doubles and mixed doubles. However, with London 2012 approaching rapidly, her concentration is on preparing for the team event and the singles tournament.
'As the host nation, Great Britain doesn’t have to qualify for the team event,' Liu explains, 'but we do have to compete in the European qualification for the singles.'
And, as with other sports, the table tennis squad has its own highly intensive training programme. 'We use the Sheffield Institute of Sport as our training base,' says Liu. 'I play two sessions of table tennis every day, but not at the weekend. We also have physical sessions.'
Liu says that while table tennis players are less likely to sustain the serious injuries that are associated with some other sports, they nevertheless have to be careful. 'Injuries can happen, but generally aren’t as major a problem as elsewhere. As long as you warm up properly and when you are playing, you play the correct strokes, you should be okay.'
While Na Liu admits that the table tennis players most likely to succeed are usually in their early 20s, she, at 29, will be travelling to London determined to do her best for her motherland and for her adopted country.
And what about afterwards? Would she like to pick up another career once she stops competing? 'I would like to go into full-time coaching. I can’t do anything else. Table tennis is my life. This is what I do.'