Tin-Tin Ho was destined to be a table tennis player
Credit: Andrew Fox
Even before she was born, it was written in the stars that Tin-Tin Ho would one day compete at the Olympics in table tennis. Her father, a former international player for Hong Kong, was so obsessed by the sport that he decided to name his children after it. The initials of Ho’s name – Tin Tin – which stand for ‘table tennis’ – was a preferred choice over another, less attractive option.
“My mum stopped my dad from calling me Pong, which would have been a problem,” laughs Ho. “My brother is called Ping, which is quite a common name in China, so it’s not that strange. It’s also the Chinese word for ‘sky’. My dad likes to say, ‘The sky’s the limit,’” explains Ho. but my name is a good ice breaker.”
Ho is the first female table tennis player from Great Britain to qualify for an Olympics since Lisa Lomas at Atlanta 1996, although Team GB had a host-nation place for London 2012.
The 22-year-old is one of just three Team GB table tennis athletes in Japan, where one nation is likely to strike gold. China has dominated table tennis, winning all but four of the 32 titles since the sport was introduced at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Ho is all too familiar with the country’s hegemony – growing up, she spent her summer holidays flying over to China with her mum and brother, where both attended rigorous table tennis training camps.
“They were quite hard,” recalls Ho. “It’s pretty tough over there. In every city you’ll find a good club. I wouldn’t win many matches there because the standard is really strong. It’s their national sport, a bit like how football is over here.”
And yet, those bruising sessions in China heralded international success for Ho while was still a school girl. Having amassed 23 singles titles through youth categories, she won a 2014 Commonwealth silver alongside Liam Pitchford in the mixed doubles, aged just 16. She repeated the feat on Australia’s Gold Coast four years later while also playing a key part in the historic bronze that England claimed in the team event.
Ho hones her technique at the University of Nottingham
Credit: Andrew Fox
Ho is used to fielding assumptions that she was forced into the sport by her dad, Charles, who coached her and her brother as children. In a marked sign that he is letting his daughter carve her own path in his beloved sport, he has kept his own career something of a family secret.
“He doesn’t tell us anything. I think he’s quite modest. I guess a lot of Asian people are more likely to play from their heritage, with their parents playing,” says Ho, who says the narrative around table tennis in the UK is changing. “Before, people would say, ‘Is that really a sport? They’d ask me if I have to train in the gym.”
Watching her up close during one of her penultimate practice sessions before flying out to Tokyo at the University of Nottingham – where she is impressively juggling a medicine degree with five-hour training days for the past two years – is mesmerising.
Gripping her bat like a pen, with index finger and thumb curled carefully around the bottom of the paddle, she tosses the ball up and whizzes a low serve across to her training partner in one, sweeping motion. She spends a minute palming forehands, moving her body in sync to the soft percussive patter of the ball which is darting at a furious speed across the table – so fast that the photographer with us asks the duo to slow down.
The action is not only years of training at the table, but speed and agility drills, core strengthening exercises and interval training that Ho dedicates her time to in the gym.
There are high hopes that Ho’s Olympic debut will spearhead an uptick in the number of British female table tennis players in what remains a very male-dominated sport – female participation at club level in England has barely hovered above 12 per cent in recent years.
Ever since holding a bat aged five and practising with her dad on the ground floor of her family’s Paddington house – conveniently equipped with a table and competition flooring – Ho has spent much of her life sparring with boys, save for two gap years she spent playing professionally in Linz, Austria.
Ho will make he Olympic debut in Tokyo
Credit: Andrew Fox
“There were only women there, so that really helped me with my game because I hadn’t practised with many girls up until that point. It was good to get a feel of that,” says Ho, whose exclusively-male Olympic training group includes Liam Pitchford and Paul Drinkall, who will be part of Team GB’s largest table tennis singles representation in its history.
“There are definitely more guys in the sport than women, but I really hope, just me being there [in Tokyo] that it can really inspire other female players to keep going,” adds Ho. “A lot of girls normally want to study and do both, so hopefully by doing a medicine degree alongside being a full-time athlete can show them it’s possible.”
So what are her hopes on her Olympic debut? “Playing how I want to play and the best I can,” says Ho. “Before, I was quite outcome orientated, but now I try not to think about that too much.” Who knows how Ho will fare – the sky, after all, is the limit.