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Reinventing table tennis

A new World Table Tennis body has big plans to make the sport more lucrative and spectator-friendly

Sharath Achanta (left) and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran during the men’s table tennis doubles semi-final of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.getty images
Sharath Achanta (left) and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran during the men’s table tennis doubles semi-final of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.getty images

The current covid-19 situation has forced most sports to re-evaluate and formulate a resumption strategy. Table tennis, however, had set the wheels of reinvention in motion in 2018 itself, planning to go bigger and bolder. In 2021, the sport’s governing body, International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), will launch World Table Tennis (WTT). This will be a restructured tour, with a big hike in prize money and better defined, streamlined events.

At the top of the pile in this new tournament structure will be four marquee events called the Grand Smashes, akin to the tennis Grand Slams. These 10-day events will offer a prize purse of $3 million (around 22 crore) per event. Currently, the richest event on the calendar is the $1 million ITTF Grand Tour Finals.

The WTT tour events, including the year-ending Cup Finals and the eight WTT Champions tournaments, will offer another $8 million in prize money. The challenger events, meanwhile, have been split into two levels: Star Contender and Contenders.

“This is the need of the hour," says India’s No.2 paddler Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, currently ranked 32 in the world. “We have been asking for increased prize money for a long time now. In the current scenario, unless you make it to the quarter-final of an event, you don’t make money. Everything, including the flight tickets and accommodation, comes out of our pocket, so it is difficult to make a living from the game if you don’t have sponsors. I hope the players can become more self-sufficient with this revamped structure."

India’s No.1 player, 37-year-old Sharath Kamal Achanta, won the 2020 ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open in Muscat on 15 March, just as the world was going into lockdown mode. He earned a winner’s cheque of $8,000. “The new structure looks like a step in the right direction," says Achanta, ranked 31 in the world. “They are trying to professionalize the sport. But given that it’s launching in an Olympic year, which wasn’t what was initially planned, we will see how it pans out." The Tokyo Olympics, slated for this year, have been postponed to 2021.

The ITTF will also be restricting the number of participants by clearly defining the entry-level and elite levels. According to the existing formula, all world tour events have a draw of 32 but only the top 16 get direct entry. The rest are chosen through a lengthy qualification process which can have anywhere between 100-200 competitors.

“Imagine you are world No.17 and you can’t get even get a direct entry into the competition," says Sathiyan, who reached a career high of 24 last July, the highest ever by an Indian. “You have to go through a minimum of three and maximum of four qualifying rounds and then compete in the main tournament."

According to the new rules, the WTT Champions tournaments will have a draw of 32, with 28 direct entries through ranking, and the WTT Star Contenders events will have a draw of 48, with 31 direct entries.

The biggest hurdle has been to make the sport more spectator friendly, both for the stadium audienceand for those watching on television. Moreover, on a typical day early in the tournament, matches are held on multiple (at times more than 10) tables simultaneously.

The reasons it hasn’t taken off as a spectator sport, says Achanta, are dimensions and complexity. “The table is small, the ball used is small," he explains. “It does not make for very clear viewing. Plus the strategies and spins we use are too complex and subtle. You need some level of understanding of the sport to know what’s happening."

That is another notion they are trying to shed; the WTT promises better and wider TV coverage one-table, “Centre Court" experience for top-tier events (rather than multiple matches simultaneously, they will focus on one table). In a time of transformation, table tennis is looking to carve a whole new identity.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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