Coronavirus: After eight months on hold, table tennis makes smashing return

The International Table Tennis Federation event kicked off last Sunday in Weihai, east China's Shandong province. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WEIHAI, CHINA (XINHUA) - Chen Meng was elated to be crowned champion for the first time at the ITTF Women's World Cup, but what made the top Chinese table tennis player even more excited was that she could play competitive games again.

"Almost every day during the past several months, I've been dreaming of returning to the court and playing matches," the world's No. 1 woman player said after winning the World Cup title here on Tuesday (Nov 10).

The International Table Tennis Federation event kicked off last Sunday in Weihai, east China's Shandong province, ending the sport's eight-month international hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The last tournament held before the World Cup was the ITTF World Tour Platinum Qatar Open, which ended on March 8.

"At first we expected that suspension of table tennis activities would last one or two months. But when it turned to June or July, the pandemic was still not over. We didn't know when it would be either," recalled the ITTF chief executive officer Steve Dainton.

He revealed that he had received a call from the Chinese Table tennis Association (CTTA) president Liu Guoliang to discuss whether the tournaments could be staged in China.

"Definitely it would be good for table tennis, but it required a lot of work before we finally arrived here," he noted.

Safety and health is the top priority. But for the ITTF and Chinese Table Tennis Association, it was not an easy mission as they had no epidemic prevention and control experiences for sport events.

Therefore, both sides had to draw experiences from other events that had been successfully restarted. And a process of in-depth communication and coordination followed in, said Dainton.

It could well explain that after the very first point between Lily Zhang and Margaryta Pesotska was decided, Dainton and Liu, along with members from the two working groups, stood up to celebrate it in a joyous fashion at the Weihai Nanhai Olympic Center.

The Men's Cup and the ITTF Finals will also be held in China later this month, as the ITTF called the series #RESTART.

"We felt a bit relieved when the first points arrived," Dainton said. "Still three weeks to go, we cannot relax too much, but after all it's a good start."

He expressed his gratitude to the Chinese, adding: "Hopefully, more and more people will support our sport and will be aware of what we have done to make it happen."

A total of 21 players from 15 countries and regions, including Singaporeean world No. 9 Feng Tianwei, participated in the three-day Women's World Cup. It was the first international sports event hosted in China featuring overseas athletes.

Stringent epidemic prevention and control measures have been implemented ever since players arrived at the first point of entry, or even prior to that. Before overseas participants departed for China, they had to fill in relevant information and monitor his/her physical conditions on a daily basis.

They were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine after arriving in China, with a more flexible method adopted for the second part of the quarantine period, when athletes could resume training while experiencing strict self-monitoring.

After games that were played behind closed doors, athletes greeted each other by nodding instead of shaking hands. The use of face masks and social distancing were mandatory throughout the competition.

At hotels and venues, four disinfection robots were deployed to sanitise surfaces.

Organisers also went out of their way to extend their hospitality towards overseas players, such as buying birthday cakes and gifts to those whose birthdays fell during the World Cup period. Athletes were also eligible for an indoor fitness package as they had to stay in hotel rooms for quarantine.

"Despite a bumpy road for table tennis' return, you finally make it to restart the matches," commented Liu, who enjoyed a stellar playing career by winning Olympic gold medals and world champions.

"Now everything has paid off," added the Chinese table tennis legend.

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