The postponement of the World Team Table Tennis Championships due to the coronavirus situation in South Korea could be a blessing in disguise for Singapore's hopes of a women's team medal at the Tokyo Olympics in July.
The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) announced yesterday that the event, scheduled for March 22-29 in Busan, will be provisionally moved to June 21-28, and that it remains confident of putting on a "great" tournament then.
But the dates clash with the Australian Open (June 23-28) and Korean Open (June 16-21) and it is now trying to find suitable dates for the World Tour events.
With nearly 1,000 cases and 10 deaths from the Covid-19 disease in South Korea, the ITTF said in a statement that "the decision was made with the health and safety of players, officials and fans as the top priority".
The biennial tournament, which the Singapore women won in 2010, was supposed to host about 3,000 players and officials from 87 countries, said the Yonhap news agency.
Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) senior high performance manager Eddy Tay told The Straits Times: "Moving the world championships closer to the Olympics could help in our preparations as it gives us the opportunity to play more high-level games.
"It also falls nicely before our planned training tour in Japan from July 1."
The women's team, spearheaded by world No. 8 Feng Tianwei, are hoping to get back on the podium after losing the bronze-medal match to Japan in Rio 2016. They won silver at Beijing 2008 and bronze at London 2012.
They earned their ticket to Tokyo at last month's World Team Qualification Tournament in Portugal.
Both the men and women's teams will return today after training in Japan since Feb 12.
For the top players, their next major assignment is next month's Qatar Open.
It gives us the opportunity to play more high-level games. It also falls nicely before our planned training tour in Japan from July 1.
EDDY TAY, Singapore Table Tennis Association senior high performance manager, on the postponement of the world team championships in South Korea to June 21-28.
Singapore will also try to earn a spot in the men's singles and mixed doubles at the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament in Bangkok from April 6-12.
With the travel restrictions because of the outbreak, the STTA is unable to bring in sparring partners from China, where the virus was first detected.
Tay said: "We had planned to invite them to Japan to train with us but we had to find some from the Japanese clubs instead.
"Good sparring partners are important in our Olympic build-up and, while we understand the precautionary measures, we have to come up with alternatives such as finding some from Japan, although they may also have concerns about travelling to Singapore. So, we could go back to Japan again."
On Monday, South Korea's K-league postponed the start of the new football season scheduled for this weekend.
Volleyball, basketball and handball have taken similar measures.
Two Asian Champions League football matches next week - FC Seoul versus Thailand's Chiangrai United and Ulsan versus Australia's Perth Glory - will be played behind closed doors.
Japan also suspended its football league yesterday, with just five months to the Tokyo Olympics.
All J-League and Cup games were postponed until next month.
In Europe, Serie A matches are set to be played behind closed doors if proposals from the Italian football federation are approved by the government.
These would include the match between league leaders Juventus and third-placed Inter Milan in Turin on Sunday.
Six Nations organisers are also in talks with the participating rugby unions amid concerns about the situation in Italy, where seven have died and over 220 have been infected. Italy are due to host England in their final match on March 14.
• With additional information from Agence France-Presse, Reuters