No Ma Long, but Table Tennis Star Contender has enough stalwarts to attract fans

When organisers of World Table Tennis (WTT) Star Contender Goa received entries for the main event, that begins in Panaji on Wednesday, they were astounded.

Ma Long, two-time Olympic singles champion and three-time world champion had decided to compete at the event.

Now, Long is to table tennis what Lionel Messi is to football, Roger Federer is to tennis, and Tom Brady is to NFL. To see him compete live in India would be a dream come true for lovers of the sport.

It was also the first time that the organisers received as many as 17 entries from top-20 players in both men’s and women’s singles. Apart from Long, they included current Olympic women’s champion Chen Meng. Unfortunately, WTT has a Play Down Restriction (PDR) meaning that only the top 6 of the top 20 players can feature in the Star Contender event. That meant the organisers had an arduous task of telling at least seven top-20 players that they couldn’t come to Goa.

In further disappointment, just as the billboards screaming of Long’s presence in the country were up and fans had booked tickets with the anticipation of seeing the legend as well as the top Chinese contingent playing in the country, WTT announced that Long, Meng, women’s World No. 1 Sun Yingsha and World No. 3 Wang Manyu, and men’s World No. 3 Wang Chuqin had pulled out of the tournament with either Covid or injury, just two days before the start of the main draw.

While that was a dampener, China sent four other players as replacements for their top players.

Despite the withdrawals, with WTT nominations and wildcards, the event will see as many as 11 top-20 players in men’s singles and 10 top-20 players in women’s singles.

Big events, big names

It’s the first time that India is hosting a WTT event and that’s thanks to International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) partnership with Stupa Sports Analytics, a company based in Delhi that specialises in performance analytics and event management. A Star Contender event is third in the hierarchy of table tennis tournaments, below WTT Grand Smash and Champions. The qualifying rounds of the event began at the Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Indoor Stadium in Panaji on Monday.

Megha Gambhir, CEO of Stupa, said the unprecedented response may be due to the fact that its being held in Goa.

“One of the primary reasons we chose Goa is because it’s a tourist destination. We thought that since it’s the first time we’re having a WTT event in India, the players and fans should have something more to look forward to than just table tennis. Normally, it takes a year’s planning to host an event of such magnitude but we’ve done it in a short span of two months. That’s because we’ve received phenomenal support from the government, Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), and all the stakeholders,” Megha told The Indian Express.

World No. 1 Fan Zhendong of China is the top seed in the men’s event and will be challenged by World No. 4 Tomokazu Harimoto, the lone Japanese in the top-20 of the world rankings who has had some fabulous victories over his Chinese counterparts in the past year.

With Meng’s absence in the women’s singles, Chinese World No. 4 Wang Yidi will lead the charge, challenged by the Japanese duo of World No. 6 Hina Hayata and World No. 8 Kasumi Ishikawa.
The fact that the event has got so many top entries even baffled WTT organisers, who managed to put it into perspective.

“For sure, we don’t normally see this many top-20 entries for a Star Contender but we have the Singapore Smash next week, so players love the combination of first coming to Goa and then going to Singapore,” Bart Vermoesen, WTT’s event supervisor, told The Indian Express on Tuesday.

‘TT in India has grown exponentially’

India’s top-ranked player G Sathiyan has been a familiar face at top WTT tournaments over the past couple of years. The World No. 41 and Manika Batra are the top-ranked Indians at the event.

Then there’s the evergreen Sharath Kamal. The 40-year-old eight-time Commonwealth Games medallist, ranked only a few notches below Sathiyan in world rankings, is known to rise to the occasion. And what better occasion than his country hosting a premier tournament that boasts of big names for the first time since the 1987 World Championships held in New Delhi?

The men’s singles main draw also features 18-year-old Payas Jain and 21-year-old Wesley Do Rosario as wildcards. National Games champion Harmeet Desai beat Argentinian Horacio Cifuentes 3-2 in Round 3 of qualifiers to make it to the main draw.

The women’s singles main draw has Manika, the highest-ranked Indian at 34, national champion Sreeja Akula and 16-year-old Suhana Saini. Indian women did fabulously in qualifiers to dominate South Koreans to make their way into the main draw. Yashaswini Ghorpade beat Kim Nayeong 3-2 while National Games champ Sutirtha Mukherjee dominated Lee Eunhye 3-1.

The men’s doubles main draw will see Sharath and Sathiyan leading the Indian challenge along with Harmeet and Manav while Manika along with Archana Kamath will be seen in action along with the duo of Sreeja and Diya.

India’s best chance is in the mixed doubles event that will see Sathiyan and Manika pair up. The duo has been in sparkling form of late, reaching the semifinals of the Doha Contender in January.

This event will certainly see the most number of Indians at a WTT Contender event and Sathiyan cannot stop beaming about it.

“To play on such a platform is a great beginning for Indian table tennis to go even more global. The country is becoming a powerhouse and these tournaments will help us surely. Table tennis in India has definitely grown exponentially in the past four-five years. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it’s the most improved sport in that time period in India,” he said.

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