Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tokyo Recap, Part Two

Larry Thoman, general manager at Newgy and longtime USATT contributor, asked a question: why were most of the divisions at the World Championships played as single elimination during the second stage, instead of the traditional progressive knockout?

In the minutes of the September 2012 meeting of the ITTF Executive Committee, you can find the following notes:

5.6 2014 WTTC update and playing system:

* The proposal to reduce the number of matches particularly in the top 2 divisions would allow a better schedule and prevent the event growing further.
* Eliminating all position matches, including for 13 and 14, would assist with positions 3 and 4, 5 to 8, 9 to 12, 13 and 14 being shared.
* The proposal to the Board of Directors should specify that if approved, the playing system would be implemented in 2014.
* Following the site visit and advice received, the organisers proposed various changes:
    - Fewer courts in the 1st gymnasium.
    - No courts in the swimming pool.
    - Adding the Metropolitan Gymnasium to replace the National Olympic Memorial Youth Centre.
    - Replacing the Keio Plaza Hotel and other hotels by the Prince Hotel which would improve transport logistics as all participants would stay here.
    - All meals could be served in the Prince Hotel although lunch may need to be provided at the venue due to possible time constraints.

Now that the event is over, it appears that the modified playing system was approved - as evidenced by the lack of courts in the swimming pool!

Deliberations at the 2014 AGM
The 2013 and 2014 Worlds both had record numbers of entries. Both tournaments required the use of two separate competition facilities. The complexity of the tournament has been a problem for a long time and it continues to grow - now it takes place every year instead of every two years; more players enter every year with larger entourages; the hospitality demands increase; there is more media. Growing pains are generally a good thing . . . as long as the "pain" part is dealt with. The difficulties include increased costs, higher staff demands, and greater host requirements which lead to fewer sites being capable of hosting the event. (See also: how many cities are bidding to host the Winter Olympics.) A more difficult event also means there are more potential points of failure, and more potential difficulties for the players. For example, the added complexity of requiring two playing halls is quite significant.

It is in almost everyone's best interests to reduce the complexity of the event. In my opinion, removing many of the final positional matches at the Worlds helped accomplish that.

But that's not enough. For the 2017 Worlds, the ITTF received only one bid. What would have happened if that one country had not submitted a bid? It seems that changes need to be made to reduce the host demands at each World Championships.

So at the latest Board of Directors meeting (which i did not attend), they voted to reduce the number of player entries to the Worlds. The number of entries per country continues to be based on the number of top ranked players from that country. Basically:

  • Most countries can enter 5 singles players (per gender)
  • Countries with a player ranked in the top 20 can enter 6 players
  • Countries with two players in the top 20 can enter 7 players
  • The host country can enter 7 players

  • Most countries can enter 3 singles players (per gender)
  • Countries with a player ranked in the top 100 can enter 4 players
  • Countries with a player ranked in the top 100 and another player ranked in the top 20 can enter 5 players
  • The host country can enter 6 players

I estimate that this will reduce the total number of entrants by 10%-15%. But the number of participating countries increases every year, so 10% may be closer to the mark. If i understand correctly, the Executive Committee would like to further reduce the number of entrants in 2017, but that change has not been proposed or passed and nobody knows what will happen. I suspect the general sentiment is that reducing the number of participants is a negative, but we want the World Championships to exist and continue to be a great event, and we want it to be a practical event for more cities.

A hundred world class players and coaches, packed like sardines prior to match time

People who care enough to pay attention to the actions of the ITTF knew that this change was intended to keep the tournament manageable. It's clear from the minutes of several EC meetings that they had been considering different ways to reduce the number of entrants, and accepting proposals from multiple organizations and associations on the best way to do it. In the end this reduction was proposed and passed with 70% in favor.

And then there are those who don't pay attention, and write articles like this: ITTF introduces changes to World Championship in bid to reduce Chinese domination.

"In what comes across a further attempt to reduce the Chinese monopoly on the medals table, the Board have also reduced the numbers of players per association available to play in the Championships."


When i first read this line - that the reduction of players is designed to restrict China - i saw it as the typical haters repeating their "blame the ITTF" mantra. But then someone else made the same claim on another forum or blog. And then another.

What is going on?

Can any of the people making this claim cite a reference from the ITTF indicating that the intent of this change is to attack the Chinese team?

Can any of them describe how this change would actually decrease the Chinese players' chances of winning?

Then i heard some claims that the adoption of non-celluloid balls is also an attempt to disrupt Chinese dominance. And the change to 40mm balls. And the switch to 11 point games. Are these people for real?

Here's the reality:

The number of players permitted to enter the World Championships in 2015 will probably be reduced. The intent has nothing to do with China or any other particular country; the purpose is to limit the number of entries and reduce the burden on the host country. The change will have no effect on the performance of the Chinese players.

The number of teams permitted to enter the World Championships in 2016 will be limited to 96 men's teams and 96 women's teams. Again, the intent has nothing to do with China or any other particular country. Reducing the number of teams will reduce the burden on the host country. The change will have no effect on the performance of the Chinese team. (But it will affect the US Men's team; if we're not careful, it is possible that we will lose our eligibility for the Worlds. These changes affect the small countries more than the large ones.)

The adoption of a non-celluloid ball, 40mm ball, or 11 point games had nothing to do with Chinese players or any other particular country.

Personally i'm not satisfied with the way teams will be allocated for the Worlds, or with the language that describes the allocation. But i suspect we'll survive.

The minutes of the ITTF AGM, Board of Directors, and Executive Committee meetings are all public. If you want to understand things, read them yourself. Secondhand reports don't seem to be very reliable at the moment. But i'll attempt to put some weight back on the reality side of things, and describe some other changes that were adopted at this Worlds:

In one of many briefings, umpires are instructed to smile
* Players can now select a match ball. Well, they could kind of select one before, but it's clearer now. In the past, players could select up to three match balls, and one of the selected balls would be randomly chosen for the match. So the players could select three equally good balls and one would be used; or they could select one superior ball and that one would be used, but if it broke they would be stuck with a backup ball that had not been selected. Now, players can do both - select three match balls, and the particular one which will be used first. Not a major change, but one that will reduce a lot of behind-the-scenes aggravation.

* In a return, the ball doesn't need to cross the net. In the past, a return was: strike the ball, cross the net, hit the opponent's side of the table. Now, it will be: strike the ball, hit the opponent's side of the table. The net becomes a defined obstacle, but no more (except for net serves). This is a subtle difference that i hope will have no real effect on match play.

* There is now an ITTF Technical Leaflet for net gauges, written by Nobuyuki Shirakawa (JPN). Many net gauges are used throughout a competition, but there was no formal standard for them until now. Whether there will be ITTF approval of net gauges remains to be seen.

* Changes were made to the Technical Leaflet for balls, maintained by Torsten Kuneth (GER). One of the major changes is that balls approved in the future must have "Made in (country)" on both the ball and the packaging. There was also some relaxation of ball manufacturing tolerances for a year and a half, as production continues to be refined.

* Changes were made to the Technical Leaflet for racket coverings, maintained by me. Most of the changes were clarifications of past issues:
- In the past, the TL stated that a thick non-wood coating on a blade was not permitted, however penhold players often used paint or a paint sheet on their racket which was technically in violation of this restriction. So an exception was made for this specific purpose.
- It has always been implicit that the red side of a racket should be uniformly red; printing on the sponge or blade, or dark wood grain lines, should not show through such that the color is not uniform. But this was often questioned, so this requirement was made explicit.
- The pimple friction requirement was clarified. The laboratory test is unchanged, and no rubbers have had authorization rescinded because of it, but the language was simply made more generic.

* Another thing that we should see in the next issue of the List of Authorized Racket Coverings is a back page which lists all of the rubbers that will be leaving the LARC. This will be useful for players so they can quickly see if the rubber they use is being withdrawn, and for umpires so they don't have to carry around two lists.

* The ITTF now has 220 member associations, tying it for first place with volleyball. In the simplest terms, this means more people are playing table tennis.

* A resolution was passed to encourage study of multicolored balls, which would make spin more visible, especially on instant replay. This doesn't change anything yet because the rules still specify white or orange balls, but perhaps a change will come in the future.

The 2015 World Championships will be held in Suzhou, China. I'm not sure if i will be there. But i am reasonably sure that any changes that are decided there will not be based on sudden impulses. The ITTF is a large and conservative organization; it takes a lot of work to make something happen. The work takes place over the course of the year, and what materializes (or fails) at the Worlds represents only a tiny bit of the labor that led up to it.


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