The new table tennis season is here and with it brings a new identity in a radical rebrand of the sport's international calendar.
Named World Table Tennis (WTT), it supplants the previous International Table Tennis Federation World Tour and World Tour Platinum events, with only two major tournaments expected to not take place under the WTT banner – the World Championships (including World Team Championships) and Olympic Games.
After a successful exhibition of the new brand last November in Macao, WTT formally begins next week with the first of its bio-secure bubbles in Doha, Qatar, which is being called the "WTT Middle East Hub".
Here's what you should know about the 2021 season.
Gone is the ITTF World Tour and its associated events, with World Table Tennis – the international federation's new events arm – taking its place.
According to the ITTF, WTT will "(place) players and fans at the core of all its business to catapult table tennis to the forefront of global sports business."
In other words, WTT aims to breathe new life into the sport, with the idea of bringing more entertainment to its events and not just the sport.
For example, the WTT Macao events last year included individual player entries to the field of play, an in-house deejay, a new playing area with new colours, and new camera angles.
The introduction of WTT has brought some changes, including to the rules.
In order to present a more dynamic and colourful feel to the sport, players will now be able to pick the colour of their paddle rubbers from a selection instead of sticking to the traditional red and black.
Another key change is that as a general rule, all matches will be best-of-five instead of the traditional best-of-seven, with only main draw singles semi-finals and finals being played to best-of-seven.
In the new structure, there are five levels of WTT events planned, including the WTT Cup Finals, which partially amalgamate the ITTF World Cups and ITTF World Tour Grand Finals into one. WTT has also announced a new youth competition tier.
At the top of the WTT pyramid are up to four brand-new Grand Smash events, intended to be table tennis' answer to the tennis Grand Slams or golf majors. They will see up to 64 men and women in the main draw, 24 men's and women's doubles teams, and 16 mixed doubles pairings in each event.
Below that, the WTT Cup Finals will serve as the new end-of-season competition, replacing the World Tour Grand Finals. The winners in each singles event will be awarded the men's and women's World Cups, which until 2020 were held separately from the Grand Finals. However, the ITTF World Cup remains a world ranking event, with Team World Cups normally held aside from the singles event in every odd-numbered year.
The top level of regular WTT events will be the WTT Champion Series. There will be up to eight such events, with increased prize money as compared to the old World Tour. Men's and women's events will be held separately (four in each gender) for the best 32 players – the top 30 by world ranking, one wild card, and one WTT nomination.
Below that come the WTT Star Contender and WTT Contender events, akin to the old World Tour Platinum and World Tour events. These events will form the bulk of the WTT season, and provide world ranking points for players. However, there will be restrictions on the number of top-20 ranked players at each event.
Meanwhile, the WTT Youth Series will take the place of the old ITTF World Junior Circuit in the calendar. These events will run up to five age-group tournaments, at under-11, -13, -15, -17, and -19 level.
Chinese players are likely to be the dominant force in table tennis this season, as they have traditionally been. As of 23 February 2021, the top four men’s singles players are all Chinese, while the country takes up seven of the top ten spots on the women’s singles world ranking list.
The Chinese near the top of the ranks will be very aware that good performances this season could mean catching their coaches' eyes ahead of the Tokyo 2020 tournament, where each country will only allowed two players in each singles event.
However, China has withdrawn its players from the season-opening Middle East Hub due to ongoing concerns about the global health situation.
"We will not be able to send table tennis players to play outside of China until the (Tokyo 2020) Olympic Games due to the ongoing pandemic situation worldwide," the Chinese Table Tennis Association secretary-general Qin Zhijian said.
Outside of the Chinese players, count out and men's world number five Harimoto Tomokazu of Japan or Hugo Calderano of Brazil, the first Latin American player to crack the world top ten, at your peril. Harimoto's compatriots Ito Mima and Ishikawa Kasumi, the world numbers three and nine respectively, should pose big threats to the Chinese women.
Also of interest is the form of 2019 women's singles world champion Liu Shiwen, who has struggled for form and fitness since winning that title and is currently only the sixth-ranked Chinese woman.
Japan’s Mizutani Jun and Ito, Hong Kong China’s Wong Chun Ting and Doo Hoi Kem, and Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yun-Ju and Cheng I-Ching are all mixed doubles pairings to watch this season, while China's normal partnership of Xu Xin and Liu appears to have been nixed, with Sun Yingsha originally slated to partner Xu in Doha before the country's withdrawal.
With that event making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, it's definitely one to keep an eye on.
Three hubs were confirmed for this year by WTT: the Middle East Hub, and a China and Europe Hub.
Two events will take place in the season-opening Middle East Hub, a WTT Contender Series (28 February–6 March including qualifying) and a WTT Star Contender Series (5–13 March including qualifying).
However, no dates or locations have been finalised for the China and Europe Hubs, or for any Grand Smashes this season.
The ITTF World Table Tennis Championships, to be held in Houston, Texas, USA, remain in the air.
Table tennis at Tokyo 2020 will take place from 24 July to 6 August 2021, with the mixed doubles and two singles events occurring first. The mixed doubles final is scheduled for 26 July, with the women's singles final on 29 July and men's singles final the day after on 30 July.
Two team events are set to begin on 1 August, with the women's final on 5 August and the men's on 6 August.
Qualifying has not yet been completed for the Games. After the conclusion of the two WTT events in Doha, the World Singles Qualifier (14–17 March) and Asian Olympic Qualifier (18–20 March) will follow in the Qatari capital.
The Latin American Singles and Mixed Qualifier is set for Rosario, Argentina, from 13–17 April while the European Singles Qualifier will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, from 21–25 April.