Table tennis is undoubtedly one of the most accessible sports in the world. From void decks to office pantries, it’s easy to find a table tennis table for leisure play. How popular the sport may be, it still does not have the prestige of other sports like tennis with Wimbledon and football’s EPL, but things are set to change.
The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has been investing efforts and money to increase engagement with the fans and commercialize the sport. Think 5 years ago, we hardly get regular updates about the ITTF world tour events, but today, we are spoilt with behind the scenes, match highlights, point of the day and interviews with players.
Then, ITTF hit jackpot.
A chairman of a Chinese shipping company, also an enthusiast of the sport, created a professional league, then known as T2 Asia Pacific (T2APAC). It strived to engage fans through its unique format – matches that lasted only 24 minutes. This itself was attractive to me because even as a table tennis fan, my attention span doesn’t allow me to enjoy long matches that stretched to full 7 games.
T2APAC (Season 1)
I attended several sessions when T2APAC held its inaugural season at Pinewood Studios in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. I absolutely loved it. Not only were the matches kept short, we also got to watch players from Asia and Europe teaming up and scoring points through 6 months for the Grand Finals. Not all players were from the top ranks though – there were Thailand’s Suthasini Sawettabut, who upset Singapore’s Feng Tianwei at SEA Games 2015 on home ground, and lesser-known Chinese players like Wang Manyu, Sun Yingsha, Wang Chuqin (the trio have since risen through the world ranking these couple of years), Liu Dingshuo, Shang Kun, Liu Fei and Shi Xunyao.
I liked the diversity of mixed teams consisting of Asians and Europeans, top-tier players and fresh faces, and anticipated the chemistry among the unlikely teammates.
The T2 Cavern was set in a cozy studio, consisting of a competition area with bleacher seatings on one side, and VIP sofas and players bench on the opposite, a breakout area featuring a TTX table, and the practice hall tucked away behind the competition area. The small cavern meant a closer proximity to the players, whom we got to mingle with after the matches.
The season concluded successfully with Team Maze winning the team championship, Germany’s Timo Boll crowning the Men’s champion, and a somewhat unexpected outcome with Bernadette Szocs of Romania emerging victorious against Feng Tianwei for Women’s champion.
T2APAC left me satisfied and looking forward to the next season.
T2 Diamond (Season 2)
In early 2018, rather expectedly, T2 announced their partnership with ITTF. A part of me was skeptical. By collaborating with a world governing body, does it mean less sovereignty over innovation and creativity in the future T2 leagues?
News of the 2nd season (renamed T2 Diamond) came as a relief with the unique 24-minute matches retained. On the other hand, the new competition format was a disappointment. Instead of handpicking a diverse pool of players with different backgrounds and experience, the top 16 men and women will be invited based on the ITTF world ranking. (Read: Dominated by Chinese players.)
Every year, there are already world ranking-based invitational events such as the Men’s and Women’s World Cups and ITTF Grand Finals. Why have another league that’s limited to the top players?
From a commercial point of view, I understand the need to get the world’s best players for more attention from fans and sponsors alike. The high-level and time-based matches could also be pivotal to garnering interests from new or non-fans.
On a personal level, as someone who follows the ITTF World Tour regularly, the draws looked too familiar and knockouts were predictable to an extent (as the saying goes: the ball is round). Predictions were mostly correct, except that eventually it was 17-year-old Lin Yun-ju from Chinese Taipei claiming the title of Men’s champion and preventing an all-(China) Chinese affair on the podium.
Of course, I was elated to watch cream of the crop like Ma Long and Fan Zhendong live in action last week because such top-level international tournaments are rarely held in Singapore or Malaysia. But something was missing in T2 Diamond, which felt all too serious. Was it the coziness, fun or diversity we’d seen in Season 1?
Here’s a comparison of the two seasons in summary:
|Season 1 (T2APAC)||Season 2 (T2 Diamond)|
|Player representation||4 mixed teams of 6 players.||Individual as country/region representative.|
|Players qualification||Invited by T2, then handpicked to each team by 4 captains (Michael Maze, Jorgen Persson, Jorg Rosskopf and Jiang Jialiang).||Top 16 Men and Women invited, based on ITTF world ranking.|
|Competition format||6 rounds which lead up to the play-offs in the Grand Finals.||3 individual events in 3 different cities, singles elimination knockout.|
|Points||Every player contributes points in terms of matches won to their respective teams. At the end of the 6 rounds, the top 2 teams, 4 men and 4 women would play for championships in the Grand Finals.||ITTF world ranking.|
|Game rules||Each match ends when the 24-minute countdown is up.|
If a game ends with less than 2 minutes left on the countdown timer, a “Kill Zone” game which has no time limit, will be played. First to 5 points wins the game.
|Best of 7 matches.|
When the 24-minute countdown is up and if the game is still in play with no players winning the 4th game yet, it continues until a player wins 11 points.
After the 24-minute countdown, remaining games will be played as “Fast5”, which the first to 5 points wins the game.
All things considered, T2 is an experimental playground for the future of table tennis. It’s not perfect (and so is the sport), but I give credits to the team for improvising after drawing lessons from the first.
An example from Season 1 was the strict adherence to the time – players were expected to prepare for their service as soon as each point had ended. Delaying the service will result in a warning or penalty at the discretion of the umpire. As such, several questionable decisions made by the umpires had raised doubts about whether this system was fair and transparent. Thankfully this rule was relaxed in Season 2 with its revised format.
An innovation made its official debut – a video replay in an event of an unclear shot of a ball hitting the table edge. It happened during the semi-finals between Zhu Yuling and Miyu Kato, although both players acknowledged that the ball had indeed landed on the edge in favor of the former, the umpire had insisted on pulling up the video. I guess the umpires were under pressure to showcase this “innovation”, which was frankly just a slow-motion replay and not something totally new, but it’s a good step forward. I’m curious how the other ITTF events will adopt this in future – will this be implemented on all tables or only tables which get broadcasted?
In another not-so-important news, the use of pink rubber made its first appearance at T2 on Bernadette Szocs’s backhand side of her bat. In a bid to make the sport more attractive, ITTF is running trials of colored rubbers, other than the red and black ones that have traditionally been used for decades.
I have my reservations about how having more colored rubbers would attract more people to play table tennis. It’s not a game-changer, and definitely not something ITTF should prioritize over more important issues like illegal serves and boosted rubbers. However if this was made official eventually, I hope ITTF limits the color variations and makes it mandatory to have one side of the rubbers black so as not to confuse opponents.
The T2 Cavern continues to up its game with a well-thought-out setup. In this season, fans got to catch a glimpse of the players training in the practice hall before entering the main studio. Where the T2 action took place, the venue was larger and had more seating capacity. Audiences were seated on 4 sides, each with an angled view of the table. We were also treated to some kick-ass concert-standard lighting and sound produced by award-winning Craig Bauer and Anthony J. Resta every session opening.
Taking a leaf out of Season 1 to offer fans an opportunity to get up close with the players, there weren’t any barriers surrounding the competition area too. However, given the bigger venue and turnout this season, it ended up in chaos when fans were rushing forward after every match to get autographs. It was a really nice touch but I wished the fans were more sensitive and respectful towards the players.
All in all, I enjoyed the T2 Diamond experience in Malaysia and I look forward to watching it again when it returns to Singapore in November.
I am glad that T2 continues to exist, hopefully in more years to come especially with their partnership with ITTF. As a catalyst for table tennis innovation, I can’t wait to see how they are going to transform the sport.