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Ma Long of China celebrates after winning the men's singles final match against compatriot Fan Zhendong at 2020 ITTF finals in Zhengzhou, Nov. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Wang Dongzhen)

Table tennis players and ITTF officials are in festive mood about the return of international events following an eight-month hiatus.

By sportswriters Su Bin, Zhang Xudong, Liu Jinhui

BEIJING, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) -- "We are back. We make it," Steve Dainton, CEO of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), said during the ITTF #RESTART series.

The series, comprising the ITTF Women's and Men's World Cups and the Finals, was staged in China from November 8 to 22, signaling the return of international table tennis following an eight-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) President Liu Guoliang feels deeply proud of what has taken place for the sport over the past fortnight.

"I feel proud of China's success in containing the pandemic, and of the restart of table tennis," said Liu, who is also the World Table Tennis (WTT) Council Chair.

The series marked the first competitions to be staged in China featuring overseas players, with the Finals in Zhengzhou also featuring the return of limited on-site spectators.

Spectators were allowed to attend the ITTF Finals held at the Zhengzhou Olympic Sports Center in central China's Henan province. (Xinhua/Li Jianan)

As the series was played in a 'bubble', stringent epidemic prevention and control measures were implemented from players' first point of entry, or even prior to that. Overseas participants were required to monitor their physical conditions on a daily basis before departing for China.

They were then required to undergo a 14-day quarantine after their arrival, with a more flexible method adopted for the second part of that period, when athletes were able to resume training with strict self-monitoring requirements. Organizers also arranged for athletes to have access to fitness facilities while they were confined to their hotel rooms for quarantine.

For Liu, everyone was aware of the challenges and pressure of bringing the restart series to China.

"But there must be someone who can make a choice and step up. Table tennis enjoys a great reputation in China, and we also have a big impact around the world. It's important that we take this step and make it a success."

As for the Finals, spectators were required to fill in information about their health condition, monitor their body temperature, scan a contact-tracing code and disinfect their hands before entry. Additionally, the number of spectators could not exceed half the capacity of the venue.

After every day's matches were concluded, staff carried out disinfection protocols inside the venue, including the competition field, tribune, working rooms and restrooms. The disinfection of the competition field was conducted at every interval on matchdays.

A sanitation worker sprays disinfectant on the court during the ITTF finals in Zhengzhou on Nov. 20, 2020 (Xinhua/Wang Dongzhen)

"We have seen many international events played without spectators, which is different. The atmosphere may not be that good," Dainton pointed out. "When they applaud and cheer for you, you feel this is the real competition.

Organizers revealed a total of 116 participants from 27 countries and regions, including players, coaches, referees and the ITTF staff, entered China during the series.

"For the sport, the ITTF and everyone in table tennis family, it's like a dream come true," said Dainton, revealing that he was moved to tears several times.

After the very first point between Lily Zhang and Margaryta Pesotska was decided at the Women's World Cup, Dainton and Liu, along with members from the ITTF and CTTA working groups, stood up to celebrate it in a joyous fashion at the Weihai Nanhai Olympic Center.

"It's unbelievable that they are able to organize such a huge event in such a short amount of time. I can't even imagine all the hard work, logistics and regulations that they had passed in order to pull something like this off," Zhang pointed out.

"Firstly I want to thank China. Without full support from the Chinese people, we couldn't have made it happen. I greatly appreciate thousands of people's dedication to the 'bubble' competitions," Dainton reflected.

"2020 is the toughest year that everyone has gone through. We have had to stay home for a long time. We fight against the virus to survive in this crisis."

"Our players should know the restart carries more profound meaning beyond the sport. They can feel the dedication and love from Chinese people," he added.

"It is the world's choice," Liu said. "China is ready to accept this opportunity and challenge. It's an excellent manifestation of China's success in containing the virus."

China's Wang Manyu returns the ball during her clash against Chen Meng at the ITTF finals on Nov. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Li An)

Some players showed concern, anxiety and even fear before coming to China. But as the series moved on, many shrugged it off after witnessing China's commitment to curbing the virus, with several overseas players expressing their gratitude to China.

"It was a very big effort to make all this happen. I believe China is probably the only spot in the world that could prove it," said German veteran Dimitrij Ovtcharov.

"We are very lucky to have China in our sport, helping the sport to rise and keep rising," Frenchman Simon Gauzy echoed.

"Sport has a power. From the restart series, we can see the light and future," Liu commented.

"China has shown its capability of bringing sport back to the international stage. The past several weeks were marvelous. The success of restarting table tennis events offers an example for our future projects and helps us gain some experience, which makes me believe that our sport has a brighter future," Dainton noted.

Global table tennis action now moves onto Macao, for the promotional WTT showcase event which opens on Wednesday.

"The future of table tennis has arrived. We can look towards it with great anticipation," Liu said. ■

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