Chinese suspicious of table tennis rule changes
Much has changed in table tennis since the last Olympics in Sydney and the all-conquering Chinese are suspicious.
The sport has been effectively annexed by the Chinese at recent Games -- Chinese women have won seven of the eight gold medals on offer since table tennis was introduced at the 1988 Seoul Olympics while their men have won six titles.
However, in the last four years table tennis games have been cut to first-to-11 from first-to-21, service rules have been finessed and the ball has been increased in size.
The changes, viewed with disquiet by many Chinese players and officials, are aimed at speeding up the game and making it more televisual.
But new qualification rules for the Games in Athens were one step too far for the sport's dominant nation.
Each country is allowed two doubles pairings who must play in the same half of the draw thus ruling out the all-Chinese finals seen in both the men's and women's doubles finals in the 1996 and 2000 Games.
Head Chinese coach Cai Zhenhua said the changes meant he could "guarantee" winning just two of the four gold medals up for grabs in Athens, and he was particularly concerned about the men's side of the draw.
"Everything is possible in the Olympic Games and no-one has 100 percent confidence," he said recently.
In February, Cai had voiced his frustrations at the constant rule changes by saying that the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), the sport's ruling body, was "intentionally chipping away at China's dominance in the sport by changing the rules".
"ITTF doesn't want to see an all-mighty Chinese team and so they keep changing the rules to stop China," he told a Chinese newspaper.
The diameter of the ball was increased to 40 millimetres from 38 shortly after the Sydney Games, a move the ITTF estimated would cut the speed of the ball by up to eight percent and the spin imparted by up to 13 percent.
A year later the age-old scoring system was revamped so that matches were decided on a first-to-11 points, best-of-seven-games principle.
This change had an immediate effect on the game, triggering a series of upsets.
Players had to scrap their five-service routines and adapt to having just two services and their whole psychological approach to the game had to be restructured.
Quick starters had a huge advantage in a game that had turned, in the words of one Korean player, into a lightning war from a protracted conflict.
Top players, used to being able to coast through a match against a lower-ranked player, now had to concentrate throughout and get used to losing a few games.
"Every point was key, every point was like a deuce," said China's Wang Nan, a double gold medallist in Sydney, after the 2001 Korean Open.
"In the final I led by four or five points in the opening game and thought it was over. I turned my thoughts to the second game and (her opponent) stole the first. In the second, even when I was leading 9-1, I still felt nervous."
As if this change was not disruptive enough, players have had to learn to abide by new service rules which have made the delivery completely visible to the receiver and spectator.
Players' contortions to hide the spin being imparted on a ball at service had reached almost laughable proportions and the game's ruling body decided to act in 2002.
"A service action whereby the opponent cannot see the point of impact is detrimental to the sport," said Ian Marshall, editor of the ITTF magazine.
"The viewer sees the ball served and returned into the net, to the layman it looks like an unforced error and if every rally is over within two or three strokes the game can look quite farcical."
Nowadays, players must start the service with the ball on the palm of their hand. They then throw it vertically at least 16 cm without imparting spin. Throughout, the ball must be above the level of the table and not hidden from the receiver.
The new rules caused consternation, not least among the Chinese. Li Ju, a Sydney doubles gold medallist, and Yang Ying have quit partly because of the service changes.
Coach Cai believes the regulations are now too complicated. Ma Lin, the then world number one, was penalised during the 2004 world championships for illegal services and Cai advised his players to prepare two different deliveries for Athens in case of problems.
Despite all the potential setbacks, the seedings for the Olympics starting next weekend should bolster Cai's confidence -- three of the top four men's singles seeds are Chinese as are all of the top three women's singles seeds.
"Chinese are resourceful and adaptable. We have got used to larger balls, 11-point scoring and all-to-see serves. The ITTF is bent on stopping China but we are not afraid and we are always the winners," Cai said.