Inside the 2021 ittf calendar

ITTF has completely revamped its tournament structure for 2021 and rebranded the world tour as World Table Tennis (WTT). Events such as the ITTF World Cup, World Tour, World Platinum Tour, and World Tour Grand Finals events are being swapped out for the following new rebranded events: WTT (World Table Tennis) Grand Smash, WTT Cup Finals, WTT Champions, and WTT Contenders. Coupled with uncertainty during a global pandemic, the new format may leave some confused with what and when to watch. Here we will break down what events are planned and analyze their importance and likelihood of occurring. We have broken down these events into three tiers: highly prestigious, high-profile, and regular events.

The World Ranking System

Before going over all the events, to better understand the relative importance of each tournament, let’s recap the world ranking system, which ITTF slightly modified to accommodate the new tournament system.

Having moved away from an ELO-based ranking system several years ago (which is famously used in international chess and several national table tennis federations such as Germany and the United States), ITTF currently uses the following world ranking system. Each tournament a player earns a certain number of ranking points based on how the player finished and how prestigious ITTF considers the tournament to be. For example, the champion at the Olympics or World Championships would receive 2000 world ranking points and the runner-up would receive 1400. Meanwhile, for some smaller tournaments, the champion would only receive 600 world ranking points. A player’s ranking is determined by summing up the eight tournaments over the past year in which he or she accumulated the most world ranking points.

World rank is extremely important for qualification and seeding in highly prestigious tournaments. By looking at how many world ranking points ITTF has assigned to each of the tournaments, we can assess which tournaments are more important and should garner more of our attention.

Highly Prestigious Events

These most prestigious events are the first thing to appear on a player’s resume when accessing his or her career legacy. All other events on the world circuit build up to these events, and as a result all the stars participate and come in peak tournament condition.

Olympics and World Championships

“Olympic Gold Medalist” and “World Champion” rank as 1a and 1b for the most prestigious title to be held by professional table tennis athletes. Along with prestige comes stability, as ITTF will not be making any major modifications to either of these events. The big elephant in the room regarding the Tokyo Olympics, currently scheduled to be held from July 23 to August 8, is whether they will happen. The IOC insists that they are prepared to host the Olympics, but anonymous sources within the Japanese government are suggesting otherwise. The Japanese government has in turn denied the statement of the anonymous source. On January 27, ITTF released a press release doubling down on the IOC’s position that the Tokyo Olympics are going to be held.

There is also uncertainty over whether the World Championships can be held in 2021. The team championships in 2020, originally scheduled to occur in Busan, Korea, have already been cancelled. Since June 2020, there have been no public updates from ITTF on the 2021 singles championships, which were originally expected to be hosted in Houston, USA.

WTT Grand Smash

Now that we’ve gone over the two most prestigious events that we all know and love, let us go over the completely revamped WTT circuit. ITTF is planning to introduce a new set of highly prestigious events: WTT Grand Smash. They are slated to occur up to four times a year. However, likely due to pandemic uncertainty, no Grand Smash events have yet been scheduled for 2021.

It appears ITTF is aiming to elevate these events into something similar to the four Grand Slam events in tennis. Each of these events offers 2000 World Ranking points for the champion, placing them at equal importance with the Olympics and World Championships. ITTF is expected to offer 2-3 million USD in total prize money per event, which would easily dwarf the prize money previously offered in the World Tour Grand Finals. Moreover, ITTF may end up implementing “mandatory participation” to ensure that all the top stars show up to the event. Although the event is new, given the emphasis that ITTF is placing on these events and the guaranteed star power, over the next few years we may expect the Grand Smash to grow in prestige into career-defining events alongside the Olympics and World Championships when evaluating a player’s resume.

High-Profile Events

The next tier of events that ITTF is planning to host are what I would call high-profile events. They are not career defining like the previously mentioned tournaments, but there will be increased attention on these events and players will want to look good.

Both the tournaments in this tier of events also fall under ITTF’s list of “mandatory participation”, again ensuring a decent amount of star-power. In an effort to expand its visibility among casual fans and the general population, ITTF plans to hold these events in “non-traditional” table tennis settings such as theaters, bars, nightclubs, and tourist destinations. In light of pandemic-related closures of these venues, these events appear to be unlikely to occur in their envisioned form in 2021. However, it is possible that ITTF may attempt to still host these tournaments, but either in a traditional table tennis setting or in something like an empty nightclub.

WTT Cup Finals

The WTT Cup Finals will be replacing the ITTF World Cup, maintaining a format of 16 players invited through a mixture of World Rank and continental representation. The event is held once a year on separate dates and locations for the men’s and women’s events. The champion for this event will gain 1500 World Ranking points, and the total prize money is expected to be 1-1.5 million USD.

WTT Champions

Not to be confused with the World Championships, the newly introduced WTT Champions are slated to be held up to four times per year with separate dates and locations for the men’s and women’s events. They are very similar to the WTT Cup Finals in format except there are 32 players invited and no guarantees of continental representation. The champion for each event will gain 1000 World Ranking points, and the total prize money for each event is expected to be 400-600 thousand USD.

Regular Events

The final set of events that ITTF is planning to host is what I would call regular events. These tournaments have less prize money and lower stakes; from a career standpoint, their primary purpose appears to be for stars and contenders to amass ranking points to qualify for more prestigious events and obtain higher seedings. As a result, certain stars may opt to rest instead of participating, and stars who participate and can afford to move up or down a few world ranks may be prone to be in training or experimental condition instead of peak tournament condition. Nevertheless, the stakes will still be high for several players fighting for qualification and seeding, and the level of table tennis will certainly be high.

There are two types of regular events: WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender. WTT Star Contenders, as the name suggests, is limited only to the highest ranked stars. WTT Contender is open to all athletes looking to break their way into the WTT Star Contender circuit. Top players may also play in both events, but WTT has introduced an additional quirk that limits how many top-20 players can play in each event. Four top-20 players may enter the WTT Star Contender events, and two top-20 players may enter the WTT Contender events. This is intended to give lower ranked players more chances to "challenge" the top-20 players, presumably resulting in more upsets and mobility across the rankings.

WTT Star Contender offers 600 world ranking points for the champion and is expected to offer 200-300 thousand USD in total prize money. WTT Contender offers 400 world ranking points for the champion and is expected to offer 50-75 thousand USD in total prize money. There will be six WTT Star Contender events in a year and 10-14 WTT Contender events in a year.

We expect more details regarding the tournament to become clear during the first WTT Contender event, which is scheduled for March 3-6 in Doha, Qatar and will be immediately followed by the WTT Star Contender event in the same location during March 8-13. Both events are headlined by Xu Xin, Harimoto Tomokazu, and Hugo Calderano in the men’s event and by Sun Yingsha, Ito Mima, and Liu Shiwen in the women’s event.

After Qatar, no public announcements have been made about future WTT events. However, given the success of several ITTF events hosted in China last year, it is likely that there should at least be a WTT Star Contender event in China in 2021.

Here at Edges and Nets, we will be covering the 2021 Qatar Open and all future WTT events. Stay tuned!

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