This post is the first post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. A complete summary of all of our coverage of WTT Doha 2021 can be found at this page.
The 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) will be happening in early March, and we will be releasing a set of blog posts this week going over who is playing, what’s at stake for each of the players, and potential match-ups to watch out for. However, before we get started, today we will take a look at the tournament format and major differences with previous iterations of the Qatar Open. Notably, the event has been split into two tournaments and all matches until the quarterfinals will now be three out of fives instead of four out of sevens.
The Great Rebrand
The first obvious difference with previous years is the name. Why is the tournament now named WTT Middle East Hub instead of the ITTF Qatar Open? The change of the first word from ITTF to WTT is part of ITTF’s massive rebrand from the ITTF World Tour to World Table Tennis (WTT), which as covered in a previous post, consists of a completely different set of events with different names, locations, and formats. The name change may present some growing pains for ITTF, because WTT is a commonly used acronym and table tennis appears to be nowhere near the top search results of WTT on Google (although table tennis may soon become the top result) or Instagram (where #wtt appears to be dominated by tattoo pictures).
The rebrand also consists of redesigning visual aesthetics, which means that the tournament may visually look more like the 2020 WTT Macau event instead of the traditional blue/green tables on red flooring. This visual redesign apparently also includes legalizing pink, violet, green, and blue rubbers starting from October 2021. The goal of this choice is to make the sport more visually colorful and to allow players more customization over their racket setup. The move appears to be mainly geared toward getting more casual players interested in the circuit and was overwhelmingly favored by a super-majority of 75% of world delegates in the 2019 Annual General Meeting. However, top fan comments on Instagram did not respond well to the new colors as more traditional club players appeared to associate the brightly colored rubbers with not taking the game seriously.
Event Format: What is different?
The Hub Consists of Two Separate Tournaments
Why is the event named the Middle East Hub instead of the Qatar Open? The Middle East Hub this year actually consists of two independent tournaments held back-to-back: the WTT Contender tournament and WTT Star Contender tournament. Although ITTF may have originally intended for the hub to span across multiple locations in the Middle East for several weeks, due to the pandemic these two tournaments will be held back-to-back in the same location. The second event, WTT Star Contender, will have more prize money and be worth more ranking points, giving it slightly higher stakes.
Restricting Top Players from Entering
In an effort to give lower ranked players more chances to gain ranking points and shine on the bigger stage, ITTF originally intended to restrict WTT Contender events to only allowing two top-20 players and WTT Star Contender events to only allowing four top-20 players. Another possible benefit would be that this balances the star power across multiple events, so we don’t end up with a situation where all the top stars play in one tournament and then in the next tournament no stars play and the fans there are left watching some lesser known players.
However, this year since everything has been condensed into one event, ITTF has expanded the player pool so that WTT Star Contender will include twelve of the top-20 men and eleven of the top-20 women and WTT Contender will include eight out of the top-20 players in each gender. The format from the round of 64 onward appears to be identical for the two tournaments, so we can view WTT Star Contender as essentially an instant rematch after WTT Contender save for a few extra seeds in the five through twelve range.
Switching to Three Out of Fives for Most Matches
The biggest and likely most controversial change in tournament format is that all doubles matches will now be three out of five and all singles matches except the semi-finals and finals will be three out of five. Note that this change only applies to tournaments in the WTT Contender series and major events such as the World Championships should still be four out of sevens throughout. It is not clear whether ITTF will implement this change in this year’s event in Qatar given the increased number of star players invited. ITTF’s stated reason for the change is that: “These [changes] will reinvigorate competitions by making them fairer, more exciting, more competitive and to give fans the opportunity to see more of their favorite players in action in the main draw.”
While switching from a four out of seven format to a three out of five does make things more competitive and allow different fan-favorite players of different nationalities to advance further in the main draw by increasing the chance of an upset, the change is likely to be viewed as less fair since the increased variance can allow the “worse” player to advance more frequently. Whether it is viewed as exciting depends on the preference of the viewer: a casual fan who enjoys chaos, suspense, and parity may prefer the three out-of-fives but a purist who is more interested in seeing the best players win and build their legacies will likely prefer the four out of sevens.
Like the legalization of brightly colored rubbers, the move seems geared towards increasing engagement among casual fans and fans from parts of the world with weaker players. ITTF appears to be making the gamble that more serious and traditional fans will begrudgingly accept the changes and continue to watch. This assessment by ITTF may likely turn out proving correct, but regardless of one’s opinion of the changes, it will take many fans some getting used to.
If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated. The next post in this series will go over X-Factors, meaning lower ranked players with large potential to upset higher seeds, in the tournament and will be posted on Wednesday, February 10 (North American timezone).