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China still tinkering with Olympic rosters
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Despite another clean sweep at the World Cup last week, Chinese table tennis teams are still testing their lineups and adapting to a new format, hoping to guarantee a successful Beijing Olympics next year.


China pocketed both men's and women's titles on Sunday at the Magdenburg World Team Cup, where the men eased past Hong Kong and the women out-muscled South Korea. Although the wins came easily for the Chinese teams, not all roster spots are secure for 2008.


"We haven't decided the final roster for the Olympics," said men's head coach Liu Guoliang. "I think we need more tournaments to see how players perform under the new format."


The Magdenburg tournament has a format similar to the one the Olympics will follow -- men's and women's team events have replaced the doubles events, which China has won every Olympics since the Seoul Games in 1988. Now each team will play two singles matches and one doubles match, with only three players allowed on a team.


The new format also does away with the quarterfinal round. Teams will instead be broken into four groups with the winners of each group advancing to the semifinals.


Many believe the changes are aimed at limiting China's dominance. But Liu believes the new format will have no effect on the ping-pong powerhouse.


"It will take us some more time to get used to, but it won't hamper our determination to deliver victory at the Games," he said. "There are some positive sides to the new format as the competition is more entertaining. On the other hand, we have to play as solidly as we can and try to win all the matches at the Games. That's a very big requirement for us."


According to Liu, four players are competing for three spots on the men's Olympic team: Wang Liqin, Ma Lin and Wang Hao -- the top three ranked players in the world -- and teenager Chen Qi.


World Championship winner Wang Liqin and four-time World Cup holder Ma Lin are shoe-ins as singles players. Liu's main task is to find a decent partner for Ma in doubles event.


Wang Hao made a big impression at the World Cup this time as he joined forces with Ma to defeat Leung Chu-yan and Ko Lai-chak 3-2 to claim the title for China.


"They didn't play their best table tennis," Liu admitted. "I hope they will play better next year."


On the women's side, world No 1 Zhang Yining and reigning world champion Guo Yue have locked up berths. Veteran Wang Nan and doubles specialist Li Xiaoxia will be fighting for the third spot.


Liu agreed that the South Koreans would pose the biggest threat to China for Olympic gold.


"South Korea is our major rival," he said. "We should pay close attention to Oh Sang-en and Ryu Seung-min, both of South Korea, and triple European champion Timo Boll next year."


Women's coach Shi Zhihao also rated South Korea among the biggest threats.


"South Koreans are strong in both men's and women's events. Defensive player Kim Kyung-ah, South Korea's best female paddler, has beaten almost every Chinese player except Zhang Yining," she said. "Her partnership with Kim Bok-rae makes them the best women's doubles pair outside of China."


China has long been a global ping-pong force. Its peak came in the 1990s when the team won every title at the Atlanta and Sydney Games, as well as the 2000 World Championships in Tianjin.


The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) grew concerned that China's dominance was affecting the international competitiveness of the game. In 2000 ITTF introduced new rules, enlarging the ball and slowing the speed of play, addressing one of the Chinese players' biggest advantages.


These changes appeared to make little difference as China won all medals at the 2001 World Championships in Japan. In response, the ITTF introduced shorter 11-point games and, crucially, a ban on the "covered serves" widely used by the Chinese players.


(China Daily October 10, 2007)

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