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Tournaments more than just tests
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Chinese paddlers will try to underline their ping-pong domination and gain a psychological edge over their main rivals ahead of the Beijing Olympics in two year-end tournaments beginning this weekend in Beijing.

The annual ITTF Pro Tour Finals, which have seen 11 editions since 1996, will run from December 13-16 at the newly built Olympic venue, Peking University Gymnasium, the world's first gymnasium specifically designed for table tennis.

Chinese women's table tennis players Guo Yan, Wang Nan and Guo Yue (from left to right) are seen during the draw ceremony of the ITTF Pro Tour Grand Finals yesterday at Peking University Gymnasium in Beijing.

The event features the top 16 singles and top 8 doubles men's and women's paddlers based on the results of 17 Pro Tour stops throughout the year.

Tomorrow will see a duel between China's Wang Hao and South Korea's Rye Seung-min, a rematch of the men's singles finals at the 2004 Athens Games and 2007 World Cup.

Wang, currently the world No 2, lost the Olympic crown to the South Korean in a five-set thriller in Athens. But in October this year, the 24-year-old Chinese young gun avenged his Olympic loss by whitewashing Rye at the Liebherr Men's World Cup in Barcelona, Spain.

"I am not very surprised with the draw results. We are very familiar with each other's playing styles, but I have to prepare for a hard battle tomorrow," said Wang after the draw ceremony yesterday.

"I really want to claim the championship at the Olympic venue before the 2008 Games."

Another highlight will be the clash between defending world champion Wang Liqin and his compatriot Hao Shuai, the world No 10.

Despite taking the world championship title, Wang is troubled by his disappointing performance at this year's tournaments. He has not won any of the 17 Pro Tour stops in 2007 and local media have begun to cast doubts on his chances of representing China in the 2008 Games.

On the women's side, Japanese star player Fukuhara Ai will square off against world No 1 Guo Yue. Guo has won four Pro Tour titles this year while the Japanese's best result was runner-up at the Brazilian Open.

The 2007 International Table Tennis Invitational Tournament will follow the Finals. It is a team competition organized as a test event for the Beijing Games.

Next year's Games will be the first time in Olympic history team table tennis will be played.

The Invitational will boast men's teams from China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Europe, while the women's side will see teams from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and some other European countries.

"The two tournaments boast the world's best players and it will be as competitive as in the World Championships or the Olympics," said Yao Zhenxu, vice-president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association.

"So it's a very good chance for Chinese players to test themselves and also know better about their main rivals.

"In the team competition, we invite the best Europeans to set up their men's and women's teams in order to make it more competitive and interesting."

Men's head coach Liu Guoliang also stressed the importance of the team competition and said he is determined to win the first-ever gold medal in Olympic table tennis team.

"Team competition shows the overall power of the sport. It's very important for us to win the gold in the Beijing Olympics."

Olympic berths

The results of the Finals will immediately impact the first world rankings of 2008 and the top 20 players will earn direct berths to the Beijing Olympics, with no more than two players from the same association, according to the ITTF.

The battle for the rankings points brings added drama to the Finals, promising some fiercely fought competitions between associations and teammates alike.

"Though the competition is called a test event for Beijing's Olympics stadium, the results might determine a player's Olympic chances, so I am sure everyone will do their best to win," said Yao.

Peking University Gymnasium, located in northwest Beijing, is one of 12 new venues built for next year's Olympic Games. It will be able to seat 8,000 spectators.

There have been some concerns about whether the venue would be completed in time after a fire threatened construction four month ago.

It was later found to have had a limited impact on the main construction of the gym, and no trace of the fire remains today.

(China Daily December 13, 2007)

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