The ITTF World Tour Grand Finals heads to Doha this week, with the leading stars of table tennis competing for an overall prize fund of USD $500,000. Gruffudd Owen talks through the key points ahead of the season-ending tournament
1. Ma Long, the man to beat
As the defending men’s singles champion and the most successful male competitor in the history of the tournament with four titles to his name, it will take something special to prevent China’s Ma Long from retaining his crown in Doha. The three-time Olympic gold medallist is the top seed and, having tasted success at the same venue back in March at the Qatar Open, he will be looking for a happy return to extend his reign at the summit of the men’s game.
2. Can Koki clinch his chance?
While Zhang Jike will be cursing a foot injury that has forced him to withdraw from the Grand Finals, the world no. 4’s absence has given Japanese youngster Koki Niwa the opportunity to make his mark at the Finals. Despite winning gold at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games and the 2011 World Junior Table Tennis Championships, 22-year-old Niwa hasn’t quite managed to live up to his early promise. Can the world no. 17 prove his worth in Doha?
3. Double delight for Ding?
Macau, London, Hangzhou and Dubai will hardly bring back cherished memories for Ding Ning. In a five-year period from 2009 to 2013, the Chinese star was beaten to gold in four editions of the Grand Finals, the last three all coming against her compatriot Liu Shiwen. However, a breakthrough triumph at last year’s Grand Finals in Lisbon has led to a shift in power; Ding now occupies the world no. 1 spot, ahead of Shiwen in second. With Shiwen absent from Doha this month, Ding has an excellent opportunity to make it two in a row and banish her Finals demons of the past.
4. Japan’s four-year plan
Twelve months ago, Masataka Morizono and Yuya Oshima became the first Japanese pair to win the men’s doubles titles at the Grand Finals, beating home favourites Tiago Apolonia and Joao Monteiro in Lisbon. Their success followed on from a very strong showing by the country at the 2014 Finals in Bangkok, where Japanese players were victorious in all but one of the categories. With a clear plan to challenge the Chinese back home in Tokyo when the Olympic Games come to town in 2020, Japan will be hoping for a strong performance in Doha to show their rivals that their lofty ambitions remain on track.
5. Destination Doha
The ITTF has always had a strong tradition of hosting its season-ending Grand Finals in Asia – since the competition was first held in 1996, only five editions have taken place outside the continent. However, 2016 marks the first time it heads to Qatar, and with the Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiya Arena having already served as the venue for the Qatar Open earlier in March, the stage is set for another feast of table tennis.