All you need to know about the international table tennis #RESTART series

Top-level international table tennis returns with the Women's and Men's World Cups and ITTF Finals in China. Here are the things you need to know.

By ZK Goh

International top-level table tennis returns this month when the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) #RESTART series of three major events gets underway on 8 November in a "bubble" environment in China.

ITTF #RESTART comprises three of the ITTF's most important events: the Women's World Cup (8–10 November), Men's World Cup (13–15 November), both held in Weihai; and the ITTF Finals (19–22 November) in Zhengzhou. The tournaments will be followed by an exhibition event in Macao (25–29 November), showcasing the new professional World Table Tennis structure being introduced to the sport next year.

The competitions are headlined by the respective world number ones, Chen Meng in the women's and Fan Zhendong in the men's. Men's singles world champion Ma Long is also taking part, although his counterpart Liu Shiwen – still recovering from an injury – has withdrawn.

Forty-two players will take part in the World Cups, with 21 in each event taking part; the ITTF Finals will be held as a single-elimination direct knockout tournament involving 16 men's and 16 women's players.

This will be the first international table tennis to be played at senior level for eight months, when the ITTF Challenge-level Polish Open was suspended on 13 March. The last World Tour event completed was the Qatar Open, which concluded on 8 March.

Players to watch

With countries limited to two entries in the World Cups, both those events appear to be more of an open question. Traditional powerhouses and hosts China will be represented by Chen and world number three Sun Yingsha in the women's, and Fan and Ma in the men's.

But look out for a strong challenge on the women's side from Japan's Ito Mima (world number two) and Ishikawa Kasumi (joint-world number nine), and perhaps world number eight Cheng I-Ching of Chinese Taipei and the other world number nine, Singapore's Feng Tianwei – last year's bronze medallist.

Fan is the men's defending champion, but with five other men in the world's top ten are also competing, competition will be fierce. In addition to Ma (world number three), Harimoto Tomokazu of Japan (number four) – last year's runner-up behind Fan; Hugo Calderano (ranked sixth); Chinese Taipei's Lin Yun-ju (seventh); and Sweden's world championship silver medallist Mattias Falck (ninth) are all taking part.

However, with the ITTF Finals allowing up to four competitors per country, China will look to assert its dominance there. The four Chinese men – Fan, Ma, world number two Xu Xin and number five Lin Gaoyuan – were also last year's corresponding top four. On the women's side, world number three Sun Yingsha and number five Wang Manyu will give Chen and Ito a run for their money.

It's worth noting that the Chinese players have had internal competitions in the past few months, including an Olympic Games simulation tournament and the national championships; other players have not played competitively at all since before the cancellations caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Qualifying and competition systems

There is some crossover in players between the World Cup events and the ITTF Finals, although not fully, as the events had different qualifying standards.

The World Cup usually features athletes from all continents, and qualification is through the Continental Cups or winning the World Championship. However, the Asian Cup could not be held – so the Asian representatives have been selected through the world rankings, frozen as of April – while the Oceanian players from Australia had to withdraw due to travel restrictions.

The top eight in each event will receive a bye to the knockout round, a single-elimination direct knockout competition; the remaining 13 athletes will be drawn into four groups (three of three and one of four), with the top two per group moving on to the round of 16.

By contrast, the ITTF Finals – which would normally be held as the World Tour Grand Finals and feature players based on their performances over a season – have instead invited the top 16 by world ranking, with a maximum of four athletes per country.

All the athletes in the ITTF Finals – which are only being held as singles events this year, with no doubles – will play in a straight knockout format.

#RESTART series event schedules

ITTF Women's World Cup schedule

Details subject to change. All times China Standard Time (UTC +8 hours).

8 November from 11 a.m. – Preliminary group stage matches

9 November from 11 a.m. – Round of 16

9 November from 6:30 p.m. – Quarter-finals

10 November from 1 p.m. – Semi-finals

10 November from 7 p.m. – Third-place playoff and Final

ITTF Men's World Cup schedule

Details subject to change. All times China Standard Time (UTC +8 hours).

13 November from 11 a.m. – Preliminary group stage matches

14 November from 11 a.m. – Round of 16

14 November from 6:30 p.m. – Quarter-finals

15 November from 1 p.m. – Semi-finals

15 November from 7 p.m. – Third-place playoff and final

ITTF Finals schedule

Details subject to change. All times China Standard Time (UTC +8 hours).

19 November from 10 a.m. – Women's and men's singles round of 16

20 November from 10 a.m. – Women's and men's singles round of 16

20 November from 2:30 p.m. – Women's and men's singles quarter-finals

21 November from 2 p.m. – Women's and men's singles semi-finals

22 November from 3 p.m. – Women's singles final, followed by men's singles final

Bubble system

All players competing in any of the #RESTART events were placed into quarantine on arrival in China – they arrived in Shanghai on the same day in a controlled manner – and will remain in a bubble after completing their quarantine.

After the World Cup events in Weihai, on China's Yellow Sea coast, the bubble will travel inland to Zhengzhou – roughly five hours' flying – for the ITTF Finals.

Speaking to the ITTF's Inner Spin video series, the federation's interim Competitions Director Gabor Felegyi explained:

"We found that the bubble is the best option for the ITTF, as this is the structure that can provide the maximum level of health and safety for the players and the staff.

"It's going to really be a state-of-the-art-level infrastructure," Felegyi said of the training facilities that have been set up inside the bubble.

"We are trying to set up a structure where you will not feel like you are locked in to a hotel."