The World Junior Championships in Riva del Garda are now in the thick of the action. A privileged spectator of the early days of the event, ITTF President Thomas Weikert was on hand to provide some views on the Riva organization, the Junior movement and the sport development on a global scale.
The 55-year-old from Germany has stepped up to the Chair role of the global federation in 2014, after acting as deputy president in the previous mandate, and was confirmed in the position in May 2017.
Mr. Weikert, you have now spent a couple of days in Riva del Garda at the World Junior Championships. What’s your overall impression on the event?
“Regarding the sports side, we have seen very good matches. So far, I spoke with a lot of people – players, coaches, officials… – and the feedback on the event has been very positive. There are some minor adjustments to address, as it happens in all major events, but overall everybody speaks about very good organization. The general satisfaction of those who make the events passes through apparently small but important aspects, like the functioning of the transport shuttles, the quality of food service, and they are all happy with that, so we are speaking about a very good event so far”.
In the Junior ranks, we have recently seen Japan rise to prominence with many players, and even surpass China in the category rankings. With these generation of players gradually joining the seniors, are we about to see a change of leadership at that level too?
“I honestly doubt this will happen. Lots of Japanese young players are already in the World Tour right now, but recently we have seen also a lot of young Chinese guys showing up at the German Open. I think this is the reaction of the China side to the development in Japan. Of course, this is a key time for Japan in the setup for the 2020 Olympics, and they are doing a lot for that. China is the World Champion Team, as it has had the best players so far, but if it gets challenged this is only good for table tennis. You can’t blame China for winning all titles of course, that wouldn’t be an ideal scenario for any sport. Creating competition makes for a better sport and a better exposure, though I think that China will work and is already working very hard to stick at #1”.
Romania has managed to end in the semifinals in both the team events here in Riva, the sole representative of Europe among the top-4. Where does the European movement stand at the moment, particularly in comparison with Asia?
“Romania is well known for its great work in the Youth categories, and of course they did very well to be in the final four, but I think that bridging up to the biggest Asian teams is still a long shot. Particularly in Women’s table tennis, the gap between Asia and everything else is very significant; among Men, the difference is not that huge, but still you can’t count many players who are actually able to beat a Chinese or Japanese opponent. There’s still a lot of work to do, and Romania is certainly a role model for Cadets and Juniors, and also France and Germany are trying a lot to cover this distance: you can also tell by the number of Japanese coaches and physios in here. Of course, the possibilities the various associations have are not the same, and as of today we have the feeling that it’s easier for Asian associations to collect money. We have a lot of work to do on National political bodies to make sure our Federations receive what they need to improve and compete. We can’t have development in our sport without competition, and we can’t have competition without development”.
Lots of young players, particularly Asian, are already playing at the World Tour level, and that leads to some of the biggest name missing the category’s World Championships…
“That’s a pity, but it’s hard to do something. We want to have the best players here at the World Championships, and this wasn’t totally possible, particularly with Japan. It’s great to have young players of course, but if there’s a big bunch of players of this age player at a senior level, there is something we need to do as ITTF. It’s certainly a development we will overlook carefully, protecting dates in the future might not be out of discussion”.
In the senior category, German Dimitrij Ovtcharov is enjoying somewhat of a breakout season, practically playing on equal level with the Chinese throughout the season. Do you see this as more of a singular case, or an indication of something changing from a wider point of view?
“I have known Dima for a long time, and I know all the work he has put in, and I know also the German system. Ovtcharov’s generation is the one after Timo Boll, who was the big role model. We have a few players in Europe who can beat the Chinese – I know also France is working hard at a Junior level, and produced a talent like Gauzy, but the passage from Junior to Senior is not so easy. In the end, I would say Dima is more of a singular case right now, though he has been grown and raised integrated in the German system”.
At the World Championships here we are seeing players coming from all the Continents in the World. When do you think we will see another Continent rise to the Europe’s, or even the Asia’s level, and which it might be?
“There are some single players, particularly from Latin America and Brazil, who can think of placing into the World’s top-20, or even top-10, but not so many. From ITTF side we have to do a lot, and that’s something we can do also with the Chinese Association, not only in the way of sending coaches to other Countries, but also having foreign players live and play in China for some time. Chinese have proved to be the best players, now they can stand up and play a key part in the development of the sport. They are open to it, and we have to work together for our sport, but it’s not easy. ITTF also needs to change its system, and develop more ambitious Countries all over Continents. I think Latin America, in particular, is bringing up some good players, like Puerto Rico with Diaz, and Brazil, but there’s need for improvement”.
What about Italy? What is your opinion about the home teams and the movement?
“It was just last year that Italy won the Junior Boys Team Event at the European Youth Championships, that was kind of a surprise. I visited their center, and the conditions for development are all there. I am curious to see how they will develop, as they certainly have some talents, but the way they surrendered to Germany in the Team Event (3:0) was also surprising in some way. With the talent they have, I wouldn’t have expected such a neat defeat”.
Do you think it’s an important plus for an event like the TT Junior World Championships to take place in a recognized charming and beautiful location like Garda Trentino?
“Totally yes, it’s very important and even more for the juniors. It’s important that they also get the time to see the surroundings and enjoy the places, not only commuting from the hotel and the playing facility. I also personally know this region and I like it a lot.
We already knew that this organization and the Italian Federation were capable of organizing a high-level event. Italy is a market with room for improvement in table tennis, and of course has the beautiful locations for which it’s famous in the whole World. I believe Riva and Garda Trentino have a future for this kind of events: in particular, being accustomed to facing such important touristic fluxes means a big capacity of accommodating big numbers, with a lot of good hotels and facilities, and that’s crucial for an event to make sure to have enough space for players, staff, umpires and also the spectators. I think late Autumn or Winter is a perfect timing for a big event to take place here in Garda Trentino, and I am really hopeful we will return here in the future”.