DURBAN, South Africa, May 21 (Xinhua) -- It's a long-awaited story: the World Table Tennis Championships' return to the African continent, and when it finally happened, African people had reasons to feel excited.
The 2023 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships (WTTC) Finals kicked off in Durban, South Africa, on Saturday, marking the first time the prestigious table tennis tournament was staged in Africa in 84 years.
The first match of the tournament took place on table one, where Ibrahima Diaw of Senegal triumphed over host paddler Dean Levy in straight games in the men's singles first round. Both players expressed their honor in representing Africa on this grand stage.
"It's the first time this year that the World Championships is being held after a long time. I'm happy to represent Africa on our continent. Me and other ambassadors will try our best to make Africa proud," assured world No. 119 Diaw.
Despite losing his table tennis world debut in a bitter way, 18-year-old Levy still drew inspiration from the experience.
"I feel privileged. It's an experience that not many people get, to have the first game on table one. Being the host of the tournament, in front of your own crowd, is something that I could never have dreamed about," Levy said.
In addition to watching top-class matches, spectators had the opportunity to participate in table tennis themselves. Many tables were set up outside the competition venues at the Durban International Convention Center (ICC), offering people the chance to engage in casual matches with family and friends.
Durban Table Tennis Worlds scrolls hung on lighting poles along the streets reminded people of the sport's biggest event. The atmosphere was clearly felt as soon as participants arrived in Durban, where they were treated to a traditional dance by a group of performers and the official mascot 'Takuma' at King Shaka International Airport.
During Saturday evening's opening ceremony, ITTF president Petra Sorling said, "Having the World Championships hosted here in Durban is not only a celebration of the sport but also a demonstration of our dedication to spreading the influence of table tennis across different continents and cultures."
ITTF Group CEO Steve Dainton emphasized the significance of the World Championships' return to African soil after an 84-year absence.
"Table tennis is a huge sport all around the globe. We want to be one of the biggest sports worldwide, so it's really important that we take our biggest event, the World Table Tennis Championships, to all parts of the world," he commented.
The 2021 World Championships were held in Houston, United States. With two successive editions of the event staged outside of Asia and Europe, it reflects the ITTF's determination and efforts to make table tennis a truly global sport.
"We hope in 2027 we can go maybe to Latin America or Oceania because it's really important to become a global sport," Dainton noted.
Thanks to the invitation from the South African Table Tennis Board, Levy and his teammates had the opportunity to learn from the world's highest-level techniques before the tournament started.
At the training session arranged by the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), Chinese coaches Liu Zhiqiang and Li Dacheng provided guidance to the South African team, focusing on various aspects including serving and returning.
"To have a member of the Chinese national team giving us tips, some stuff that I have never heard before. His knowledge is just impeccable; he knows so much about so many different things, and I think it will definitely benefit many people, especially the African teams to have him onboard," Levy said about the exchanges between Chinese and South African teams.
As the grand event gets underway in Durban, African players are optimistic about the sport's future in the continent.
"It opens up table tennis to many different areas that I have never seen before, to see the best players in the world, even Ma Long, the best player of all time. It's crazy," said Levy.
"There are a lot of good players in Africa. So definitely I hope that it will bring a lot of young players in the future," Diaw commented.
"These championships are not just about South Africa, it is about Africa too. It felt as though I was playing a match in my home country," world No. 12 Quadri Aruna of Nigeria said after his win in the opening round.
"Ultimately, I hope that my win can inspire the young players from Africa too," the African top-ranked player added.