Umpires in table tennis have much less scope of action compared to other sports, like football or basketball, where controversial decisions happen on a daily basis. It is quite difficult to find situations where an umpire’s decision has had a strong impact on the game. Considering the scoring system, which has several sets and points in each set, crucial decisions are rarely taken in the deciding points. Consequently, finding examples of controversy is not an easy task.
However, the 2017 ITTF World Tour Qatar Platinum Open has just finished with a couple of matches that were severely affected by two difficult umpire decisions.
In this article, we will analyze these two decisions, providing some facts about the rules they applied to. We will also review some of the most controversial decisions in table tennis history. Finally, we will check out how other sports handle similar issues and how table tennis could improve on this matter.
Trouble in Qatar
This year’s edition of the Qatar Open was completely up to expectations. An astonishing seeding list with most of the top ranked players offered us the chance to enjoy several exciting matches.
As usually happens in these kind of events, Chinese players qualified for the finals of both the Men’s and Women’s Singles draws. This time, Ma Long and Chen Meng won the champion crowns.
Amidst all that, two disputed decisions were taken in a couple of matches. Let’s see them in detail:
#1 Kenta Matsudaira – Liang Jingkun
This match between the Japanese and Chinese player got to the last set. A tight result: 3-4 (11-7, 8-11, 11-8, 11-9, 6-11, 9-11, 11-13). And a controversial ending. It was 3-3 and 10-8 on the scoreboard and Kenta had two match balls to finish Liang Jingkun. However, the Chinese player managed to save them and got 3 points in a row for a 10-11. After two more points, 11-12, this happened:
The best rally of the match and an uncertain edge ball. Umpires decided to consider it as a valid one. Therefore, the Chinese player won the point, set and match. Kenta Matsudaira’s feelings of disbelief and annoyance were clear to see on her face but no amount of complaining changed the result.
It didn’t take long for reactions to appear on social media. The ITTF led the polemic, posting the video on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with a simple survey question:
Some top players commented using their personal accounts:
And, as can be read, there was a general consesus: the ball was OUT. Not only the players agreed on that, but most of the fans and followers did, too. No doubt from anybody except the umpires and the Chinese player, who had a different opinion.
Anyway, what does the rule say? Quoting the 2017 ITTF Handbook, we can read:
2.01.02 The playing surface shall not include the vertical sides of the tabletop.
Considering that, the next sketch shows when a ball bounce shall be valid during a rally:
Obviously, the difference between the top-right and bottom-left situations is so small that determining which it with 100% confidence is almost impossible. Although it is not written anywhere, common sense (in fact, physics), is applied to determine the validity in most of the cases:
- If the ball is hit from above the table and it maintains or increases its height after bouncing, it is valid:
- The ball is valid when it touches the right edge of the table if it was hit from the left side, or vice versa.
Going back to the match, we can conclude that the second law is not fulfilled, so we should evaluate the first rule: whether the ball rises or not after hitting the table. Does it? It is hard to judge only having the static camera. However, the expert eyes of the people had an opinion: OUT.
#2 Dimitrij Ovtcharov – Masaki Yoshida
Definitely one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Masaki Yoshida performed above his expectations and defeated the best European player and winner of the last ITTF World Tour Open. The score: 2-4 (6-11, 11-6, 11-4, 7-11, 9-11, 8-11). Yoshida agreed on the importance of this match:
“For sure this is the highest ranked player I have ever beaten!” – said the Japanese player just after beating the German player.
The last three sets in a row were won by the Japanese player, not a coincidence though.
At the end of the 5th set…
This time, the umpires determined that the ball was OUT. Therefore, it was point and set for Masaki Yoshida. ‘Dima’ strongly disagreed with the decision and complained several times, arguing that he had hit the ball from inside the table area. If he had, there would be certainty about the validity of the ball. However, the video does not lie and he hit it from the side of the table.
Consequently, we should judge whether the ball rose or not after hitting the table. Once again, it is not easy at all to say. The static camera does not help and the ball trajectory towards the point of view does not allow us to determine whether it rose or not.
This time, there were no reactions, not even from Ovtcharov who, surprisingly, did not post about this tournament on social media. Although it was not the last point of the match, it could have changed the outcome. What do you think?
Once upon a time …
Although not very common in table tennis, there have been a number of controversial umpire decisions in the past. Let’s briefly take a look at some of these cases.
#1 Ai Fukuhara – Wen Jia
#2 Ding Ning – Li Xiao Xia
#3 Jun Mizutani – Yu Ziyang
Same problem, different solutions
If we compare tennis and badminton, which are the most similar Olympic sports to table tennis, we could conclude that the same kind of things have to be settled: whether the service is correct, the ball hits the net or not or if it bounces inside the court or not.
However, each of the sports has a different policy for determining what really happened in difficult situations. Tennis has a chair umpire, helped by a set of line judges and hawk-eye video challenges on the player’s demand. Badminton has two umpires, line judges and hawk-eye video challenges, also on demand.
On the other hand, table tennis only has two umpires per match, with no “edge-judges” or any technological aid.
A quick Internet search returns the following results about applying the technology on table tennis:
- “High motion table tennis tracking for umpiring applications”: a paper describing a system and set of algorithms to track the ball position. Focused only on the serve fault detection.
- “Tracking a table tennis ball for umpiring purposes using a multi-agent system”: a paper introducing a ball tracking system. This time, it seems to be successful tracking the ball during complete rallies.
- “Spin observation and trajectory prediction of a Ping-Pong ball”: a mainly mathematics and physics orientated paper, analyzing ball motion.
- “Identifying Table Tennis Balls From Real Match Scenes Using Image Processing And Artificial Intelligence Techniques”: an image analysis proposal to track the ball, with support for low-quality images and multi-camera.
- “Table tennis event detection and classification”: a Doctoral Thesis on the subject with the goal of identifying specific match events using ball position tracking.
In spite of the research and development effort, there is still no solution available for the broad public, nor has the ITTF presented any plan for future implementations of technological aids to help the umpires.
The future will determine whether table tennis will follow in the path of other sports or if we will keep having similar controversial cases.
* Cover photo: ITTF