Liu Guoliang gives a thumbs-up to Chinese players during a training session ahead of the 2019 World Table Tennis Championships in Budapest. XINHUA
Liu Guoliang is relishing the "huge challenge" ahead after being installed as chairman of the newly formed World Table Tennis (WTT) Council on Monday.
The legendary player and coach is tasked with "pioneering the future of the sport" as it embarks on an ambitious modernization and commercialization project.
Launched last August, WTT will manage all commercial and event business of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) from 2021, boasting a new competition structure that will feature 'Grand Smash' tournaments, similar to the four tennis majors.
"This is an excellent platform and the boldest innovation by the ITTF in many years. It is aimed at developing the sport and promoting its popularity worldwide. This is a brilliant chance and a huge challenge as well," Liu told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
"WTT's future is intertwined with the future development of the sport. Table tennis featured in the Olympic Games, world championships and World Cups in the past, but there are no professional competitions apart from the three majors.
"WTT's four Grand Smashes starting next year will offer a better platform for players around the world. More high-caliber paddlers can earn the chance to shine and achieve at the highest level, also delivering the best matches for fans to enjoy."
Liu has called on all the sport's stakeholders to work together, but is also keenly aware of the huge responsibility now resting on his shoulders.
"Hopefully, every country and region, member association and star player can motivate themselves so that more people can take up table tennis, learn something from it and give it a go," he said.
"Life is always a process of self-challenges. I dreamed of achieving the Grand Slam when I was an athlete. Then I became the head coach, chief coach, and president (of the Chinese Table Tennis Association), continually changing my position.
"Whenever I change roles, I need to change my mentality. This is the biggest one. Coming onto the stage of WTT, apart from results, I have to express the uniqueness of Chinese table tennis culture and tell the Chinese story to the world table tennis community."
Following a stellar playing career during which he won two Olympic gold medals (at the 1996 Atlanta Games) and seven world championship titles, Liu has since overseen serial success as head coach of the Chinese national team and most recently as CTTA president.
He is, therefore, ideally qualified to understand the demands and needs of players as WTT positions its stars and fans at the core of its new business model.
"Players need a world-class platform to showcase their skills, thus making the platform the most important thing. We will have four Grand Smashes and WTT Series events, which will offer more opportunities to athletes," Liu said.
Before Liu oversees the start of WTT's glitzy new era, he will first have to navigate a return to international action for the sport, which has been suspended most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's a big crisis for all sports. But through crisis can come opportunity. It's crucial to resume and reconstruct table tennis. This challenging period calls on everyone's efforts and togetherness to improve the sport's professionalization, commercialization and internationalization through WTT," he said.
"It is a learning process. On such a world stage as WTT, we need to put aside minor differences to seek common ground and make the most of the advantages of all parties. This is the biggest challenge and direction that we are marching toward."
Still serving as CTTA president, Liu insists his dual role is "mutually beneficial" for all concerned.
"World table tennis needs China, and China also needs the world. It's about mutual assistance and mutual promotion," he said. "China has the highest number of champions, star athletes and fans, but we need an international stage and a better platform to showcase ourselves and let Chinese table tennis culture be heard around the world."
As part of that strategy, Liu is aiming to target a younger generation of fans and boost the global profiles of stars such as China's men's world No 1 Fan Zhendong.
"Fans and athletes are like water and fish. Star players need admiration and encouragement from fans and will grow from it. We hope more sports stars can stand out from the crowd and create positive energy in society," he said.
"If we have more stars, people will be more interested in the game, and more fans will come out. Players can see their self-worth on this platform, and outstanding athletes can work hard on the court to attract more fans.
"Athletes are always the priority. We need to consider how to utilize the platform to produce more champions, stars and excellent matches, and close contact between players and fans.
"This will be a challenge beyond just gold-medal contention. It's also an opportunity and platform to elevate this sport to the peak."
Announcing Liu's appointment, a WTT statement read: "Liu Guoliang is an extremely well-respected leader within the world table tennis community, with perfect caliber and the richest of career achievements.
"We believe that, by following his direction, the global table tennis community will strive for a common goal, driving the WTT Council as well as our sport to the next level."
ITTF deputy president Khalil Al-Mohannadi said Liu's resume "speaks for itself", adding: "We firmly believe that he is the perfect man to help deliver success to WTT for many years to come".
ITTF CEO and WTT director Steve Dainton said Liu's influence will be key as the sport bids to boost its global appeal while at the same time strengthening its traditional stronghold in Asia.
"We want someone who has a lot of experience in our sport and understands a little bit about the modern way of trying to do sports events. When we looked around, we could see that probably the best person is Liu Guoliang," said Dainton.
"For the success of WTT and table tennis as a whole, it is imperative that we have people of the highest order actively involved in shaping the future of our sport.
"The fact that Liu Guoliang is the most influential figure in table tennis, not only in China but around the globe, positions him perfectly as chair of the WTT Council.
"We hope to take advantage of his reputation and influence for the global promotion of table tennis, and make it especially appealing to the younger generations.
"The whole sports industry is in the shadow of the pandemic, and we place our hope in Liu Guoliang to spark the future of our sport. This appointment is fantastic news for the entire table tennis family."
WTT says Liu's fellow council members will be announced shortly.