“It’s cruel,” was how the country’s Italian coach Massimo Costantini chose to describe the new team championship format of the Asian table tennis championship that opened here on Monday.

Unlike previous years when the participating teams were divided into the four groups and following the league two teams from each group qualified for the last-eight stage, this year the top-six finishers of

the last edition in 2007 have been directed seeded into the quarterfinals.

This year, 15 countries have been made to play in the First Division for the two qualifying spots for the quarterfinals. Thereafter, these two qualifiers are pitted against the finalists of the last edition in the Champion Division. In effect, these finalists can enter the semifinals just by winning against a qualifier.

“You go up to go down immediately, that’s why I have no real expectations,” said Mr. Costantini who saw no realistic chance for the lesser teams to match the prowess of China or Japan. “It can be very discouraging. Let us not forget that Asia has some of the best teams in the world. The top-six of the Asian team championship enjoy a very high world ranking. So in order to give more exposure to the not-so-strong teams in the continent, a quarterfinal league, could have been a better option.”

The spearhead of Italy during his playing days, Mr. Costantini went on to substantiate his point by saying, “imagine a player like Sharath Kamal getting to play a match or two against China, Japan and Korea. Believe me, many players fear Sharath. It is only that he needs to get one good week to make a breakthrough into the top-50 He has the strokes and the game to trouble some of the best names. And a championship like this should provide players like Sharath to get more matches against those from the stronger nations.

“If this system is persisted with, I don’t see how lesser teams will ever get into the top-four bracket,” said Mr. Costantini, indicating that for teams like India, the playoff matches would be of greater importance.

“Sharath (presently ranked 70th in the world) can gain a lot if he gets opportunities to play stronger players. If he can beat a couple of them in the league, his ranking shoots up. It is true for some of the other Indian players. This is particularly significant since India is looking to raise its world team rankings ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

“Currently we are fourth behind Singapore, Canada and Nigeria. If our top three players can improve their world rankings till August 2010 and India is ranked second to Singapore, then we don’t face them before the final in the Commonwealth Games. That is part of our goal as we prepare for the Games.”

Knowing the odds against them, the Indians will be expected to make the most of the home conditions and create opportunities for picking up important ranking points over the next week.

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