Zhenzhou (China), November 22: "We are back," Steve Dainton, CEO of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), simply put it when mentioning that fans are returning to the venue.
As a part of the ITTF #RESTART series, the 2020 ITTF Finals is underway from Thursday to Sunday at the Zhengzhou Olympic Sports Center in central China's Henan province.
It marks the first international tournament that is staged in China with spectators on-site since the coronavirus outbreak.
"Hearing the cheers of the audience and seeing everyone waving passionately, a long-lost sense of familiarity returned," said World Table Tennis (WTT) Council Chair Liu Guoliang.
"Our players are back on the playing field, and this time, our fans are also back in the house," Liu, President of the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), noted.
"We have seen many international events played without spectators, which is kind of different. The atmosphere may not be that good," Dainton pointed out. "When they applaud and cheer for you, you feel this is the real competition."
During the Finals, Yao Zhiying, a table tennis fan aged around 60, came to the venue every day to support the Chinese team.
"I haven't been watching games on site for a long time. Now I can fully unleash my strength to cheer for them," said Yao, a member of the local table tennis association.
It has been 10 months since Dong Yanan was sitting in the venue to watch live table tennis. "It feels so different when you are on site or in front of the TV," Dong admitted.
"You feel nervous at some crucial points, you offer players encouragement when they are in adversities, you cheer for them for their excellent performance. It feels so great."
Dong hopes that more sports events can bring fans back in the near future. Obviously, it's not an easy task.
To ensure a safe environment for everyone, organizers implemented stringent anti-virus measures during the Finals.
Spectators were required to fill in information about their health condition, monitor their body temperature, scan a contact-tracing code and conduct hand disinfection before their entry. Meanwhile, the number of spectators could not exceed half the capacity of the venue.
After all matches concluded on each day, the staff carried out disinfection inside the venue, including the competition field, tribune, working rooms and restrooms. The disinfection of the competition field was conducted at every interval on match days.
"I cherish the moment on the court," said world No. 1 Fan Zhendong, who revealed that before the first match of the Finals, he intentionally entered the venue to have a look at the surroundings.
"It will not be the case when matches are played behind closed doors," he said. "I appreciate that so many people cheer for me and follow this sport after such a long time."
Ma Long, captain of China's men's team, said the only way to reward the faithful spectators is to try his best.
"Maybe there are thousands of people who are making a contribution to offering a safe environment for us players. We know it involves a lot of dedication, and we just want to play our best."
"I didn't know there would be spectators because of the COVID-19 situation. When I entered the stage, I was really surprised, but it was positive," said Petrissa Solja from Germany.
"It just gives me joy to play. Even when I miss a ball, and they are cheering for others, it's no problem for me."
According to Chinese table tennis chief Liu, "Every event we delivered and every result we achieved brings the world of competitive sports one step closer to being free to play."
"Behind all this is the firm belief of everyone in the table tennis family: no winter is invincible; no spring is forever lost," the sport's legend added.