Silhouette Table Tennis Large BakuPurpleOf all the sports featuring on the programme for the inaugural European Games, table tennis is a discipline where the continent's top players seem among the most excited at the opportunity to compete.

For in a sport dominated by Asia, or more specifically, by China, Europeans are keen to grasp any opportunity they have to excel at international level, particularly in a major multi-sport environment.

A further incentive is provided by the fact the winners of both men and women's singles competitions in Baku automatically qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

At last month's European Championships in Lisbon, where only team events were held, European Games qualification was duly a key goal for many of the athletes and nations competing. The 14 best placed teams in the "Championship" division automatically qualified, along with host nation Azerbaijan and the winners of the second tier "Challenge" division.

On the men's side, the participants will be Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

With Portugal shocking perennial European winners Germany in the final in Lisbon, the Germans will be smarting for revenge next year, while the likes of France, Russia and Sweden will also challenge.

European champions Portugal will have a major opportunity to excel in Baku ©ETTUEuropean champions Portugal will have a major opportunity to excel in Baku ©ETTU

In the women's event, meanwhile, the host nation will be joined by Austria, Belarus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sweden and Serbia. The fact so many of the players from virtually every country are of Chinese origin detracts slightly from the spectacle, but a dual between evenly matched teams from the likes of Germany, Austria, Poland and Romania should be tantalising nonetheless.

As at the Olympic Games, competition will consist only of male and female singles and team events, with no doubles or mixed doubles events taking place.

Each of the participants in the team event is entitled to a maximum of two singles entrants, while 13 other nations will qualify one each dependent on the European Table Tennis Union (ETTU) ranking list taken from a cut-off date of March 1.

Two singles slots will be available to players from Azerbaijan while a further three universality places for less developed nations will also be allocated.

As in the team event, competition will be evenly matched and unbelievably tight to call. The Germans, led by evergreen veteran Timo Boll and London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Dimitrij Ovtcharov, will be the favourites though there are 10 or 20 other realistic contenders. Even some figures from countries not participating in the team event, such as England's inform Paul Drinkhall or Belgium 45-year-old Association of National Olympic Committees Athletes' Commission member, Jean-Michel Saive could compete.

ANOC Athletes Commission member Jean-Michel Saive could even complete his career in style in Baku ©Getty ImagesANOC Athletes Commission member Jean-Michel Saive could even complete his career in style in Baku ©Getty Images

On the women's side Sweden's 2013 European champion Li Fen should feature prominently, along with the likes of Shan Xiaona and Han Ying of Germany, Fu Yu of Portugal and 
Elizabeta Samara of Romania. 

As for Azerbaijan, with their top male and female players, Farhad Ismayilov and Maryam Imanova, ranked 573 and 630 respectively in the world rankings, the event should be a great learning curve and an opportunity for the sport. With recent changes to a plastic ball increasing the pace of play to an even more phenomenal level, the crowds will be wowed by one of the fastest sports in the world whether they are familiar with the intricacies of the game or not.

Eligible NOCs must inform the ETTU and the Operation Committee in writing by March 15 whether or not they intend to take up their places and participate, before all remaining places are allocated by April 1. Competition will begin two and a half months later, lasting seven days from June 13 to 19.

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