| Mantu Ghosh hits a backhand against Romanian Nathalia Vioculescu on the opening day of the world table tennis championships in Bercy Arena, Paris, Monday. (AFP)
Paris: The first balls were served up with gusto at the Bercy Arena Monday as the 47th table tennis world championships got underway with a bang.
Six hundred fifty players from 160 nations, ranging from the sportís superpower China to little Liechenstein represented by a one-man team will scrap it out for the five golds up for grabs.
The opening dayís action consisted of a hectic series of 600 qualifiers for the singles and doubles ó spread out over 29 tables.
Among the early starters to register a win were Taiwanís Sun Wen-Wei and Su Hsien, who recorded an 11-9, 11-8, 11-5 success over the Israeli duo Kfir Siberrman and Shen Dekel in the mixed doubles.
China have these championships their own in recent years, carrying out clean sweeps of gold medals at Osaka in 2001 and Eindhoven two years before.
Only Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner prevented a Chinese sweep in Manchester in 1997.
But their stranglehold could be about to loosen as the word among the shakehanders and top spinners is that the hitherto impregnable Chinese wall is set to be breached this week.
There are two good reasons for suggesting a shift in the balance of power ó one comes from Germany in the shape of Timmo Boll, the other from Belarus, the recently crowned European champion Vladamir Samsonov.
Boll arrives here as world No. 1, and is so feared by his Chinese opponents they have spent hours poring over video footage of his vicious left hand top-spin attack.
But he and third seed Samsonov and other key members of the European contingent like Austrian sixth seed Werner Schlager will have to be at the top of their game to better the seven-strong Chinese delegation.
Itís headed by 1999 runner-up Ma Lin, sandwiched between Boll and Samsonov at the top of the rankings, reigning world champion Wang Liqin, Asian champion Wang Hao and Olympic gold medallist Kong Linghui.
There appears to be no similar threat to Chinese women, who boasts of the top three players in the fray ó Zhang Yining, reigning world champion Wang Nan and Niu Jianfeng.
China, along with players from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and Canada have agreed to undergo daily check-ups for the deadly SARS while in Paris, which hosts the event for the first time since 1947.
One country that didnít make it was North Korea, whose players were prevented from leaving the country at the eleventh hour after a SARS-travel ban imposed by health officials in Pyongyang.