SHANGHAI, China: The powerful China men's table tennis team on Thursday pulled out of next week's Australian Open citing fatigue, deepening a crisis sparked by the removal of their popular head coach.
It comes days after the world's top three players -- Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin -- failed to appear for their second-round matches at the prestigious China Open in protest at the ousting of highly respected coach Liu Guoliang.
The team's withdrawal from the event on Australia's Gold Coast was "disappointing news for all table tennis fans around the world", the governing International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) said in a statement, adding that China's women would play.
The Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), which is investigating the embarrassing no-show by the players last Friday in Chengdu, a short while later confirmed that it was not sending a men's side to Australia but made no mention of the row over Liu.
"The main players on the men’s team are physically exhausted due to continuous participation in competitions, and when injury and illness are added, they are not in a competitive state," the CTTA said in a statement that was quickly ridiculed by Chinese fans on social media.
Around the same time, the Olympic and world champion Ma echoed that explanation.
"Since the end of May I have continuously competed in the world championship and the Japan and China Opens," the world number one wrote on China's Twitter-like Weibo.
"Due to injuries, illness and physical exhaustion, I did not sign up for the July Australian Open and I hope fans do not read too much into this."
Fan and Xu, who are ranked second and third in the world, respectively, gave similar explanations on Weibo.
Two Chinese coaches also pulled out of the event in Chengdu, triggering a furore in table tennis-mad China.
The coaches and players were upset that Liu, a former Grand Slam champion, had lost his job as head coach in a reshuffle at the top of the CTTA, which is now scrambling to contain the fall-out.
Chinese sports fans were deeply sceptical of the CTTA's latest explanation.
"Do you think Chinese people are gullible like a three-year-old?" one asked on Weibo.
The Australian Open, an event on the sport's top-level Platinum World Tour, starts on July 4.