China's top-ranking men's ping pong team was in disarray Friday after three of its star players quit an international tournament in an apparent protest over the removal of the head coach.

Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin, who are the top three players in the world, did not show up for their second round singles matches at the China Open in the southwestern city of Chengdu, the International Table Tennis Federation said.

The fourth member of the men's team, Zhang Jike, was forced out of the competition on Thursday with a hip injury.

It was "not clear" why the three players failed to appear for their matches, the ITTF reported, but it said the crowd "consistently shouted the name of Liu Guoliang", who was China's head coach until Tuesday.

Ma, Fan and Xu's elimination from the four-day tournament, which ends Sunday, came after they made online protests over Liu's removal.

"At this moment we don't like to play anymore because we miss you, Liu Guoliang," the players said in identical posts on China's Twitter-like Weibo.

Men's coach Qin Zhijian and former ping pong player Ma Lin also posted the same message.

Liu, a former Grand Slam champion, lost his top coaching job in a restructuring announced by the Chinese Table Tennis Association on Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said.

He has been appointed vice president of the body.

The shake-up has been a hot topic in table tennis-mad China where the sport has a huge following.

Last month Kong Linghui was replaced as head of the women's table tennis team following a gambling debt scandal, sparking a social media frenzy.