AFTER a fantastic stint in the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, the Indian fans had a lot of expectations and were hopeful that the table tennis contingent can end the 60-year drought of an Asiad medal. Sharath Kamal, G Sathiyan and Manika Batra did not disappoint.
Indian paddlers secured two medals in Asian Games with Sharath, Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai, A. Amalraj and Manav Thakkar winning the bronze in Men’s Team event. Soon after Sharath combined with Manika Batra to win the bronze in mixed doubles.
The double podium finishes in the sport is definitely one of the biggest highlights of India in the multi-sport competition that ended last week in Jakarta. And, thus, history was created by Indian table tennis for the first time.
However, the Indian paddles could not carry forward their success in singles and it was understandable. The CWG gold medallist Manika went down 1-4 but not without a fight to World No. 5 Wang Manyu in the pre-quarterfinals. The 23-year-old did manage to win a game, proving her ability to make unexpected comebacks. But it was not enough to beat the Chinese.
Sharath Kamal, too, followed suit and lost in the Round of 16 to 14th ranked Chih Yuan Chuang of Chinese Taipei 2-4. Until this encounter, their win-loss records were 2-2 in recent times. But Sathiyan’s surrender against Kenta Matsudaira in the pre-quarters halted India’s stunning run at the 2018 Games.
But behind the spectacular performances of paddlers were some meticulous planning as the TTFI think-tank and coach Massimo Constantini devised some important, arduous camps and picked and chose tournaments for the Team India squads. In fact, the players worked hard and competed in international tournaments soon after the CWG, apart from spending a week at a camp in China’s National Centre at Chengdu.
Prior to that the players had participated in Platinum events like the Korea and Japan Open where they fared well, giving them the much-needed confidence. At the camp in China, their national team members, too, had joined to play a game with the Indian members—a rarity. In fact, so impressed were they at the progress of Indian players, especially Manika, that they have offered TTFI an exchange programme.
Accordingly, they would send their players to spar with Indians at our camps and we can also send elite players to train at their national centre. This really augurs well for Indian table tennis, particularly as we are left with little less than two years before the Tokyo Olympics.
Coach Massimo was full of praise for the Indian squad which adapted to the conditions and worked really well. “I must admit that the Indian players have improved a lot. But, for me, it is the confidence level which has gone up several notches. You could see it the other evening at Jakarta International Expo Hall when the men squad beat Japan 3-1,” he said.
But, as a word of caution, he added: “We have proved twice over that the players have the potential. Now it is up to us to channelize it with acute planning to take it forward. In the remaining two years, we have to maximise the advantage we have gained.”
On Manika, he was very appreciative of the girl’s showing. “She has improved by leaps and bounds. But she also has to be wary of her weaknesses. We need to work on those areas which are her weak links. She has the potential to go further up, maybe a medal at Tokyo in mixed events in the realm of possibilities,” he added.
The coach and TTFI are in tune with each other and they need to sit across and think about entering such events where the mixed doubles are a part. “But no team prepares for a doubles event prior to major Games. However, it’s not a bad idea to work on the Sharath-Manika pair even as we try out on other duos more intensively,” countered Massimo.
Whatever the case, India did not have a single medal in the sport, which was introduced in the Games in 1958. The likes of China (61 gold), Japan (20) and South Korea (10) swept the medals for long time. But, with their Jakarta performance, the Indians have proved that they are no longer the also-ran kinds.
Among the fortunate to witness history being created at Jakarta were TTFI president Dushyant Chautala who joined the celebrations along with Secretary General M.P. Singh, who was also the men squad’s team manager. Needless to say, they were proud of the Indian paddlers’ achievement.