A flood of young blood

Sanil Shetty...a creditable victory.-Pics: RANJEET KUMAR

The platinum jubilee year championship should be remembered not just for Sharath’s defeat, but also for the number of new faces that finally broke through, writes K. Keerthivasan.

“I think there will be even more pressure on me from the next Nationals. I better learn to live with it,” said Sharath Kamal, after his shock defeat at the hands of 20-year-old Harmeet Desai, in the men’s semifinals of the 75th Senior National table tennis championships at the Patliputra Sports Complex in Patna.

For the 31-year-old from Chennai, this is his third consecutive defeat in the Nationals despite being India’s best paddler in the world by a distance. In Lucknow (’12) and Raipur (’13), he lost to Amalraj and Soumyajit Ghosh respectively in the final.

The platinum jubilee year championship should be remembered not just for Sharath’s defeat, but also for the number of new faces that finally broke through.

Sharath has been the yardstick in the last eight Nationals since 2005-06. But in the last three Nationals, he has fallen short of expectations. There are enough indications that the younger lot — with a lot of exposure to Pro Tours and intensive training at National camps — have gained tremendous confidence, and are ready to face the challenges ahead.

Sanil Shetty, Harmeet Desai, Soumyajit Ghosh, G. Sathiyan and Anirban Ghosh in the men’s section and T. Reeth Rishya, Krittwika Sinha Roy, Nikhat Bhanu and Sutirtha Mukherjee among the women are the youngsters whose progress in the last couple of years has been quite astonishing.

For the newly-crowned National singles champions, Sanil Shetty and Ankita Das, this was a proud moment and their reactions after the victory said it all.

Ankita Das, the women's singles winner, receives the trophy from the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar.-

The crown for Sanil in his very first final must have gladdened the hearts of those from Western India. After Kamlesh Mehta won the last of his eight National crowns in Jamshdepur in 1993-94, none from the region had won the coveted title before Sanil. “I was focussed for this Nationals. This is my seventh National appearance. I have never crossed the quarterfinals before. It feels really great,” said Sanil, after defeating Harmeet in the final.

Sanil said training with former Swedish great Peter Karlsson for a month at the Falkenberg Club in Sweden last year did improve his game and self-confidence. The Mumbai lad had also travelled with Ghosh and Harmeet for half-a-dozen Pro Tours last season.

Sanil has his hands full as he has to prepare and play in quite a few tournaments before the Commonwealth Games (beginning July 23 in Glasgow), starting with the Iran Cup.

For Harmeet, it would have been a thoroughly disappointing performance. Having put the brakes on defending champion Ghosh in the quarterfinals and the six-time champion Sharath in the semis, Harmeet was the hot favourite to bag the title, but Sanil put paid to such hopes.

Ankita had taken part in the London Olympics. A two-time semifinalist in the Nationals, she was confidence personified throughout the championship.

Seeded three, Ankita didn’t face much of a problem in her passage to the final. She lost a total of just four games in five rounds. “I am thrilled. In the previous two editions, in Lucknow and Raipur, I lost in the semifinals. That time I didn’t feel the pressure. But I felt the pressure playing against Krittwika (Sinha Roy) as we are of the same age,” said the 20-year-old Ankita.

PSPB bagged both the men's and women's team events.-

The women’s section saw former champions Mouma Das and Poulomi Ghatak bowing out in the quarterfinals, while defending champion K. Shamini lost to Krittwika in the semifinals. From 2004-05, it has been either Poulomi or Mouma or Shamini who have dominated the scene.

In fact, in the semifinals, it was refreshing to watch fresh faces Reeth Rishya, Krittwika Sinha Roy and Ankita battling it out.

Eight-time National women’s champion Indu Puri, who is a Government Observer for the Nationals, said, “I don’t want to go into names. There are a whole lot of fresh faces. It is a very good sign. They are getting good exposure. The Government is pumping in a lot of money. There is no dearth of anything. Players have nothing to complain. They have to only prove themselves.”

Former International Kamlesh Mehta, who is part of the Indian Selection Committee, spelt out the preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi that set the platform for the young guns. “CWG played a big role. A lot of youngsters came into the Indian camp and gained a lot. It was like a breath of fresh air, which is good for the game,” he said. The eight-time men’s National winner said the same kind of intensity in preparations and the number of support staff hasn’t been there after CWG. “Support staff should be consistent for the India teams during International tournaments.”

Kamlesh, however, didn’t agree that this was the end of the old guard. “We have to wait and see. The youngsters should show consistency,” he said.

Sharath praised the influx of youngsters into the Indian team and others knocking on the doors as a welcome sign. “Yes, it is a good sign for table tennis. It is good that we all are being pushed by them, which is good for the well-being of the sport.” He singled out 15-year-old Anirban Ghosh (West Bengal) as a talent who should be nurtured.

Bhawani Mukherjee, India’s National coach, said India (men) is trying to finish ahead of England in the World team rankings before the Commonwealth Games so that it would be seeded number two and can perhaps avoid Singapore till the final.

“The difference in points between India and England is 20. A country’s three best players’ rankings are taken into consideration. We are playing in tournaments which could help us get there,” he said.

THE RESULTS

Men: Final: Sanil Shetty (PSPB) bt Harmeet Desai (PSPB) 11-9, 11-7, 10-12, 12-10, 7-11, 11-7. Semifinals: Harmeet bt Sharath Kamal (PSPB) 13-11, 11-7, 6-11, 11-8, 11-6; Sanil bt Soumyadeep Roy (WB) 13-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-13, 11-6.

Women: Final: Ankita Das (PSPB) bt Krittwika Sinha Roy (AAI) 11-9, 12-10, 11-8, 13-11. Semifinals: Krittwika (AAI) bt K. Shamini (PSPB) 12-10, 7-11, 5-11, 11-8, 11-6, 11-6; Ankita bt T. Reeth Rishya (PSPB) 11-3, 11-9, 11-3, 11-4.

Team events (finals): Men: PSPB bt West Bengal 3-0; Women: PSPB bt North Bengal 3-0.