Costantini: ‘India is a bomb waiting to explode’

Massimo Costantini is a star in Indian table tennis, the man behind the country’s rich haul in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Back for a second stint as India’s head coach, he discusses various facets of Indian table tennis.

“India is the best place to work because you have whatever you need to perform well. You have the support from the federation, you have full availability of players, you have pretty good and sufficient support from the government,” says India’s table tennis coach Massimo Costantini.

“Costantini. That’s my second name. But for some reason, I have been constantly referred to as Constantini. And I have got used to it,” says an ever-smiling Massimo Constantini, oops Costantini, while adjusting his spectacles.

For the followers of Indian table tennis — yes, there are more than a few, believe it or not — Costantini is a star, the man behind the country’s rich haul in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. No wonder, he is back as India’s head coach, after stints in the USA.

During the National Ranking (Central Zone) Championship in Indore, Max — as he is popularly known among the fraternity — discussed various facets of Indian table tennis with Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: This is your second stint as India’s head coach. How has it been so far?

Answer: Judging by the enthusiasm, the warm welcome from all the stake-holders and the results, I would say the first eight-nine months of the second stint have been absolutely good. We just came back from the World Championship with not expected but good results. I was confident that with a good preparation, we can perform well and we did.

How would you compare your two stints as India’s head coach?

I think, to begin with, the competition has improved. The movement is growing up, judging by the numbers. In 2009 and 2010, for the zonal meet there will be 1000 entries and now there is 1400. There is a 40 percent hike in the number of participants, which is significant. It means that the country is working to keep improving.

When I was in the US, the problem was opposite. There was support for the national team. Otherwise there was support from only the parents and that’s it. I always say India is the best place to work because you have whatever you need to perform well. You have the support from the federation, you have full availability of players, you have pretty good and sufficient support from the government, players are employed because of the sports. What more can you ask for? Sometimes some of the colleagues call me and ask me (sarcastically), ‘How is India’ And I say ‘India is great.’ They don’t believe me. I don’t know what they make of India. I think I have started becoming an India expert. I do really believe that working in India is ideal.

Indian table tennis is on a real high with four men paddlers ranked in the top-100 in the world. What would you attribute this to?

The move to include prominent juniors with the Commonwealth Games probables in 2009 and 2010 was a very good initiative. At that time, I could have selected just five or six players and continued to work hard on them. Maybe we would have won the same medals, but we would have left those on the fringes far behind. Similarly, now, we have the largest national camp ever in India covering all the age-groups. From the cadets — there are 11-year-old kids — to the seasoned players, who are 33 or 34. The kids are watching the champions during the sessions, And they are training on tables next to each other. So, I am expecting the sub-juniors and juniors — with consistent efforts — to replace the seniors in five or six years. It happened with Soumyajit Ghosh, Harmeet Desai and G. Sathiyan — all around 23-24 — breaking into top 100. I am expecting better. This is just the start.

Sharath Kamal is about to enter the wrong side of the 30. How long do you see him playing at the highest level?

Table tennis is going to be a long-career sport. At the last Olympics, Vladimir Samsonov (Belarus) played the bronze medal match at 40. Sharath is 34. He is in the best moment to perform well. I expect him to have a good Olympics in 2020 and stretch his career, maybe till 2022 Commonwealth Games. But he has to be managed properly. Fitness, practice, activity outside India — we need a plan for Sharath. I am sure he is as eager as any other top player to keep improving.

“I expect Sharath Kamal to have a good Olympics in 2020 and stretch his career, maybe till 2022 Commonwealth Games,” says Costantini.   -  K. Pichumani

He proved it in Germany, beating Kou Lei, ranked 24 in the world, in straight games. And then he narrowly lost to promising Chinese youngster, Ningaoyung, 4-2. He needs to work on a slightly different mentality because his skills are not the same as it was four or five years back. On the other hand, he is more mature and we need to make a plan considering all these aspects and.

Do you think the young brigade is ready to take over the mantle from Sharath?

They have a golden opportunity because Sharath is alone. If you look at the history of a country like Sweden, they had (Jan-Ove) Waldner, (Peter) Carlsson, (Jorgen) Persson in their golden generation.

And the next generation couldn’t follow suit and they got lost. In fact, even another generation got lost. Now, after ten years, we have started seeing a few players stepping on to the world stage from Sweden. In India, there is only one top player, so the youngsters have an opportunity to create a niche. Ghosh, Sathiyan, Harmeet are capable of grabbing these opportunities. I will also include Sanil (Shetty) and (Anthony) Amalraj.

To perform as a team, we need five quality players and we have five who can excel. I hope they can continue and achieve what Sharath has already achieved.

Despite the upbeat scenario, what are the areas of concern for you?

The biggest weakness is to give up too early. Sometimes they fight the first game; and if they lose and start badly in the second game, they start thinking negatively, they start thinking I am done. In the camp, I gave a lecture on the same topic: the match is very long, we don’t play to win a point, we play to win a match and it takes a long time for a player to win a match. They give up too easily.

There is nothing wrong with physical fitness. It’s all about self-belief. Being aware of their capabilities. It’s a very psychological thing.

Players during the launch of Ultimate Table Tennis league in Worli. “I think, the league is a good opportunity to popularise the game. Everyone will benefit from it,” says Costantini.   -  Emmanual Yogini

So a mental trainer is the need of the hour for the team?

Yes. We had a mental trainer before the India Open in February. Mental trainers need to be guided properly about table tennis. They need to learn the nitty-gritty of a match, perhaps from a coach so that they can help the players optimise their performances. If the mental trainers are involved in camps, it would help. We did the same for the India Open and the daily sessions helped the players.

What is your take on Ultimate Table Tennis? Will it help the sport in India?

I don’t care much about the format of the league. I think, the league is a good opportunity to popularise the game. Everyone will benefit from it. I am not only referring to a Sharath or a Ghosh. For them, it’s just two or three weeks, it’s nothing. The young players from Kolkata, Goa, Karnataka, watching table tennis on television everyday, will get attracted the the game. It may also lead to better support from the association, more sponsorships. For me, it’s more about marketing with an opportunity to play some high-level games.

I welcome this league. Maybe next year, it will be more organised in terms of table tennis. But there is good money, great players, television coverage would be awesome, so it will give a big boost to table tennis. Trust me India is a bomb in table tennis that is going to explode. Sooner or later, table tennis is going to be a big hit in India.