Downing Jagannath was simply great

R. V. MOORTHY

"It is important to remember here that unlike today, the young talents in India were woefully short of foreign exposure. We had limited opportunities to play in international tournaments. The players those days were far more committed to make the most of the opportunities. We backed each other and the team spirit was really good."

It is never too easy to pick one's best or worst moments. In any sportsperson's career, there are highs and lows. All these years, I have never really sat down to think about my biggest or greatest moment. I have also not spent time thinking of my worst moment. Now when I look back, I recall many great moments from my career, which spanned more than a decade. Winning my first National men's title in 1973, or winning all four titles - the men's team, the singles, doubles and mixed doubles - at Allahabad in 1976, or three National titles in 1979 at Udaipur were all very special and stay close to my heart.

In the International arena, having played six World championships and an equal number of Asian and Commonwealth championships, I have several pleasant memories. During my days, India was part of Category `A' that featured the 16 strongest teams in the world. So I was fortunate to play against some of the best names of that era.

For me, winning the doubles bronze with Vilas Menon in the 1976 Asian Championship at Pyongyang and the 1974 US Open mixed dou- bles title with Roopa Mukherjee were very satisfying. So was another doubles title I won with Neeraj Bajaj in Nepal in 1974 by beating a Japanese pair in the quarterfinals and scoring back-to-back victories over Chinese combinations.

It also comes to mind how our team of Neeraj, G. Jagannath and I defeated the formidable Japan 5-3 in the same edition of the eight-nation invitational tournament in Nepal. In this memorable triumph, I defeated then World number seven Norio Takashima of Japan, acknowledged as the best defensive player in the world (Takashima went on to win a bronze in the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok). In fact, after my victory over Takashima, I was a sure choice against any team that had a defensive player.

Manjeet Dua in his heyday.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

It Is important to remember here that unlike today, the young talents in India were woefully short of foreign exposure. We had limited opportunities to play in international tournaments. The players those days were far more committed to make the most of the opportunities. We backed each other and the team spirit was really good.

From all these and more moments of joy, if I were to pick my best moment, it would be the one when I won my first National men's singles title at the age of 18 against the great G. Jagannath in the final at Chennai. I remember, that night, I could not sleep at all. One of my team-mates gave me a tablet to help me get some sleep. Next morning, when I asked my friend what that tablet was, he said, it was a sleeping pill. I told him it did not help. You can imagine how excited I was.

I was fortunate to get the break at the right time. It is equally important to get the right guidance at the right time. Beating Jagannath filled me with an unbelievable feeling. After I won, Jagannath said to me, "Always remember, it is easy to win, but difficult to maintain." These words helped me immensely in my career. Jagannath had this ability to guide his friends so well. I remembered his words and never looked back. Thereafter, I worked very hard and maintained my form and consistency as far as the domestic circuit was concerned.

My worst moment is not hard to pick. It was indeed my defeat to China's Cai Zhenhua in the team championship of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. Ranked World number two, Cai was one of the favourites for the gold in the individual event. I remember we had a meeting in the evening before the match. Our team comprised Kamlesh Mehta, V. Chandrasekhar, Manmeet Singh, Sujay Ghorpade and me. In the meeting, I put my hand up and said I would play when I realised no one was really keen to play and get embarrassed before the home supporters against the best team in the world.

I had worked hard for nearly three years for the Asian Games. I was in good form and felt good. I saw it as an opportunity to test my skills. I had nothing to lose against the worldclass player. So I went all out. I started aggressively and won the first game but lost the second game badly. In the decider, I was in control from the start. I had leads of 11-3 and 16-9. But he closed the gap and served at 16-19. He changed his serve and that worked to his advantage. It became 20-20 and thereafter I held a match-point. But Cai managed to win 24-22.

It was a heart-break that I could never overcome. It was a case of so near, yet so far. I had a lead of up to eight points, but I could not win the final point. This bitter truth hurts even to this day. We lost the match 0-5, but overall our display in the team championship gained us the respect of the opposition.

Personally, I've always believed that every defeat teaches you something. But after losing to Cai, I felt as though I had nothing new to add to what I knew.

I had played my best table tennis against one of the greatest players of my time. In a discipline in which players from over 200 countries participate worldwide, how many players get as close to beating a world number two as I did? My regret is that I could not finish off the match. But it shall remain the match of my life.

As told to Rakesh Rao