India, France, Germany, Denmark and Belgium. This is a list of countries that Indian paddler Harmeet Desai, amid the coronavirus pandemic, has travelled to in the last three months. While most people around the world are staying indoors to stay safe from the virus, world No. 72 Desai is doing everything in his power to stay keep in touch with the game he truly loves – table tennis.
Playing for his club Roanne LLTT in the French Pro B League, the 27-year-old has been in sublime touch, having lost just one of the 15 matches he has played since the beginning of the new season in October 2020. However, the journey to regaining form has been extremely perilous, one laced with uncertainty, months of inactivity, numerous Covid-19 tests and hours and hours of travelling.
In an exclusive interview with Sportstar , the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist in the men’s team event opens up about his stint in the French league, fighting and conquering his fear, rediscovering his lost touch and a bag full of homemade food.
With the situation worsening in Europe and travel restrictions around the world, how difficult was it to get to France in the first place?
I came to France on October 8, 2020. I was planning to come earlier, but I couldn’t due to restrictions back then. I applied for a visa long back, but the approval took a lot of time. My club also pushed for the approval. Eventually, the French embassy approved my visa application, and I was able to travel even before the league started. Usually, leagues in Europe start in September, including France’s. This year, the league began in the third week of October.
Since a lot of people, including players, tested positive, numerous matches were postponed and you were forced to travel to neighbouring countries. Could you tell us more about your timeline since October?
After spending two months in France, I went back to India for Christmas because most facilities are shut during the festive period. I spent two weeks at home and used this to time relax and recharge my batteries. I then came back to France on January 8, 2021. During those two months – between October and December – I spent time in France and Germany. I even went to Denmark because the number of cases in France and Germany was on the rise during that period; some of my matches even got postponed because of it. The quarantine rules were very strict in Germany, whereas Denmark was very safe because there were hardly any cases there. Finally, I came back home (to Rouen).
What’s it like to travel to so many countries in the middle of a pandemic?
It’s a unique feeling to travel to so many countries in such a short span of time. But at the same time, I am fortunate that I have so many options and friends and the people who know me and invite me to different places and different training centres. In life, I generally try to deal with circumstances positively instead of getting bogged down or affected. I look at the bright side of things: I get to play table tennis, which is my happy place. It doesn’t matter where I am. The most important aspect for me is to play.
Tell us more about the league and the team. How did you secure this deal?
I am playing the Pro B league in France. It’s a second-division league. The club had been looking for a player since November 2019. Around that time, I won the Indonesia Open. The coaches of the club were interested, and they got in touch with me. I was told about their team, structure, their goals, et cetera. Moreover, I have known about the club for a long time as this team has fielded a lot of great players in the past. I didn’t take much time to accept the offer. The priority for me, while signing a contract, is to see if I will get to play against quality opponents and get good match practice. This club ticked all the boxes, and I knew that this team would help me fulfil my goals. Hence, I put pen to paper in January 2020.
How beneficial has this stint been for your game?
We have got many top players in the league. The challenge for me is to win against them. It was difficult initially, but it is helping me improve my game now. I get to play against a variety of styles. I try to analyse my mistakes. I try to rectify them in training and monitor my progress. This is what I like about the league. In such a short span of time, I get to work on my mistakes and get better.
What’s the club culture like and how easy or difficult was it to get accustomed to a new setting?
The club environment is very welcoming and hospitable. The coaches, manager, support staff and the players have been really helpful. The day I arrived in France, the club president invited me over for dinner. The next day, I went to the vice-president’s house. It feels like a second home. They also wanted me to try out Indian food in France, so we all went out for Indian food in Rouen. I usually take some time to get accustomed to a new place, but it has been easier here.
You are a vegetarian by choice. Do you often face difficulties in maintaining your diet and how have you tackled the problems?
I am a vegetarian and I prefer to be one. Whenever I don’t have options, I go for non-veg. Whenever I am in France, the club tries its best to take care of my diet. Sometimes, when I am not in France, it gets difficult to find veg food. I then have to eat non-veg food.
I also carry a lot of food from home. In October, I brought along a bag which weighed 25kg; it was full of food. Normally I don’t pack so much food, but I did this time around due to the coronavirus. Whenever I run out of options, the homemade food comes in handy.
What all did you carry from home this time?
Food like thepla, khakra, a lot of protein bars that are homemade. Chyavanprash, which is good for immunity. Some of the Indian snacks that I relish. Banana chips, chakri or bhakarwadi.
How was your game impacted by the lockdown and months of inactivity and what were some of the challenges you faced?
We all have seen a lot of challenges in the past year. I faced a lot of them too when I wasn’t playing professionally for seven-eight months. I had to stay disciplined to keep my body healthy. Nobody knew when we’d get back and I didn’t want to get slower or become worse because I was in peak form before lockdown. So, I had to pay extra attention to my fitness and diet.
I was only playing at home with one or two practice partners, so I was eager to play against top-level players. Initially, I had lost my speed, so it was really hard. But in the span of one-two weeks, I could get back to a decent level. I am really happy with my performance so far in the league, and my team finished the first half at the top of the points table.
The last year, like you said, was extremely trying for everyone. You have had quite a journey. How did you keep yourself motivated and overcome the mental battles?
There are so many goals in my mind and the pursuit is what keeps me motivated. The biggest one is to win an Olympic medal for India. I want to win a gold medal in the singles category at the CWG (Commonwealth Games) next year. All these goals keep me motivated to work harder. A lot of my friends in the Indian team tell me that the risk I took was something they couldn’t.
Moreover, I am where I am because of my passion and I have achieved everything I have because of it. So, I don’t want it to die and I just want to enjoy the game till my body stops responding at the highest level. I hope I can do it for a long time to come and bring more laurels to my country.
Your expectations from 2021?
I am hoping to get in the top 50 of the world rankings.
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