Not the ultimate point in the UTT journey

Did Ultimate Table Tennis manage to catch the eyeballs of the masses? Did it even remotely capture the imagination of the country’s sports watchers? The most likely answer to these questions is no.

G. Sathiyan of Dabang Smashers is thrilled after defeating Par Gerell of Falcons TTC in a men’s singles match in the Ultimate Table Tennis league in Chennai. Sathiyan defeated all the five overseas players he ran into in the league.   -  M. VEDHAN

“It was a good show.” In one short sentence, India’s chief coach Massimo Costantini summed up the inaugural Ultimate Table Tennis league.

The first-ever six-team league was aimed at helping the growth of Indian table tennis, bring the game to the living rooms of sports lovers across the country and give exposure to the home-grown champions in familiar surroundings against some quality overseas challengers.

After 18 days of action, spread over Chennai, New Delhi and Mumbai in that order, Falcons Club won the impressive trophy that came with the winner’s share of Rs. 1 crore!

In all, equal number of men and women totalling 48 were drafted into the six squads. There was no auction, and the players were paid in keeping with their World rankings. However, there was also a case of a higher-ranked Indian paid less than his lower-ranked overseas challenger, but it was accepted without any show of dissent.

Each team also had a foreign and an Indian coach. The disparity in payments was understandable since the overseas coach, in each team, brought in a level professionalism not seen in the country before.

Dabang Smashers’ Madhurika Patkar pulled off a major upset by defeating World No. 37 Fu Yu of Maharashtra United.   -  M. VEDHAN

The composition of each eight-member squad was, two overseas male players, two overseas female players, two Indian males and two Indian females. The format saw nine matches in each tie and each match was played over three games. Each game contributed to the points tally.

The team with the highest number of games won — not matches or ties — topped the league. The same guiding principle was followed in the semifinals and final.

Eventually, it turned out to be a mixed bag for all stakeholders. But in general, this being the first edition, the glitches were overlooked and the brighter spots became the talking point.

Eight-time National champion Kamlesh Mehta, part of the promoter Eleven Sports, was extremely pleased with the response to the league. “Every player is happy and those from the overseas have told us that this is the best league they have ever been part of. The television coverage was brilliant and the way the players were looked after, we are very pleased with the outcome. Already, following word-of-mouth publicity, many more players are keen to come to UTT. We will look into areas that need improvement and return with a better version next season,” he said.

Sharath Kamal, the face of Indian table tennis and clearly the sole ‘brand’ in the game from the sub-continent, was happy with the outcome and the gains for the Indians. “I think, the confidence gained by our players is the biggest upside for the Indians. I am very happy with my performance. Look at G. Sathiyan, who beat all five overseas players he faced, or Sanil Shetty, Soumyajit Ghosh or Harmeet Desai — each one punched above his weight and contributed to his team. Even among the ladies, Manika Batra and Madhurika Patkar had a victory over much higher-ranked foreigners,” he said.

Manika, after losing narrowly to the fancied Wang Ying, scored over Sabine Winter and Kim Song I. Earlier, Madhurika stunned World No. 37 Fu Yu to become the first Indian lady to win a match.

It was also true that among others, the highest seed, World No. 8 Wong Chun Ting, lost more games than expected. Aruna Quadri, the flamboyant Nigerian, also seemed to be saving his best for the more serious Pro Tour.

In contrast, England’s Liam Pitchford picked up steam along the way and raised the intensity of the champion team towards the business end.

However, there were issues that irked Vivek Kohli, the co-owner of Oilmax Stag Yoddhas. “Can you imagine a team owner being given just five complimentary passes? When we demanded more, it was increased to 15! When the entry was free but understandably restricted, why hoard passes?” he pointed out.

Liam Pitchford of England picked up steam and raised the intensity of Falcons towards the business end of the league.   -  PTI

According to Kohli, not much was done to get a packed house at all three venues. He even lamented the fact that chief guest Viswanthan Anand’s wife, Aruna, was prevented from joining her husband in the VIP area and several former National champions like V. Chandrashekhar, G. Jagannath and S. Raman were not treated well during the Chennai leg.

“I have no issues with the promoters hogging the limelight. But they were not fair to the now-retired greats of the game,” Kohli said. The format of nine matches was found to be “too long” by many players and others, including Costantini, who said in a jocular vein, “a book can be written on the list of suggestions I’ve sent to the promoters.” The Italian suggested that each tie be reduced to seven matches, on a best-of-three games format and not on the present system of three mandatory games. “Men’s doubles would have been very exciting. I suggest they include it next time,” Costantini said.

Significantly, the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) was clearly unhappy with the way UTT was handled. “We have very little role in the conduct of the event,” said secretary-general M. P. Singh.

“There were franchisees writing to us pointing at issues with the promoters. We told them we were not part of the agreement between the promoters and the team owners. We are not even in the know of the contractual obligations of the parties involved,” he revealed. It was learnt that the TTFI wrote to the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) of its displeasure on several issues related to UTT. The TTFI also convened its Executive Board meeting in New Delhi to discuss, among others, vexed issues pertaining to UTT.

Mr. N. Ganeshan, the referee of the event, had his reservations over the rules adopted by UTT. “I think, they should have either followed the ITTF rules or followed rules of their own without turning our qualified Blue Badge umpires into virtual spectators in the arena. There were several other issues,” concluded the country’s only member of the ITTF’s Umpires and Referees Commission, without elaborating on the technical glitches. Overall, UTT successfully managed to invite or involve several familiar names and faces. Viswanathan Anand, Abhinav Bindra, Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Abhishek Bachchan all graced various venues before superstar Amitabh Bachchan handed over the winner’s trophy to the Falcons.

However, did UTT manage to catch the eyeballs of the masses? Did it even remotely capture the imagination of the country’s sports watchers? The most likely answer to these questions is no.

Broadcaster Star Sports chose to show UTT on its Select 2 channel that is not available to majority of satellite television subscribers. The publicity, including the promo by Aamir Khan, had limited appeal.

In contrast, at the same time, the broadcaster pitched the ProKabaddi League in a much, much bigger way.

Many people, particularly the Indian players, did share in private that the visibility of the league was very limited and turned out to be much less than what was initially projected.

Being the inaugural edition, UTT attained several objectives but many more issued cropped up that need the attention of all the stake holders.