Table Tennis Nationals review: Sathiyan steps up in Sharath’s absence, Sreeja adds second successive crown

The recently concluded TT Championships tested the limits of India’s star paddlers.

Published : Apr 11, 2023 12:52 IST , JAMMU - 9 MINS READ

In victorious company: RBI bagged the women’s team crown for the first time.
In victorious company: RBI bagged the women’s team crown for the first time. | Photo Credit: K. Keerthivasan

In victorious company: RBI bagged the women’s team crown for the first time. | Photo Credit: K. Keerthivasan

It’s a packed calendar for senior Indian table tennis players in 2023.

The first big tournament will be the individual World Championships in May in Durban (South Africa), followed by the Ultimate Table Tennis in Pune (which returns after a three-year hiatus) and the Asian Games in Hangzhou (China) in September.

Of course, it is nothing new for the players as they have faced similar situations before.

In such a scenario, what relevance did the UTT-84th Senior National and inter-state table tennis championships, held in Jammu, recently have?

Generally, over the last two decades, all the top paddlers in the country have given and continue to give importance to the Nationals as it does carry double the points. Also, performances here decide whether the players get to be part of the Indian team in important tournaments, or not.

Sharath Kamal, India’s star paddler and defending champion, pulled out of the singles event of the Senior Nationals precisely because of the workload he might encounter.

Already saddled with the work of co-chairperson of the International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) Athletes’ Commission, a role for which he travels within India at short notice, while also simultaneously undergoing rehab for a back spasm and a calf muscle sprain, Sharath, the 10-time champion, decided to withdraw from the Nationals. All in order to keep his body in peak shape for major international tournaments, beginning with the World Championships.

“I’ve been struggling with a back and calf spasm prior to the WTT Star Contender in Goa and have been in rehab for a while. As a result, I couldn’t do well in the Goa and Singapore Smash events. I thought I should play here to check how my body reacts to the rigours of the team event. Even now the doctor said — ‘Sharath, please be aware of your body’.”

India might find it difficult to bag a medal in the Worlds — comprising men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles. But a medal at the Asian Games cannot be ruled out given how the team surprised everyone at the previous edition in Jakarta with two bronze medals — one each by the men’s team and the mixed doubles team.

Despite the absence of Sharath, there is no taking away any credit from G. Sathiyan’s second National title in six finals. Sreeja Akula bagged her second successive women’s crown too.

The Senior Nationals this time, like its previous editions, saw the best of Indian table tennis on view. Sathiyan had to stretch every sinew from the pre-quarterfinals. Sreeja, on the other hand, had a forgettable team championship, but quickly got back on track in singles.

Sathiyan is considered one of the cleverest Indian paddlers, who has maximised his game skills, given his physicality. Standing 5 feet six inches tall, the 30-year-old doesn’t have the power and the presence of 10-time National champion Sharath but more than makes up for it with his intelligence on the table.

All of it was evident in the way he handled his opponents. The methods that Sathiyan employed to dismantle each and every paddler more powerful and taller than him was a lesson in artfulness.

In the final, Sathiyan outplayed Harmeet Desai in four straight games, forcing the opponent to commit unforced errors, literally confounding him. A compact paddler who exhibits fine control over his game, Harmeet appeared a lost man. He couldn’t control his shots, couldn’t engage Sathiyan in rallies, and during short ball rallies, he made a lot of mistakes.

Sreeja defended the women’s singles crown in style, outplaying Sutirtha Mukherjee in six games in the summit clash.

How did Sreeja manage the turnaround given the fact that she performed below average in the team events, leading everyone to think that it would be difficult for the 24-year-old to retain the title?

Sreeja, representing RBI, lost to Lakshita Narang of Delhi in the semifinals of the team event in the first rubber, and in the final, she was outplayed by 17-year-old B. Kayasree of Tamil Nadu in the crucial third rubber. However, it was Diya Chitale who shone in the finals of the team event as she bailed her team out, winning the first and fifth ties to ensure that RBI bagged the crown for the first time.

Sreeja’s forehand is her prime weapon and she used it to maximum effect to defeat Sutirtha in a closely contested final. Sutirtha’s game revolves around her backhand. The 27-year-old from West Bengal, a two-time National champion, is not a great mover on the court. Playing close to the table, she has a powerful backhand, which he uses to overpower the opponent. In the final, there were phases when it looked like the match would go to the seventh and deciding game. However, at 11-10 in the sixth, Sreeja produced an attacking forehand crosscourt winner to pocket her second title, making her the first to defend the title in 17 years since Mouma Das.

Sathiyan, after scripting easy wins in the second and third rounds over Bodhisatwa Chaudhary and Jash Modi respectively, fought hard to beat S. F. R. Snehit 4-1 in the pre-quarterfinals. Each rally was fought as if their life depended on it. Snehit played his best, attacking away from the table and forcing Sathiyan to give his best. Once Sathiyan lost the third game at 11-5, Snehit smelled an opportunity. But Sathiyan snuffed out any such hopes with an authoritative display to win the next two games.

It was an equally tough quarterfinal match against Sudanshu Grover. Sathiyan was consistent, not giving Sudanshu any leeway at crucial junctures of the match. Sudanshu gives a lot of power to his shots, and he stretched Sathiyan for every point. In fact, after winning the second game at 11-7, Sudanshu grew in confidence, and it showed in the way he played his shots. He put the top seed under tremendous pressure, but Sathiyan emerged unscathed, winning the next three games 12-10, 11-8 and 12-10, an indication of how close the match was.

Manav Thakkar, the fourth seed, was at his best in the Nationals. Possessing excellent defence, the 22-year-old hardly misses the ball during long rallies and is consistence-personified. However, a lack of an attacking weapon has been his undoing. Sathiyan dispatched him in six games in the semi-finals.

Sreeja didn’t have it easy in the singles after a topsy-turvy run in the team events. Keen to get back her form, it was the quarterfinal match against 18-year-old Yashaswini Ghorpade in singles that gave her the confidence she was looking for.

Yashaswini was attacking well on her forehand and used her pimpled backhand to push Sreeja from side to side and come up with winners when she had the space.

The Karnataka girl, playing for Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB), was serving for the match at 10-7 in the sixth game. This is when Sreeja turned the contest around. She won the game at 13-11 and was at her marauding best in the seventh and deciding game, unleashing a flurry of forehand winners, both down-the-line and cross-court, at every given opportunity, and finished the match 11-4. A stunned Yashaswini didn’t know what hit her.

Archana Kamath attacked really well to win the fourth and fifth games and was looking solid, returning well and forcing Sreeja to commit mistakes, but she floundered to lose in six games in the semi-finals.

Stranglehold: Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) won its 26th National men’s team title.
Stranglehold: Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) won its 26th National men’s team title. | Photo Credit: K. Keerthivasan

Stranglehold: Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) won its 26th National men’s team title. | Photo Credit: K. Keerthivasan

According to Sathiyan, his second title in six final appearances (out of a total of eight editions) showed how consistent he has been. “I am proud of my consistency,” he told Sportstar after lifting the trophy. In the absence of 10-time National champion Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan didn’t put any pressure on him and played like a top seed throughout. “This is the best Nationals I’ve played. From the beginning of the team events till the end of singles, I was focused. I have the WTT Star Contender in Bangkok (April 23 to 29) followed by the World Individual Championships in May (20-28) in Durban, South Africa.”

Sreeja, for her part, said she tried out a few new things in the team event that unfortunately didn’t click. She termed her show in the team events as “a learning experience.”

The surprise package in the team events was the brilliant performance of the Tamil Nadu women’s team. It reached a historic final after having last reached the final in 1994 in Jamshedpur. Comprising S. Yashini, V. Kowshika, B. Kavyasree and Gladlyn Flora, the team pulled off a major coup in the semi-finals of the team championships, defeating the defending champion PSPB 3-1.

The credit for the win should primarily go to S. Yashini and V. Kowshika. Kowshika upset India’s top paddler Manika Batra in five tough games of the first rubber. The 21-year-old was aggressive and immensely confident and didn’t bat an eyelid as she lost just five points in the deciding fifth game to Manika.

Then, Yashini dispatched Reeth Rishya in the second rubber. Even though B. Kavyasree lost to Archana Kamath in the third tie, Yashini returned and produced a scintillating display to trounce Manika in three straight games — 11-6, 11-8 and 11-8. This is the best win of Yashini’s career. Hopefully, she will build on it. Both Kowshika and Yashini lost early in the singles.

Sharath pulled out of the singles event after playing the pre-quarterfinal and quarterfinals of the team events for PSPB.

Jammu and Kashmir Table Tennis Association (J&K TTA) did a fine job hosting the Nationals. However, a minor blip was the recurrent power cut in short doses every other day that upset the rhythm of the paddlers.

Kamlesh Mehta, Secretary of Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), was all praise for J&K TTA and its organising secretary Ajay Sharma. “J&K TTA had organised the Nationals way back in 1998. They wanted to hold the tournament and it was allotted to them and they have done a fantastic job. They had previously conducted the 2019 junior and youth Nationals well in Jammu and last year they conducted the Masters Nationals equally well in Srinagar. We are happy that they planned and executed everything on time. Our idea has always been to spread the game,” he said.

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