Sharath, Poulomi end season on a high

SELDOM has the National table tennis championship produced deserving champions in the singles events, like the ones witnessed during the 65th edition held at Manesar (Haryana).

RAKESH RAO

A. Sharath Kamal kept his nerve to bag his maiden National title. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

SELDOM has the National table tennis championship produced deserving champions in the singles events, like the ones witnessed during the 65th edition held at Manesar (Haryana).

Quite fittingly, A. Sharath Kamal and Poulomi Ghatak maintained their awesome form to end the season on a high. In the team championships, there was no stopping Petroleum.

Sharath had come to the National championship as the favourite to win his maiden crown. From the time Sharath finished runner-up to S. Raman in the previous Nationals, his graph showed an upward swing, like that of no other player.

Souvik Basu Roy (left) and Arup Basak with the men's doubles trophy. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

This season, Sharath played seven finals, won four, including the inter-unit Petroleum meet. The only occasion when Sharath fell in the semi-finals, was in the inter-institutional championship. As a result, he topped the final classification list of rankings.

During the season, Sharath had lost only to Raman and Soumyadeep Roy. As it turned out, Raman and Roy made premature exits within hours of each other. No doubt, these surprise results made Sharath's job a little easier but increased the pressure tremendously on the final day. But Sharath kept his nerves and won the title getting past Subhajit Saha and Ranbir Das, in that order.

Poulomi Ghatak got the better of holder N. R. Indu in the women's final. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

The 34-year-old Raman, looking for his third title, had looked well on course until he ran into Ranbir in the quarterfinals. Raman, who had never lost to Ranbir, had tossed away early leads in the first two games to lose. But he came back strongly in the fifth and sixth games to draw level. At this stage, the second seeded Raman looked in control while Ranbir appeared clearly frustrated. But in a sudden twist to the tale, Ranbir produced his best to win the big points and score his biggest victory of the season. He fell back on the floor and then had a tough time controlling the tears of joy.

In the morning, Roy was an equally surprising victim in the pre-quarterfinals. Facing an out-of-form Bhushan Thakur, Roy committed too many unforced errors to let the initiative slip. On his part, Thakur kept attacking relentlessly and his consistency of returns gradually led Roy out of the competition. Roy, seeded three, was also the first upset of the championship.

Shubham Chaudhary took care of Thakur in the quarterfinals and was poised to get to the final but Ranbir bounced back from the brink of defeat for the second time in less than 24 hours. Down 2-3, Ranbir fought all the way to win the remaining two games and deny Chaudhary.

From the top half, Sharath had little difficulty in beating Subhajit Saha. Though he lost the first game and trailed early in the second, Sharath was never really threatened for the rest of the match. Saha, however, was required to change the damaged rubber of his racquet in the second game. Thereafter, Saha was never the same.

Anindita Chakraborty and Mantu Ghosh, who emerged as the women's doubles champions. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

In fact, for the first time in many years, none of the men's semi-finalists was a former or the current National champion.

The final saw Ranbir win the first two games but Sharath changed gears to race away with the next four games to win his maiden National title. Sharath who beat Ranbir in all their encounters this season, was understandably excited. He punched the air, lept several times before he shook hands with Ranbir.

"This is my first step towards winning the World championship,'' declared a confident Sharath after his career's biggest title.

Though Sharath was expected to go all the way, it was Ranbir's peformance that was a revelation. For someone who had not gone beyond the semi-final stage in four tournaments this season, an appearance in the final, that too, with that brilliant victory over Raman, was totally unexpected.

In the women's section, the top four seeds making the semi-finals ensured that there was no surprise until the final day. Poulomi, winner of West, South, Inter-institutional, East and Petroleum titles before coming for the Nationals, never allowed her rivals any real chance. On her way to a third National singles title, Poulomi won most of her matches in straight games, including the semi-final against Mamta Prabhu and the final over defending champion N. R. Indu.

Overall, there were two encounters that lit up the women's section. In the quarterfinals, the manner in which Mamta Prabhu tamed former champion Mantu Ghosh was truly memorable. Considering Mamta's lack of experience, incredible was the way she fought in this seven-game match. Mamta, after narrowly losing the fifth game, kept her chances alive to draw level and force the decider. Mantu, vastly experienced, moved to a 9-6 lead but it was Mamta who won six of the final seven points to leave Mantu despondent.

The Petroleum outfit -- from left -- S. Raman, Sharath Kamal, Arup Basak, Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha -- with the men's team trophy. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

The following day, Indu pulled off the biggest comeback-victory of the championship. Down three games and 3-5 in the fourth, Indu clawed her way back and upstaged second seed Mouma Das in seven games. Not surprisingly, Mouma shed tears for nearly an hour after Indu had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

In the team events, there was no surprise. Petroleum blanked Railways 3-0 in both the finals. With the best of players turning up for Petroleum, there was hardly any doubt over the outcome, at least in the men's section.

If there was an outside chance of an upset in the women's final, it was only because Anindita Chakraborty had scripted an unexpected victory for Railways when the teams had met in the inter-institutional final.

Since then, Railways team had become depleted with Vishakha Vijay and Mousmi Paul joining Petroleum.

In the final, Railways gambled by making Mamta Prabhu play the third singles, while expecting Anindita to win the second and fourth matches against Poulomi and Mauma.

After all, Anindita had beaten Poulomi in North Zone and Mouma in East Zone tournaments to add to the victories posted in the team final of the inter-institutional meet. But this time, Poulomi stopped Anindita after Mouma had demolished Sumana Bose in quick time. Once Anindita had lost, the only point of interest was Petroleum's margin of victory. Indu ensured that the margin was the biggest possible by beating Mamta despite struggling right through the contest.

The victorious Petroleum women's team — from left — Mantu Ghosh, Coach Bawa, Mouma Das, Pradipa, N. R. Indu and Poulomi Ghatak. — Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Anindita had the consolation of forcing Poulomi and Mouma to the losing side in the women's doubles final. Anindita and Mantu joined hands to emerge winners in the championship where they did have some pleasant moments.

The men's doubles title went to Arup Basak and Souvik Basu Roy who made it in straight games over Shubham Choudhary and Arunav Ganguly.

In the mixed doubles final, Subhajit Saha and teenaged Pallavi Kundu overpowered Anal Kashyap and Jupi Borthakur in four games.

On the organisational front, the Haryana Table Tennis Association did a good job as far as the venue and accommodation of the players and officials were concerned. Though the players complained of less light in the playing arena, nothing was done about it.

A bigger worrying factor for the players was the distance from their places of stay to the venue. With the male players housed in hotels and guest houses at Gurgaon, nearly 20 km away, the transportation of the players was the only problem.To sort it out, the host provided a jeep to each of the participating units. The women players were accommodated in a well-furnished ashram and had less travel to do. Overall, the players and officials were pleased with the arrangements.