Showing promise

V. RAJU

Akula Sreeja won a bagful of medals at tournaments held in Guatemala and El Salvador recently. By J.R. Shridharan.

Fifteen-year-old Andhra Pradesh junior table tennis player Akula Sreeja is the latest beneficiary of the International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) global circuit concept meant for giving exposure to young paddlers. This Rosemary Convent School Class X student from Hyderabad grabbed the opportunity with both hands, winning a bagful of medals at tournaments held in Guatemala and El Salvador recently.

The delicate-looking paddler, all bones and little flesh, won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze, both in the team and the individual segments in the Central American encounters. “Adjusting to a new atmosphere and playing against paddlers from other countries with different styles was a new experience to Sreeja. She was pitched against players from Argentina, Hong Kong, Peru, Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Venezuela. The success on the twin-trip will do a whale of good to her morale,” said South Central Railway’s Somnath Ghosh, her coach at the Global Table Tennis Academy in Hyderabad.

Sreeja, who had qualified for the events as India’s No. 3 sub-junior player, had earlier taken part in the Asian championships in Doha and the South Asian junior championships in New Delhi, where she won a team gold, silver in singles and bronze in doubles.

“Though technique and temperament-wise she is doing well, she needs to improve on her fitness and physical strength. She is too fragile and lacks shoulder power,” said her coach in the presence of Sreeja’s father Praveen Kumar, who nodded in agreement.

Somnath said: “She eats less food, drinks less water and enjoys drinking soft drinks. To make a mark in modern table tennis she should add more body mass to her bones. She needs to add more punch to the drives and improve on her flat hits.” He felt that the 11-point game was all about making early inroads and the early advantage always played a crucial role in determining the winner.

Sreeja rated her triumph over Bengal’s Sagarika Mukherjee in the junior girls’ final in Guatemala as her finest since her rival was tipped as the favourite. ‘I lost the first game and I was under pressure. But I kept my cool to overcome my rival in the final game which went the full distance,” said Sreeja, who used a negative rubber on her backhand.

The rest of 2013 is going to be both testing and taxing for the budding star as she has to juggle with both table tennis — her passion — and education, the foundation for a bright future. “She should tread cautiously as she has to appear for the public examination. She wants to prepare for the civil examinations and become an IPS officer. Unlike many parents I do not want to put her in engineering or in medicine and instead allow her to pursue graduation. By doing that she will not be under any stress while playing table tennis,” said her father, Praveen.

The next big challenge for Sreeja is the India Open in Mumbai, where paddlers from China, Japan and Hong Kong will be seen in action.

S. M. Sultan, Vice-President, Table Tennis Federation of India, said that the country’s table tennis scenario looked bright and the results in the two Central American junior tournaments and the recently-concluded Vietnam Open were proof of that. “The Indian juniors literally swept the medals in both the tourneys in El Salvador and Guatemala.”

The TTFI has hired two Korean coaches to train the Indian teams that went abroad for tournaments and the duo also conducted three-week camps on the request of State associations. “The encouraging show by our paddlers is the result of the training stints by the Koreans. The ITTF has also launched the Asian Coaching Centre in China and Indian paddlers who wish to train with more competitive rivals can avail of the opportunity on an actual basis. The State associations and the paddlers should bear the expenses,” Sultan said.