In Surat, it’s not just the diamonds that shine. In the last few years, two young men have been shining with the table tennis racquet in their hands. While Harmeet Desai has been a regular in the India squad for the last few years, having been a part of the gold medal-winning men’s team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the historic bronze finish at the Asian Games in August, when it came to the milestone moment in Jakarta, he had company of yet another Surati on the podium.
Meet Manav Thakkar. Still a teenager, Manav may not have got an opportunity to play a significant role in India’s medal-winning campaign in Jakarta, but considering the fact that he broke into the squad at a tender age of 19 thanks to his incredible performances on the domestic and international circuits, he deserves every bit of the medal.
The Asian Games bronze may be considered the ultimate achievement for an Indian paddler, but with age on his side, the Indian table tennis fraternity believes it is just the beginning for the bespectacled wonder boy.
Achanta Sharath Kamal, the torchbearer of Indian table tennis for well over a decade, has already identified Manav with the potential to be his successor. And the former junior world No. 1, who reached the quarterfinals at the Youth Olympics in October, is hopeful that he can carry the burden of expectations in the years to come.
Had it not been for his parents’ letting their only child to follow his passion, Manav may well have been studying medical textbooks under the light on his table rather than leaving spectators spellbound.
Manav’s parents, Kalpana and Vikas, are both doctors. While his mother is a specialist in Ayurveda, Vikas is an ophthalmologist, with both running their clinics in a two-storey house in the heart of Surat. Besides their professions, though, the Thakkars had another thing in common: a love for table tennis. Having played regularly during their college days, they bought a table and would practice regularly, even after Manav was born in 1999.
When he was five years old, Manav first got hold of a racquet, and even though the diminutive toddler could barely get his eyes above the 76cm-high table, Vikas was impressed with his ability to return the ball consistently. Soon, the little one started dragging his father from his consulting room on the first floor to the underground room where the table tennis table had been placed. No wonder then that Vikas thought it was time to channel his son’s interest in the game.
In Vahed Malubhaiwala, who runs the Sufaiz Table Tennis Academy at a “five minutes’ ride from home,” Vikas found the ideal coach for Manav. But it took a little convincing for Malubhaiwala to take Manav under his wings.
“When he first saw Manav and heard his age was five and a half, Sir said. “ Agle saal leke aana (Bring him next year). Then I requested him to take a look at him playing and the moment he saw that, Vahed Sir predicted this boy has a real bright future in the game,” Vikas recalls.
So what was it that Malubhaiwala, a seasoned coach, noticed in the little boy? “Just the manner in which he timed the ball. He was only hitting forehand counters, but his ability to hit the sweet spot — the centre of the racquet — every time was stunning. Since then, there has been no looking back.”
For the next five years, Manav and Malubhaiwala were a permanent fixture at the academy. They spent Manav’s after-school hours every day training, weekends in the table tennis hall and even festivals — be it Diwali, Eid or Uttarayan, the annual kite-flying festival in Gujarat — playing table tennis.
Malubhaiwala’s efforts and Manav’s ability to learn, analyse and adapt had started reaping rewards. As a 10-year-old, he won the triple crown in a state ranking tournament, bagging the cadet (under-12), sub-junior (under-15) and junior (under-18) titles. And the next year, he rose to India No. 2 among the cadet boys. It didn’t come as a surprise that the coaches at the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board Academy at Ajmer spotted his talent and offered to take him under their wing.
The big call
“I just wanted to play. And at PSPBA, I thought I will get to play much more than in Surat,” Manav says.
But for his parents, it was a tough call to let their only child leave home and be on his own in an unknown city to chase his dream. “Obviously it was one of the toughest decisions we had to make. I told Manav that that was the time for him to decide whether he wanted to prioritise table tennis over academics,” Vikas says.
“He was brilliant in studies, in the 90 per cent range till the sixth (standard). Then came the PSPBA offer and we thought we should let Manav do what he wanted. Thankfully, the move paid off.”
Unlike many small-time coaches who disallow a special talent to explore further coaching avenues to ensure their own ambitions and thus stagnate a youngster, Malubhaiwala happily agreed to Manav’s move to Ajmer since it was important for his growth as a table tennis player.
But it was a risk. The PSPB Academy in Ajmer has been the go-to destination for budding paddlers in India for almost three decades now. While it has produced plenty of champions, there have been numerous examples of youngsters falling by the way for a variety of reasons. Some just lost focus, enjoying the life of a free bird, while others couldn’t cope with being away from home at a tender age.
The Thakkars ensured that didn’t happen to Manav. “I used to get homesick a lot, especially in the first year, but then mom would visit me every fortnight and papa would also come over once every month. That allowed me to keep focusing on training,” Manav says.
“And the academy was a boon for me. Besides a physical training session in the morning, I used to spend six hours on the table, practising with some of the best players in the country. It changed my game, changed my approach and made me a much better player.”
While Manav was hitting thousands of balls every day, the Thakkars were dealing with taunts from their social circle. “Sport isn’t still a priority in Indian households, so invariably at every social function we attended, at least one relative or a family friend would ask something like ‘ khelne ke liye koi rakhta hai bachche ko baahar (does anyone send a kid away from home to play sport)’. But we knew what we were doing,” says Vikas.
The big rewards
Two years after joining the PSPBA, Manav emerged as a sensation on the circuit. While he was winning effortlessly in the sub-junior and junior boys, he created a sensation in 2013 by stunning A. Amalraj, who was considered unbeatable in the men’s category then, in the inter-oil tournament. A few months later, Manav became the double national champion, bagging the sub-junior and junior singles titles.
“That achievement kind of convinced me that table tennis will not only be my passion but even my career. That gave me the confidence that I can achieve a lot more in the sport and I have been working harder since then,” says Manav.
Narrowly missing out on a World Junior Championships medal twice, especially in Bendigo, Australia, a couple of months ago, made him realise the need to work on the mental aspect.
“When I lost to the Chinese (Xiang Peng, billed as the next big thing from the table tennis powerhouse) 4-3, I realised that had I entered the match mentally thinking I can win, I could have probably won that match,” Manav says. “Technically and skill-wise, I wasn’t too far behind him. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come back into the match after trailing 2-0, but I wasn’t mentally as strong as him.”
He may have been a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan’s romantic flicks, but Manav, the India No. 1 in youth (under-21) boys and men, has set himself goals for the “short term, medium term and long term.” So much maturity for a teenager! So what are these these goals?
“In the next few months, I have to first maintain my place in India’s squad for the 2019 World Championships and do well over there,” he starts. Short term done. Medium term?
“Tokyo 2020. I want to be on a flight to Japan and represent India at the Olympics.”
Such is the rise of Indian table tennis, thanks to stars like Sharath Kamal and G. Sathiyan, that the youngsters are no longer content with Olympic qualification. That reflects in the long-term goal Manav has set for himself.
“Ten years from now, I want to be in the top-20 players in the world. I know I have to improve on my fitness, my game and my mental strength but I am working towards that,” he says.
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