A safe and smooth table tennis nationals in Panchkula

It was a challenge to hold an incident-free event in these times and the Table Tennis Federation of India came out with flying colours.

Officials interacting during the National table tennis championship. All safety measures were in order during the nine-day championship, including a day of rest.   -  Special Arrangement

Globally, these are ‘testing’ times for humanity. The challenges posed by Covid-19 have influenced the very inherent nature of trusting a fellow human. As things stand, unless one is medically certified as negative following a Covid test, he or she does not qualify to enter certain states. Indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, but a certain percentage of our population continues to defy safety protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the pandemic.

In such a background, holding any national-level sporting event is a huge challenge. Though the on-field action has resumed in several sports, not all organisers have maintained strict safety measures.

After the disastrous conduct of the recent national wrestling championship in Noida and Agra, both in Uttar Pradesh, the national table tennis championship in Panchkula (Chandigarh) was bound to come under scrutiny.

It must be said the measures taken by the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) to ensure the safety of players, coaches, officials and other stakeholders were of very high order. Each one was required to arrive with their negative RT-PCR test report. Moreover, arrangements were in place to carry out these tests at the venue, free of cost. With Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana Dushyant Chautala being the TTFI President, the state health ministry swung into action and carried out all testing procedures smoothly and promptly.

“More than 500 tests were carried out and I’m very happy to announce that all were negative,” declared M. P. Singh, who ended his tenure as the TTFI secretary a day after the conclusion of this event.

These tests apart, all other safety measures were in order during the nine-day championship, including a day of rest.

The men’s singles winner G. Sathiyan (second left) with runner-up Sharath Kamal (left), and semifinalists S. F. R. Snehit (second right) and Manav Thakkar.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Only those players whose matches were scheduled were allowed to enter the playing hall. With 12 tables in use at the sprawling Tau Devi Multi-purpose hall, only 24 players, 12 umpires and a few more officials on the technical table were allowed in the field of play in any session. Even during practice-sessions, only two players could use the assigned table.

READ| Sharath's loss ends India's challenge at WTT Contender

At the start of a match, following the toss, a player could choose one side of the table. Thereafter, the players could not switch sides. The team of technical officials, under a highly-competent N. Ganeshan, followed the guidelines. They all wore masks, gloves and maintained social distancing. Each table tennis ball was sanitized before it was used again, and so was the entire field of play at the conclusion of each session.

Sanitizer-dispensers were installed at all strategic points. Those entrusted with the responsibility of transporting the players/officials from the hotel to the venue also followed the protocols. Those incharge of catering at the venue, too, were under strict orders to maintain Covid norms.

READ| WTT Contender Series: Sharath Kamal wins thriller, Sathiyan falls

For a change, the team championship and all three doubles events dropped from the schedule. That left only the women’s and the men’s singles. Four days were allotted for each category and that, in turn, meant the schedule was far from taxing. As a result, there was no pressure on the technical officials to maintain clock-like precision. “Everything is going on so well. There is no room for complaints as the organisers have done a splendid job,” said former National champion Madhurika Patkar, a recipient of Arjuna Award in 2020.

Even a junior international like Swastika Ghosh said, “Once you enter the field of play, it is almost like playing in an international event. Everything is in order.”

With the national team scheduled to leave for Doha, immediately after the championship, for four events including the two qualifiers leading to the Olympic Games, the TTFI ensured the same brand of table and ball was used in the competition.

“This is indeed a splendid move,” said nine-time champion Sharath Kamal on the day of rest that separated the women’s event from the men’s competition. “When it was suggested to the TTFI to look at the possibility of using the same brand, the TTFI said it already had them in stock. This move should surely help us in Doha.”

G. Sathiyan, the eventual champion, was all praise for the arrangements. “Top class venue and arrangements. I am sure we can hold international events here. Everything seems in order. Indeed, the TTFI has done a splendid job.”

Once the action commenced, Manika Batra went on to regain the title. Former champion Archana Kamath tested her to the hilt in the quarterfinals. Reeth Rishya, the runner-up who had her moments in the final, admitted she did not expect to reach this far in the competition. On her way, Reeth knocked out defending champion Sutirtha Mukherjee.

This was also a great opportunity for a youngster like Sreeja Akula and all-attacking Takeme Sarkar. Sreeja challenged Manika in patches in the semifinal but her lack of self-belief stopped her from finishing the job strongly.

Takeme, known to possess only one gear, could not get past a more organised Reeth in their semifinal.

Among the men, Sathiyan deservedly won his first national title by denying Sharath Kamal his 10th! Sathiyan, the only Indian to break into the top-25 of world rankings, saw off the resurgence of Sharath who bounced back from 0-2 to make it 2-2 and even led briefly in the third game. But overall, Sathiyan appeared far more inspired and hungry to win than any other competitor.

Women’s champion Manika Batra (right) with runner-up Reeth Rishya.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Besides Sathiyan’s triumph, the championship will be remembered for the splendid run of 20-year-old Hyderabadi S. F. R. Snehit. The reigning National youth title-holder knocked out last year’s winner and Commonwealth champion Harmeet Desai 4-0, besides higher-ranked rivals like Ronit Bhanja and Sushmeet Sriram on his way to the semifinals.

In the semifinal, Snehit jumped to 10-2 against Sathiyan in the opening game but nerves got the better of him. He dropped the next eight points. He managed to force another game-point at 11-10, but Sathiyan was not to be denied. Thereafter, the youngster could not get over this missed opportunity and Sathiyan advanced without being tested any further.

Overall, the conduct of the championship towered over the quality of play on display. Indeed, it was a challenge to hold an incident-free event in these times and the TTFI came out with flying colours. In these times, if other national sports federations plan to hold their national championship, they can surely learn a lot from the roadmap executed by the TTFI.