It’s one thing to be two games down to nothing in a table tennis match, it’s yet another thing to be one game away from defeat as Archana Kamath and Manav Thakkar were, after being blanked 0-11 in the second game of their first round match in the mixed doubles category of the WTT Star Contender in Goa on Thursday evening.
“I can’t think of the last time I’d been on the other side of a 0-11 scoreline. Our opponents were really aggressive. By the time we realised what was happening, the game was over. It was really brutal,” Kamath would say after the match.
It was shaping to be a painful hiding for Kamath and Thakker against the French pair of Felix Lebrun and Prithika Pavade, who with a singles rank of WR 8 and WR 33 in the men’s and women’s category respectively, are considered some of the most promising young talents out of Europe.
But just when it seemed they were going to be on the receiving end of a painful scoreline, the Indians found a second wind. “The key was to find a way to stay positive. The confidence definitely gets affected but it was important for the two of us to accept that it happens sometimes. We weren’t thinking about the second game. We had moved on to the third. While our opponents were being really aggressive, we simply tried to see in which areas we could move the ball,” the 24-year-old says.
Kamath and her partner’s ability to stay calm through the chaos eventually worked out. “They just started playing much better and we started playing worse,” Lebrun would admit later. At the end of a half an hour, it was the Indian pair who came up on the right side of a 8-11, 0-11, 11-7, 11-7, 11-9 scoreline.
That result wasn’t the only upset of the day for Kamath. Earlier, in the women’s singles, the Indian who is ranked 134th in the world, had beaten Spain’s top women’s singles player - world number 61 Maria Xiao 11-7, 13-11, 12-10. Kamath might have had a chance to make it three wins in three tries on Thursday but for the fact that her partner Manika Batra pulled out of the women’s doubles event.
All in all though it was a result Kamath admits she hadn’t expected. The 24-year-old had come to the WTT Star Contender in Goa with modest ambitions, with not nearly the best run in the international scene over the past year. “I just wanted to give my best. I wasn’t thinking about which round I would reach,” she says.
Her singles win in Goa takes her to only the second Round of 16 result since reaching the same stage in the WTT Feeder in Lagos last year while her mixed doubles win takes her to her first ever quarterfinal at a WTT Star Contender tournament.
Despite her recent form, Kamath’s performance in Goa wouldn’t have come as a surprise to those who have followed her career. She was always marked out as someone to watch out for, ever since she became one of the youngest even Indian table tennis national champions, claiming the national crown at 18 years old back in 2018.
But Kamath’s not had it all easy since those heady early days. If sport can be said to imitate life, that’s certainly true for Kamath. Just as on Thursday she bounced back from the ignominy of being blanked in a game, so too has she had to do in real life when she had to rest her life and career that was turned upside down following a selection controversy.
It all started when the CoA-administered Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) announced the team for 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games which had Manika Batra, Archana Kamath, Sreeja Akula, and Reeth Rishya with Diya Chitale as standby.
But in a surprising turn of events, Kamath was dropped from the squad, and Chitale was brought in instead. A flummoxed Kamath would move the court but her petition was ultimately dismissed leaving her to miss out on the 2022 Commonwealth Games. It was a sequence of events that left Kamath dazed and confused and fighting bouts of self doubt.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. It was difficult. It’s still difficult. I don’t think I’ve got completely over it. It’s still a work in progress,” she told Sportstar on Thursday.
In that toughest period, she says she found support in the team closest to her. “It was difficult but what changed was the support of my team. I’ve been working with a psychologist and I’ve also been supported by my parents, my coach and my brother. They also showed me what was really important. Because it’s important to know who is by your side when you are at your lowest,” she says.
Perhaps the most consequential change from the setback Kamath faced was the fact that it forced her to shift her training base from Bangalore to Noida, simply so that she could get a new start. “I had great facilities in Bangalore but I realised I had to do something different even if it was just for the sake of trying something out. I had to do something new that would open up my mind,” says Kamath.
Shift to Noida
The move to the North Indian suburb of New Delhi has had it’s challenges – the weather is horrible – she complains, but it’s given her the support and focus she needed. “I’m training along with coach Anshul Garg. He’s always been very encouraging. He’s never been bothered about results as long as he feels that I’m improving as a player,” she says.
Garg now travels with Kamath for her tournaments and he would have been thrilled with her performance in both singles and doubles in Goa on Thursday. In the singles, Kamath was playing at her aggressive best while she kept her nerve flawlessly in the mixed doubles.
On Friday, Kamath has the chance to go further still in the tournament. She will be particularly hopeful about her singles match against Portugal’s Jieni Shao (WR 53) despite being outranked by 81 places. While Kamath’s optimistic, she isn’t thinking too deeply about the outcome. “The goal is not to give so much emphasis on the result and just focus on doing what you have to do,” she says.
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