The Indian table tennis teams flexed their bench strength in their respective group matches and registered victories to progress into the next round as pool toppers.
The men’s team beat Tajikistan 3-0, while the women’s team beat Nepal by the same scoreline here at the Gongshu Canal Sports Park gymnasium on Saturday.
The men’s paddlers were on table 1 in a packed arena, but they weren’t always the centre of attention with everyone’s eyes, including the Indian players on the bench, getting drawn to the thrilling rallies in the nearby tables.
Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran were rested, with Harmeet Desai, Manav Thakkar, and Manush Shah—the latter two playing their first matches here—getting a chance to take the lead on the court. The Indian trio barely broke a sweat against a team ranked 98 places below them. ‘A mere formality’ was how Harmeet described the game, where they could experiment. The three men didn’t drop a game between them.
However, the environment provided unique challenges in itself. The 23-year-old Manav admitted that he had never seen so many people come and watch a game of table tennis before. China is home to the world’s best singles and team players, both men and women. The structure of the gymnasium was also such that it must feel like several rungs of spectators were sitting on top of them.
“I have never played in front of so many people before and I had a problem with that,” said the 23-year-old Manav. So I go to Sharath and Sathiyan for advice. They told me to calm my breath and how to plan things in my mind while playing.”
The men had an easy draw, where it dispatched Yemen in the opening game, but were tested in the victory over Singapore on Friday. In the women’s team, Manika Batra and Sreeja Akula sat out, while Divya Chitale, Ayhika, and Sutirtha Mukherjee wrapped up proceedings in under 45 minutes.
Both the men’s and women’s teams will likely watch the opening ceremony from their rooms later in the day, with the round of 16 games scheduled for the first half of Sunday and the prospect of the quarterfinals also slated for the evening session.
Harmeet was bullish about India’s chances heading into the knockouts. “We have a strong team this time. I think teams will be wary of us and hoping they don’t get us in the draw,” said India’s highest-ranked singles player.
While the men’s team aims to improve their bronze from 2018, the women have a chance to improve on their quarterfinal exit in Indonesia. “I don’t look too much at the past,” said Manika. “This is a new tournament, and we also have a different team with some young players.”
The men’s team will play Kazakhstan, while the women’s team faces Thailand in the round-of-16 clash on Sunday.
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