The Indian table tennis team had a stellar run at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, winning eight medals including three gold, and at the Asian Games later that year, when it won two bronze. And the man behind that success was its head coach, Massimo Costantini.
Paddlers like Manika Batra, G. Sathiyan and Manav Thakkar won multiple medals under the guidance of the 62-year-old Italian, who oversaw India’s most prolific year in the international arena.
But Costantini’s second stint with the Indian team, which began in 2016 – his first had ended in 2010 – was cut short due to personal reasons.
In a chat with Sportstar , Costantini spoke about the progression of Indian table tennis since his departure, Olympic dreams and his undying love for India.
How do you view the progress of Indian table tennis since you left?
I always cheer for India. I am happy to see what I had left behind is being (continued to be put into practice). [That is] organisation and planning. Sharath (Kamal)won the (ITTF Challenge Plus) Oman Open recently. He last won in 2010, which was his first Pro Tour win. I’m happy to see him perform. The other players are performing well, but I feel they still need a lot of guidance. I believe if they have a great guide in a good coach, they can perform even better.
While 2018 was a stellar year for India, 2019 was more about the rise of individual players. Be it Sharath and Sathiyan achieving their highest world ranking or Manav becoming the under-21 world No. 1...
They have continued to drive from the inertial force from the two intense years (between 2016 and 2018). We achieved good results and made them realise that they are world-class players. The results of 2018 gave a huge boost to these players and the new generation are learning and getting inspired from their seniors.
Moreover, the perception outside India is that Indian paddlers are well respected. If Manav, who is so good, can lose 3-0 in the final (in the under-21 category at the 2020Oman Open) to his compatriot Jeet Chandra, what does it say of the level of Indian table tennis? I’m happy to see that they continue to have good results.
Who do you see as the next breakout star in Indian table tennis?
Judging by the international results, I’d say Payas Jain. He is one of the players who is benefiting from an ITTF scholarship. Archana [Kamath] and Manav have also risen to the top. What was also important was that when we used to have a camp for the top players, unknown players got a chance to train with them. Thus, players like Payas Jain and many others have gained exposure and they are players who have the potential to do well internationally.
India was one of the favourites to secure an Olympics berth in the team event, but it lost in Portugal. What do you think went wrong?
Like I said earlier, India needs stronger guidance in terms of thinking big. Maybe they weren’t ready. Individually, they are great players, but something is missing when they come together especially in an event like the team qualifications. They need someone who can keep them together. The 2018 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games success was a complete team effort.
How long before you think India can win an Olympic medal?
We cannot think of a medal until 2028. It’s just a prediction, but if medals come in 2021 or 2024, I would be super happy. If I was still there, I would be carrying out my plans of creating a background with individual talent and to make them reach a certain confidence level. It takes time. You have to sow the seeds first and it give proper time for the fruit to grow.
Now that the Olympics have been postponed to next year, do you think the Indian paddlers have a better chance of progressing to Tokyo?
An Olympic medal doesn’t come by chance. It comes from having a strong background. For example, Jun Mizutani of Japan won the bronze medal at 2016 Rio Olympics. He was in the top 10 for around eight years. You don’t see a player ranked 15th win an Olympic medal. You need lots of experience and have to establish a level of technical authority. You have to finish in the top 10 consistently on the Platinum and World Tour to hope for an Olympics medal.
Is the extended break due to the global coronavirus pandemic a boon or a bane?
These days, the schedule is very crazy. Maybe the forced break can help them concentrate on themselves. They can get the much-needed rest, keep themselves fit and try to experiment.
I would take this in a productive and a creative way. There is no competition pressure and your mind is free and relaxed. The players can watch a lot of videos, learn tactically and review and analyse their own performance. It is a time of growing and not stopping.
What do you miss the most about coaching India?
Aloo matar, egg curry, dal makhani (chuckling). I miss the team, building results with them, working on the floor and far away from the competition. Engineering them and working with their abilities, basically. Plus, I have received a lot of messages from the players and my friends from the federation during this crisis of coronavirus. It means a lot to me and the fact that they are reciprocating.
What keeps pulling you back?
When this initiative (High Performance and Development programme) was started and it was announced in India, I was the first one to offer myself because I love comingback here. The project was promoted by ITTF Asia Continental with an aim to train the players and coaches and teach the coaches about organisation, players and drills management. For me, it was essentially continuing what was interr upted.
(Costantini conducted a nine-day high-performance camp for coaches and players in Indore that ended on February 22.)
What do you make of the coaching standards in India?
In terms of knowledge, Indian coaches are very knowledgeable. It has been, time and again, demonstrated by the level of players India is capable of producing. Where they are lacking is TT personality, confidence, management of groups and players. They need more international exposure, need to be sent abroad to see how things work there for themselves. The more time they spend abroad, the more exposure they will gain and it will give them a better chance to replicate what they have learnt and put it into practice.
Moreover, they also need to win the trust of their players and not just train them by authority. You capture the attention of the players by the way you teach and talk to them. And this is something one learns on the field and not in the books.
Do you think India is doing enough for the sport as a nation?
The Table Tennis Federation of India and the government work closely, which is always good to see. There is a lot of investment into top and grassroots players. Infrastructure, I think, is never enough. The more you have, the better. In fact, since I have left, more academies have opened up. So, not only in India, but the popularity has grown worldwide.
We do have a youth system in place, but we still haven’t been able to produce champions at a young age like China, Japan and other superpowers. Where do you think we are lacking?
It’s very simple what they do. The leading countries start working from technique and then move on to abilities. In a lot of European countries and India, the process is the complete opposite. They start with abilities first and then work on the technique. Both are trying to reach the same result, but not everyone gets there because it comes from a certain process. It should be about improving the technique and then working on the players’ abilities.
What’s next and when will you come back next?
Whenever the budget and scheduling permits, we will be back. In fact, I will be very happy to come back again. The players and coaches were happy and I sent out a strong message.
If possible and when things look better, would you be willing to take up the role of chief coach if offered?
That’s a million-dollar question, isn’t it (chuckles)? A lot of people have a strong wish for it to happen and they want me to come back. I am quite happy where I am (at the moment). I miss India but I don’t see it happening in the near future. But never say never.
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