Indians out to grab their Rio berths

The Indians will board a flight to Hong Kong on Monday evening to compete in the all-important Asian Olympic qualification round scheduled to be held from April 13-17.

"The more you practice against top players from other countries, the better you get," says Anthony Amalraj.   -  G. RAMAKRISHNA

These are certainly the best of times for Indian table tennis. After grabbing a record 16 medals in the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship in December 2015, the Indian men’s and women’s teams went on to clinch gold medals in the World Table Tennis Championship (second division) and qualified for the champions division of the event in 2018.

Against this backdrop, a confident eight-member Indian squad comprising four men (Sharath Kamal, Soumyajit Ghosh, Anthony Amalraj and Harmeet Desai) and four women (Mouma Das, Manika Batra, K. Shamini and Shruti Sahasrabudhe) will board a flight to Hong Kong on Monday evening to compete in the all-important Asian Olympic qualification round scheduled to be held from April 13-17.

In what is the only gateway to Olympics for the Indians, a maximum of two Olympic spots each for men and women per country are up for grabs. And it seems India is assured of at least one spot each.

“The qualification involves two stages. The countries are split into five regional zones and will play among themselves on a round-robin basis. We are placed in the South Asia zone and most often than not, other countries in the region do not turn up for the qualification as they are ranked very low. So, it’s mostly going to be a competition among the four Indian men and four Indian women for those two spots. At the most Sri Lanka may participate,” coach Bhawani Mukherjee said.

That explains why the selected players have been training in different countries to achieve their common dream of representing India at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Since we will mostly be playing each other in the zonal stage, it is up to us individuals to better our game and fight for our spot in Rio Olympics,” Anthony Amalraj, the reigning national champion said.

And he is pulling out all stops to make his Rio dream come true. “The more you practice against top players from other countries, the better you get. So I went on a self-sponsored trip to Spain and France for a month and played against the top players of these countries in their clubs,” he said.

India’s top-ranked player and World No. 61 Sharath Kamal, as has been the case for the last few years, plays for a local club in Germany when he is not competing for his employer Indian Oil Corporation.

Not to be left behind, London Olympics qualifier Soumyajit Ghosh has been sharpening his game in Sweden while Harmeet Desai has been putting in the hard yards in Austria.

The Indian coach is only too glad about his players’ choices. “There is no point training amongst themselves in national camps. It is better to have sparring partners from different countries. They will improve only if they play against top quality players in different European clubs and that’s what they are doing now,” he said.

Apart from that one zonal spot, the better ranked Indian among the three losers will get another chance to book a Rio berth by competing for the Asia quota.

“That may be difficult as Asia has most of the Top 20 players,” Amalraj, who is currently ranked World No. 190, said.

So, who will grab the South Asia quota?

“All the four men and women are evenly placed if you go by their current form. Sharath is certainly the better player among the men, but the other three have proven their mettle in the national, South Asian and World TT championships. So it is anybody’s to win.

“Among the women, Mouma is a veteran, Manika and Puja are young and rising steadily in the circuit. It is going to be a good contest,” Mukherjee said.

The Indian coach is also busy working out the algorithms of the players’ chances of grabbing another spot. “Even if India fails to collect the second available quota from the Asian tournament, Sharath Kamal may get an opportunity to directly qualify for Rio because of his Olympic rankings.

“There are 22 Olympic ranking spots available and only three per country can take part in the Olympics. Sharath, who is 39th in that list, may just make it because of the exclusion of some nations who have exceeded the quota,” the coach explained.

Talking of India’s chances of qualifying for the team event, the coach is not very optimistic. “I would say there is only a 20 per cent chance. For that to happen India needs to grab both the available Asian berths and Sharath should qualify through the Olympic rankings,” he said.