Manav Thakkar, on Thursday, etched his name in the history books by becoming the first Indian table tennis player to be ranked world No.1 in the Under-21 category.

“It feels great and I think it’s the perfect start to 2020. I hope I can continue like this and end the year on a high,” Thakkar told Sportstar in a phone conversation. Thakkar, with 6780 points, is followed by France’s Bastien Rembert on 6510 points. Thakkar had earlier claimed the No. 1 spot in the U-18 category back in February 2018.

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The lesser-known roots

Born to Kalpana and Vikash Thakkar, who are both doctors, the youngster grew up playing multiple sports. Till the age of five, he had tried his hand at various sports. Skating and gymnastics ended up shaping him into a table tennis player, the Surat-born paddler revealed.

A young Manav was enrolled at a skating academy at Gandhi Baug in Surat. “I took up TT at the age of five and I was a skater before that. I was the no.1 in my city,” Thakkar said.

He then took up table tennis along with gymnastics. “I cannot play table tennis all day, so my parents put me in another activity. I also participated in a state-level competition in gymnastics apart from many district-level competitions,” the paddler added.

Asked about how the other disciplines have helped him in TT, he said: “Reflexes are an important part of TT and that’s where gymnastics helped me a lot. It also helped me in maintaining posture and improving concentration, which are extremely crucial aspects of table tennis. My mother is a yoga instructor and she knew gymnastics and yoga would help me with everything.”

The 19-year-old Thakkar also talked about how skating has strengthened his feet movement.

“Skating helps with leg movement and agility. In skating when you turn, you need cross-stepping. In TT, when you want to reach a very long ball, you can’t use just one leg to get there. You have to make optimum use of both legs by doing cross-stepping.”

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Training abroad

Apart from training at home, Thakkar plays in the Polish League and hones his skill in Germany and Denmark.

“I train in Germany. Since I am sponsored by ‘Tibhar’, I train at their academy in Saarbrucken in Germany. (Moreover), I also train in Copenhagen at the Denmark national centre. In Poland, I play in the Polish league (called Polish Superliga) for a club named Gwiazda Bydgoszczv.”

Thakkar believes training with numerous Top-15 and Top-20 players in Denmark and Germany has given him a lot of exposure, leading to a drastic improvement in his game. The added pressure of not ruining their practice proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“After training with them (top players in the world) and watching the way they prepare, I became more confident. (I) got a lot of exposure and improved very quickly. And I also have to make sure that I don’t miss the returns so that their practice isn’t ruined. So, I automatically started doing better. I have to try and keep up.

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“Before I started playing seniors, I was always nervous to play against the big names. Now, when I play against them, sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. But I bring a positive approach to the table. In 2019, I defeated the World. No. 32 from Japan apart from beating three Top-100 players in Canada Open. In World Championships, against world no. 40, I lost 4-3. So I have beaten quite a few big names and lost a few close ones.”

The Indian national team member wants to add another feather to his cap by breaching the Top-100 mark. “I think I can (break into the Top-100) in the next 6-7 months. I was in the 150s and after this achievement, I have jumped to 132. I believe it is possible,” said Thakkar.