Situated in the narrow lanes of the Arya Samaj Road in Secunderabad, the Gujarati Seva Mandal (GSM), established in 1922, is now the second home to a 12-year-old paddler, who has created ripples with her phenomenal achievements in the state of Telangana.
Maduri Venugopal, seated in the canteen on the first floor, has just ordered two plates of a traditional Gujarati snack - poha with a generous sprinkling of sev. It’s a busy Wednesday morning and some school children and staff greet Venugopal as they pass by.
Coach of the GSM table tennis academy for the past 23 years, Venugopal has a knack to spot talent and groom them. Sporting a maroon pullover, Venugopal, armed with sheer passion and love for the game, has consistently produced state champions and more than 15 players of national repute.
The likes of Nikhat Banu, Monica Manohar, Rachana Anandaraman and Varuni Jaiswal became giant-killers on the national stage under his tutelage. Venugopal’s newest project is Satya Aspathi, the child prodigy who has won the U-13, U-15, U-17 and U-19 girls’ state championships recently.
The 52-year-old is working relentlessly in shaping the young paddler’s career while proudly boasting about his ward’s accomplishments. He is speaking right by a tiny, thatched pathway that leads to six sports halls that house eight standard TT tables and a well-equipped gym. One of the main doors of a hall opens directly to the centre table, where a young girl is busy punching the air in delight and hitting perfect smashes with India international Nikhat at the receiving end.
“I am just happy to play table tennis. I can’t pinpoint an exact reason but it gives me confidence and immense happiness. My brother Arjun plays and I just picked the racquet and like the feel of it,” Satya says.
Having won the state championships, Satya will be travelling to Vadodara and Surat in the coming weeks to participate in the Zonal Championships where she is targeting and entry into the top-eight.
“I want to wear the India jersey and play for my country. I will do whatever my coach and parents say but Nikhat didi and Varuni didi play an important role and I am grateful for their constant support.”
The hall walls are decorated with cut-outs of legendary international players. Nikhat’s poster sprawls across one end. It was in 2004 when Nikhat won the National Championships followed by her India debut the following year. A respected household name in the city, the veteran brought glory to the state and helped the academy expand, which once started in a single room.
“Nikhat is an inspiration and from there we have come a long way and have produced champions. But Satya is special as at such a young age she has achieved so much. Her audacity to take on girls who are taller and more experienced is a delight to watch, and to win over them and become the reigning state champion in the four categories is a proud achievement. It has never happened before. Our target is to break into the top-eight in the upcoming championships. Nikhat with her experience can guide Satya in achieving the goal,” Venugopal said.
Training and coaching
The training is gruelling. Satya spends eight hours at the table - four hours in the morning and four in the evening followed by endurance and fitness sessions. The young paddler however makes time in the afternoon to study and then enthusiastically gets back to training.
“She never complains and discipline is one of her strengths. The amount of hard work she puts in is admirable. At such a young age, she dedicatedly comes to practice which inspires other kids in the academy. We can’t get carried away as we need to groom her and make sure her talent doesn’t go waste. We will strive hard to get her opportunities where she can go and dazzle with her performances and earn a national call,” said Nikhat.
Nikhat has gone from being the sparring partner to an elder sister. “We are a family here and as an India player, I know the pressure that comes with it. Satya lets the opponent attack and then she tackles and wears them down. It is amazing to see. We don’t want to stop her from being aggressive. I try and use my experience, point out mistakes to mould her into a better player.”
Like Nikhat, Varuni too charts down Satya’s training sheets and takes a deep interest in the paddler’s overall growth. “She is someone who dares to take the initiative even at the riskiest of times and that has paid dividends. She doesn’t get scared on the board and I have seen that confidence in tournaments. She does get nervous like any other player but has the discipline to take the matches deep and win from a losing position. She can be defensive; she can attack and has the ability to slow down the game and pace it when needed and that makes her an all-rounder. She is very strong mentally and physically and although we are very much older, she has given us stiff competition during practice matches,” Varuni said.
Focus on yourself
Satya has produced stunning performances by storming through opponents of higher repute. She has a simple mantra - ‘focus on yourself’.
“I don’t see much who my opponent is. That’s how I am trained from the beginning. My coach never allows me to dwell much on who I am playing. Before the match, I meditate and I know I have the support of my parents, Nikhat didi, Varuni didi and coach sir. I just want to win and keep improving as a player,” Satya said. “The upcoming Zonals will be important and I will be away from home for the first time. But coach sir is there and I am aware that the competition will be tough. But, I am confident of putting on a good show.”
Search for sponsors
Despite achieving laurels, Satya is yet to receive any financial support from the state government. The coach and his team continue to hunt for sponsors.
“We travel by our expenses and then there are entry fees, accommodation, and other logistics. It would be great if the state government can be of little help. In other states such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Gujarat to name a few, players do get financial help. Unfortunately, we haven’t received any support nor do we have any sponsors,” the coach lamented. “However, we will continue to travel by our own expenses and we are grateful to the GSM for their support and others who contribute in their own individual capacity to cater to the needs of participating in tournaments,” the coach added.
School and family support
Surendra Aspathi is a ‘proud’ father and believes that the conscious decision to change schools has played an instrumental part in Satya’s growth.
“She was studying in Chaitanya Vidyalaya but she wasn’t able to give time to table tennis. We changed her school and now she is studying at Pallavi Model School. It was the right move and we are grateful that the school has supported Satya’s endeavours and has even waived off her fees after her recent performance. Like every parent, we wish our girl represents India but we don’t want to burden her with such expectations. Watching her play and pursue the sport itself is very satisfying. We will do everything to support her dreams,” Surendra said.
Irrespective of what the future holds, young Satya has showcased her skills at the state level to earn a nickname in her academy. For the ‘little warrior’, it’s now time to slay some at the national level.