Soumyadeep Roy: From player to pedagogue

Soumyadeep Roy, currently accompanying the Indian team at the World Championships in Dusseldorf, has the knowledge, decade-long experience of playing the sport, rapport with the players, to become the national coach.

“My aim is to effectively combine basics with the latest tactics,” said Soumyadeep Roy about his coaching method.   -  Ranjeet Kumar

The game of table tennis is on an unprecedented high in the country. Three Indians figure in the International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) men’s singles top 100 rankings. Achanta Sharath Kamal is at 54, Soumyajit Ghosh at 83 and Harmeet Desai at 95.

Coaching has been a catalyst to India's improvement. The Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) has enlisted the services of foreign coaches down the years and has sent paddlers for camps overseas to Sweden and China. Training regimens have been varied if not diametrically opposite in the said nations.

Watching the game’s evolution if not its transformation from close quarters has been Soumyadeep Roy, currently accompanying the Indian team at the World Championships in Dusseldorf, Germany. The Arjuna awardee’s camp in Kolkata has won favour with the game’s elite, his wife and Olympian Poulomi Roy added value to the venture.

In a bid perhaps to replicate the model, the couple held a three-week camp recently at the Marri Laxman Reddy (MLR) Sports Complex in Secunderabad’s suburb. Some of the game’s leading lights were at hand, including Ghosh, to assist his ‘big brother’ Soumyadeep. “There are more ping pong tables in China than there are paddlers in India,” observed the double Olympian. The pedagogue and his pupil could not help but gush about the Chinese approach to ping pong.

“The champion nation has prevailed against the rest of the world, except for a decade when Sweden held sway. Even rules were revised to stop the TT giant in its tracks,” said Soumyadeep Roy of moves to end China’s hegemony in table tennis.

On a visit to a district centre outside Shanghai, Ghosh was left wide-eyed with wonder. A five-floor complex designated for table tennis alone had 48 tables on each level. “Even for the world’s top five, almost always invariably from China, mobile phones are banned for the month long preparatory camps preceding the World Championships, Olympics or Asian championships,” Ghosh added in awe of the Chinese.

Roy revealed a similar approach had paid rich dividends for India. The national squad had attended a month long scheme in Zhengding in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “We had so much fun,” recalled Roy. Sure enough, Kamal and Subhajit Saha clinched the doubles gold.

“The champion nation has prevailed against the rest of the world, except for a decade when Sweden held sway. Even rules were revised to stop the TT giant in its tracks,” Roy said of moves to end China’s hegemony.

"At first the ball size was increased from 38 to 40 mm. Speed glue was then banned. The point of contact for service could not be concealed anymore according to another modification. Most recently, the ball’s material has been changed from celluloid, used for decades, to plastic,” noted Roy, who wears a table tennis racquet pendant around his neck.

India may not be able to match the support the state itself gives its players in China. “For example, a good player needs to change the rubber on his racquet twice a week. Each time, the surface imported mostly from Japan costs Rs. 4500. A three-star rating ball (which may last about half a dozen intense games) costs not less than Rs. 100. In China, the local variants are available easily and more importantly, cheap,” observed Roy.

“He has a great rapport with most of the players. He has also seen the training of a lot of top players in the world and himself been trained in the best of the best countries for the game. So he carries a lot of good experience,” said former player Neha Aggarwal of Soumyadeep.

The basics of mentoring, he picked up from Yin Wei, who was coach at the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board Academy in Ajmer. For about a decade after, he came under the influence of coaches from across the world. “My aim is to effectively combine basics with the latest tactics,” said Roy, who also runs a centre in Kolkata, attended by the who’s who of Indian table tennis.

Roy believes the lack of a clearly defined role for paddlers post retirement is detrimental to the sport. “Since we have so much to offer from our varied experiences, the authorities should make use of us. Instead, players past their prime are pushed into regular roles in their offices. Since they have no earnings from the game like cricketers, they cannot afford to take it easy as it becomes a question of their very livelihood,” he said.

Roy, who has been in the sport for over a decade and a half, is being considered for the role of national coach, according to S. M. Sultan, senior vice president, TTFI.

“I think Soumyadeep can be a great addition to the national team. He has seen Indian table tennis up close, as a player himself. If he takes over the role of the national coach, it will be a positive step,” said Neha Aggarwal, who represented India at the Beijing Olympics.

“He has a great rapport with most of the players. He has also seen the training of a lot of top players in the world and himself been trained in the best of the best countries for the game. So he carries a lot of good experience,” noted the player-turned-pundit, who is reporting the World championships in Dusseldorf for the ITTF’s official website.

Aggarwal, who’s pursuing a programme in Sports Management at Columbia University, New York, had a word of caution though. “We also need to consider that he will have a tough job to prove himself since he does not have an established track record as a coach. I’m sure though that he's gaining valuable experience working alongside Massimo Costantini with the senior team. But we will have to give him some time to prove himself and produce results."

“Roy has been through the ups and downs of Indian table tennis and at the highest levels,” remarked Darga Ajay Kumar. “He has gone through all the emotions, being at the top or the bottom of the table. Most importantly, from his experiences, he can be a great mentor and motivate the younger crop to fight back. He can set an example when it comes to commitment and discipline,” added the international umpire, who in his heyday locked horns with Roy in various national level tournaments.