Table tennis: Gaining much and raising hopes

The Indian paddlers are expected to do well in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and overhaul the record eight-medal tally from Gold Coast four years ago.

All smiles: Sharath Kamal and Akula Sreeja with their men’s and women’s singles trophies at the senior National table tennis championship in Shillong.   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games four years back, Indian paddlers were on a medal-winning spree with a heady display. They won a record eight medals — three gold, two silver and three bronze medals. Manika Batra was the toast of the nation, winning two medals in women’s team and women’s singles.

The new world rankings released recently have seen the Indian men and women gaining much and raising hopes. Among men, G. Sathiyan and Sharath Kamal have jumped five and one places respectively to be ranked 34 and 37. Manush Shah has risen 211 places to be ranked 109, his highest-ever. S. F. R. Snehit, too, has climbed 172 places to be ranked 114. Manav Thakkar is ranked 115, having jumped 11 places from April. So has Payas Jain. The 17-year-old is at his career-best ranking of 119. However, Harmeet Desai, who was India’s third highest world ranked paddler after Sathiyan and Sharath, is now placed at 122 (down by 42 places).

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Among women, there are four Indians in the top 100 in singles world rankings. Manika continues to be the highest ranked Indian at 38 followed by Archana Kamath (66), Akula Sreeja (68), Reeth Rishya (97).

Does that mean that India can overhaul its 2018 edition medals tally? ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Th Committee of Administrators (CoA) — comprising Gita Mittal, Chief Justice Jammu & Kashmir (Retd.), the Chairperson, Chetan Mittal (senior advocate) and Surendra Dev Mudgil (former athlete) — running the affairs of Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), has announced the probable teams for the 2022 Birmingham CWG Games and on paper it appears that India can possibly equal the Gold Coast medals tally.

The men’s team has Sharath Kamal, G. Sathiyan, Manush Shah, S. F. R. Snehit, Manav Thakkar, Harmeet Desai, Sanil Shetty and Anirban Ghosh, while the women’s team comprises Manika Batra, Archana Kamath, Akula Sreeja, Reeth Rishya, Sutirtha Mukherjee, Ayhika Mukherjee, Diya Chitale and Swastika Ghosh.

The release from the CoA said: “A national training camp will be held from May 23 to 30 at the Padukone Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bengaluru. The panel of National selectors will announce the National team for CWG after the camp.”

Among the other teams in the men’s section at the CWG, England and Nigeria are India’s main competitors. Apart from Quadri Aruna (world ranked 10) for Nigeria, and Liam Pitchford (WR: 17) for England, there aren’t many others who inspire confidence. England, though, will be tough opponent as it has veterans Paul Drinkhall (76) and Samuel Walker (87). However, with a bit of luck, Indian men can hope to win four medals in team, two in singles and one in doubles.

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In the women’s section, the burden falls on India’s superstar Manika. If her form in the recently-concluded Senior National table tennis championships in Shillong was any indication, the chances of her winning two medals (like in the previous edition) looks unlikely.

The 26-year-old struggled to land the ball on the table. After receiving a bye in the first round by virtue of being the top seed, Manika was lucky to win against Riti Shankar in the second, in six games. The top seed’s campaign ended when she lost to Ayhika Mukherjee in the pre-quarterfinals. Both play with long pimples, and Ayhika was more consistent than Manika. The former National champion’s famous flip shot, forehand attack and backhand push were woefully absent.

Throughout the tournament, Manika had a foreign sparring partner and was seen training with him at the SAI Indoor Stadium in Shillong.

Manika’s performance at the international level has been decent in 2021-22, though. She reached two semifinals in WTT Contenders in 2021 and this year, she reached the quarterfinals in the WTT Contender in Muscat. She played really well in the international tournaments she competed in and was largely on equal terms against players to whom she lost. She needs to be consistent and seize the moment. At the level of CWG, she should be able to pull it off. Led by World No. 14, Feng Tianwei, Singapore will be India’s competitor.

If Manika can shrug off the Senior National defeat — she hopes to, at any cost — and be at her best, there is no reason why she cannot repeat her 2018 performance, at least in singles.

The Indian women’s team, however, does not have the same experience as it had in 2018. Other than Manika, the rest of the players will be first-timers. If not a gold medal in the team event, there should be a medal, for sure.

India can assure itself of a medal from its strong doubles pairing of Manika Batra and Archana Kamath, ranked four in the world. The pair has done well in 2021-22. It won a WTT Contenders title in Lasko in 2021 and reached the semifinals and three quarterfinals: a creditable achievement. The two will be expected to win gold in Birmingham.

In the men’s category, Sharath, who won his 10th National title in Shillong, and Sathiyan would be keen to bag a medal in singles and men’s doubles. It is within their grasp. Of course, a gold in mixed doubles will be expected from World no. 6 Sathiyan and Manika. On the whole, on an optimistic note, Indian can hope to bag eight medals. If the newly crowned National champion Sreeja can pull off a coup like she did at the Senior Nationals, it could be nine for India. Hope springs eternal!

Meanwhile at the Senior Nationals in Shillong, emotions ran high at the SAI Indoor Stadium. There was heated debate on the CoA’s proposed new rankings. Unhappy with it, several players, coaches and district associations wrote to the CoA, urging it to have a relook.

The CoA formed a new selection Committee with National coach Manjit Dua relegated as an observer. Manjit quit his post as National coach and relieved himself from the post of observer, accusing the CoA of being undemocratic.

There is no indication as to how long the CoA will continue in the new job. It knows it has a thorny road ahead. Every step of the CoA will be closely monitored. Having set such high standards for itself, even a small misstep will be seen with a magnifying lens.

Moreover, it is fighting a few legal battles with the Table Tennis Federation of India. How well the CoA goes about its job of ‘cleaning the Augean stable’ will be watched with much interest.

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